Hundreds of library books tossed into the fire

Salman Hameed tells us more about that girls’ school in Lahore that was torched by an angry mob because a teacher accidentally photocopied the wrong page of the Koran for an exam. It’s heartbreaking.

He starts with Umair Asim and his passion for astronomy.

But what truly lights up Asim is his passion for public education. During the International Year of Astronomy (IYA) in 2009, Asim helped lead and organise numerous public observations in Lahore as well as in government schools in smaller cities and towns in Punjab. Wherever he went, he would bring his telescope with him. During IYA, it was a common sight to see Asim standing in front of an audience of 500, first explaining to them basic principles of astronomy and then entertaining long lines of people – from ages eight to 80 – to show them craters of the moon and rings of Saturn.

It is not hard to explain where his passion for public education comes from. His parents established Farooqi Girls’ High School 34 years ago. It is now considered one of the premier private schools in Lahore. Asim also serves as vice principal and I get emails from him when a student or students from the school would take top positions in the province-wide exams.

And now it’s gone. Incinerated.

The accused teacher is now in hiding and the police have arrested the 77-year-old principal of the school. He also happens to be Asim’s father, and his appeal for bail has been denied by the court. Asim and the rest of his family are now in “protective custody”.

But what is the future of Asim, his family and the accused teacher? With the charged emotions around blasphemy, once accused, it is virtually impossible to ever be safe afterwards, even if the court clears your name. Like the era of European witch trials, Pakistan is going through its darkest phase.

If she is lucky, the accused teacher will be able to find asylum out of Pakistan. Asim’s father, now sleeping on the floor of a jail cell, will have to cope with the fact that all the effort that he and his wife poured in for those past 34 years is gone.

And Asim – one of Pakistan’s brightest gems – must be wondering if he will ever feel safe in a country where he shared his love for astronomy with so many people.



  1. Scote says

    Hmm…And I’ll bet there were a bunch of copies of the Koran in the building they burned…

    …but I bet none of the angry mob see the irony. :-p

  2. Christoph Burschka says

    It’s telling that my first thought was relief at nobody getting killed over this, so far.

    This really, really sucks.

    Also, this is a very interesting aside:

    The burning of the school is probably about a clash between the upwardly mobile, educated middle class and the frustrated, poor and uneducated lower class. The school’s success and resources – and that also for a girls’ school – must have elicited envy. The mistake by the teacher provided the excuse to use the blasphemy law to vent their frustration.

  3. says

    Is this the same religion that protected and saved the knowledge of the Greeks and Romans? The same religion that gave us the concept of mathematical zero and furthered knowledges of math and science to the benefit of everyone? What’s going on?

  4. barrypearson says

    #3 Scote:
    And I’ll bet there were a bunch of copies of the Koran in the building they burned … but I bet none of the angry mob see the irony.

    I’ll bet that they wouldn’t even know Islam well enough to know that Islam doesn’t ban the burning of the Koran!

    Every time there is an uproar about Koran-burning, there are some Muslims who roll their eyes wondering what the fuss is about. For many Muslims, burning a Koran is a respectful way of disposing of it. There is a Muslim organisation that disposes of Islamic material in respectful ways, and here is what they say Korans:

    Are the musaahif (copies of the Arabic only Qur’an) literally recycled?

    No. Complete Arabic only Musaahif will be burned, following the example of Uthman ibn Affan (RA). All other items will be recycled.

    Islam is bad enough. But what then happens is that some nasty examples of culture get added to it, and also people who want to cause trouble make things up. Because Islam defines women to be second-class, there is nothing to prevent people treating women badly even in ways that Islam itself doesn’t mandate. There is nothing to stop people trying to prevent education for girls, even though Islam itself doesn’t prevent this.

    Religion often simply creates the environment which allows people to act upon their own prejudices and nastiness.

  5. Carmichael says

    Islam did not give us the concept of zero. Nor did Hinduism, although the concept was first developed in India by people who were Hindus. The Muslims got it, along with “Arabic” numerals, from India. Europeans got the concept of zero, and the numerals, from the Arabs.
    Mathematicians who were Muslims did make significant contributions to mathematics, but the concept of zero was not among them.

  6. Svlad Cjelli says

    Same things with flags. You’re supposed to burn them. Burning them is what you should do.

  7. peterh says

    As #6 points out, when extremists wrap themselves in any given flag/creed their self-reinforcing self-importance distorts and potentially ruins everything it touches.

  8. Scote says

    “I’ll bet that they wouldn’t even know Islam well enough to know that Islam doesn’t ban the burning of the Koran.”

    Zealots rarely do. People who want to beat op people for burning US Flags also forget that burning a flag is the proper way to respectfully dispose of a worn flag. More proof that the **speech** is what they object to, not the burning, they just don’t realize or admit it.

  9. Paul W., OM says


    That aside about class conflict is interesting, but teh Grauniad the preceding paragraph is a total accommodationist/apologetic cop-out:

    It might be easy to blame religion here. But this is not a battle between freethinkers and religious zealots. Asim and his family are pious Muslims. The students at the school start their day with the name of God. I don’t know the accused teacher, but it is quite likely that she also belongs to a religious middle-class family. Intentionally committing blasphemy against the prophet would be appalling to all those involved.

    It seems to me that it’s substantially easier to get people to engage in irrational witch hunts if they believe in witches.

    Religion isn’t just an epiphenomenal excuse for such things—it’s a tool that actually enables such things.

    Saying that we shouldn’t blame religion is like saying that “guns don’t kill people.” Guns do make people much better at killing people, and that does matter.

  10. busterggi says


    Not any more. Just as Fundie Christians are trying to turn back progress in favor of ignorance by doing the same here in the US when they can. The Islamic world unfortunately didn’t have an Enlightenment period to give any secular opposition a chance to grow.

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