It was a funeral ceremony in honor of two murderers. In Pakistan on Tuesday, that meant flowers, laudatory speeches and posters honoring the killers’ brave “sacrifice.”
The gathering was billed as a memorial service to honor the al-Qaeda-linked brothers who killed 12 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris last week. Two days after that attack, French security forces killed both after a daylong standoff on the outskirts of the city.
In the northwest Pakistani city of Peshawar, a few religious and political activists decided that Cherif and Said Kouachi needed a proper sendoff — one suitable for two men the activists deemed religious warriors who sacrificed themselves for their Islamic faith.
Neither brother is known to have any connection to Pakistan nor to have ever traveled here. But organizers said the ceremony was a show of support for their defense of the honor of the prophet Muhammad, whom Charlie Hebdo had frequently lampooned over the years. French authorities suspect the gunmen — who were heard shouting “We have avenged the prophet” after the attack — targeted the newspaper because of those depictions.
“We were prompted by our faith to organize this funeral for those two martyred brothers,” said Pir Mohammad Chishti, a religious scholar who runs a seminary in Peshawar. “I only know one thing: They killed the ones responsible for blasphemous against our beloved prophet Mohammad.”
The gathering in Peshawar followed similar protest in neighboring Afghanistan on Friday. In Afghanistan’s southern Uruzgan province, hundreds of demonstrators streamed out of Friday prayers and declared the two brothers “heroes,” according to Reuters.
In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, those who gathered represent the conservative fringes of their countries’ political debate, but they’re not necessarily outliers on this topic. Their outcry reflects the deep-rooted passion that many Muslims feel about depictions of the prophet, which Islamic tradition forbids.
It is also something Pakistan forbids. Under the country’s strict anti-blasphemy law – which calls for capital punishment in some cases – the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo magazine very well could have been criminally charged had they ever stepped in Pakistan. The law, which has been widely condemned in the West, can be triggered if someone is even suspected of demeaning the prophet.
In the aftermath of the shooting, lawmakers in some countries that have blasphemy statues, including Canada and Ireland, have considered ditching the law. There has been no such discussion in Pakistan, where 38 people are serving life sentences or are on death row after being accused of blasphemy, according to Knox Thames, director of policy and research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.