The Mysterious Murder of a Pakistani Professor

Newsweek, April 22, 2015

Suddenly, I felt something wrong had happened to my beloved shaheed mentor.” Dr Amna Afreen was squeezed into the back seat of a Toyota Probox station-wagon, travelling at speed down the Nipa Overpass on Karachi’s bustling University Road when the gunman opened fire.

“I was about to enquire when I saw the left-eye glass of his spectacles breaking. In a moment a bullet came out and went through the windscreen. Immediately, as an unconscious act, I stooped down and bent over Sir’s niece who was sitting between us and I covered her. Another bullet was fired. Perhaps in a fit of emotion I did not realise that it went through my right shoulder. I was screaming, crying and saying that they killed Sir.”

It was a little after 10am on 18 September last year when the assassin, riding pillion on a motorbike, fired two shots into the Toyota’s tinted rear window. In the ensuing confusion, the motorbike roared off, the car accelerated, the four occupants of the car’s back seat felt the world pitch irrevocably. All of them, that is, except for the white-bearded, bespectacled Professor Shakeel Auj, sitting in the middle, who had been shot through the head.

“I have lost a very close friend who was the most caring and kind person I know,” said Afreen, who was one of Auj’s research assistants and had completed her PhD under his supervision. “He was my ideal and my source of inspiration.” They rushed Auj to the Aga Khan University Hospital, 15 minutes away at the other end of University Road, trying to staunch the blood flowing fast from the back of his head and from his eye at the front. By the time they pulled up outside the hospital, Auj was dead.

Afreen had been due to give a speech about her teacher at the Iranian Embassy that morning, accompanied by a fellow academic, Tahir Masood, and Auj’s niece, the eight-year-old Asra. The ceremony honouring Auj was the latest in a series of accolades in a year of success for the 54-year-old professor. He was the coming man at Karachi University: dean of the Faculty of Islamic Studies, a regular commentator on religious matters in the media, he had just been awarded the highly coveted Tamgha-e-Imtiaz, a medal conferred by the government for outstanding service to the state.

Auj was close to the President of Pakistan, Mamnoon Hussain, who had read several of his books and saw him as a valuable moderate voice in a country of rigidly held religious views. He was being considered for the role of chairman of the influential Islamic Ideological Council for 2015. He was killed just as his academic successes promised him a place on the wider stage of Pakistani politics.

‘Curses be upon him’

The initial reaction to the assassination was outrage. Karachi University shut for three days of mourning. There were protests by students on campus, lamentations in the local press. Yet the targeting of university professors in the country is commonplace (it is a sign of the unusual esteem in which Auj was held that his death attracted so much opprobrium).

A week before Auj’s murder, one of his colleagues, Maulana Masood Baig, a visiting lecturer in the Department for Islamic Studies, was shot as he went to pick up his children from school. In February 2014, KU’s dean of medicine, Dr Jawaid Iqbal Qazi, was assassinated, allegedly for refusing to bow to pressure to accept politically connected dental students. Dr Rubina Khalid, a lecturer in radiology at Karachi’s Dow Medical University, was killed at the end of November, just a few days after a Professor Khalid Khan was assassinated in Islamabad. None of these murders has been solved.

Auj’s case obsessed me in the weeks leading up to my trip to Pakistan. It was not only that his death seemed so exemplary and so tragic – a moderate man mown down, or so it seemed, for speaking out against the hijacking of Islam by a mob of violent and sclerotic mullahs. It was also the figure of Auj’s eldest son, 28-year-old Dr Hassan Khan, who had mounted a Facebook campaign to unmask his father’s killers that grew more desperate in tone with every passing week.

Hassan posted pictures of himself with his father, the silvered older man pressing a whiskery cheek against his son’s. He uploaded late-night philippics in immaculate English demanding action from the police, from the security services, from the university authorities, pointing out the numerous flaws in news reports of his father’s assassination. His was a lone, helpless, heartbroken voice, calling out for justice, for vengeance, for his father.

I read everything I could about Auj’s murder in the weeks leading up to my visit to Pakistan: articles in Dawn and Tribune, Pakistani newspapers, forums on Siasat.com, a local website, comments on Hassan’s Facebook page. All seemed to point to a religious angle to the assassination, with one anonymous Siasat user summing up the general tone: “Pakistan is a very dangerous place for anyone who dare to speak his/her mind.” In 2012, Auj was the subject of a fatwa purportedly issued by Mufti Rafi Usmani, the head of the Darul ’Uloom mosque and madrassa in Karachi’s eastern district of Landhi. The fatwa, which the cleric later denied, accused Auj of blasphemy, calling him “wajibul qatl” (liable to be killed) and was circulated via text messages and over the internet. One message read: “The blasphemer of the Prophet and Quran, Dr Shakeel, curses be upon him, deserves only one punishment – beheading.”

Then, on 28 January, the Inspector General of Sindh Police, Ghulam Qadir Thebo, announced the arrest of Auj’s suspected killer – Mohammed Mansoor, a hospital porter from the Liaquatabad district of the city. While under investigation for a different crime – a drive-by shooting on a Rangers station (the Rangers are a paramilitary police force) – Mansoor, after interrogation, confessed both to the murder of Auj and to the 2013 killing of another professor, the poet Syed Sibte Jafar. He was known to the authorities as a member of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM).Auj was alleged to have given a speech in the US in which he argued that Muslim women ought – like their menfolk – to be allowed to marry outside their faith. In fact, he had made the remark in one of his books, Nisaayiaat: “When Islam can clearly and happily accept in non-Muslim women for Muslim men, especially when women are the first teachers of their children, then why can Islam not accept non-Muslim men for Muslim women? Of course it should, and it will.” Auj was moderate, a reformer, and for many this made him a target and explained his assassination.

MQM is designated a terrorist organisation by several governments, while its leader, Altaf Hussein, lives in exile in Edgware, north London. In 2009, when Prime Minister Pervez Musharraf initiated a reconciliation programme, 31 cases of murder in which Hussein was the accused were dropped. Auj’s killing, having seemed initially the work of religious fundamentalists, had taken on a new, political angle.

Yellow moon

Against this background I come to Pakistan to speak at the Karachi Literary Festival, which welcomes 125,000 visitors to a heavily-guarded compound in the grounds of the Beach Luxury Hotel every year. During my time at the festival, I talk to a number of my fellow authors about Auj’s murder – Kamila Shamsie, HM Naqvi, Aakar Patel. All are as baffled, and as fascinated, as I: the case is as troubling and tortuous as any literary thriller.

When I collar Mohammed Hanif – author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes – outside a party at 2am, keen to get his take on the mystery of Auj’s death, he lets me know politely, but firmly, that I should direct my interest elsewhere: it isn’t a good idea to go poking my nose into murder cases where the likes of MQM and other extremist organisations are involved.

I meet my fixer (a recent KU graduate who has asked for his name to be removed from this piece, fearing reprisals) outside a row of student shops on campus. We wend our way through a scrubby park to a row of university houses and stop in front of one of them – three stucco stories, red stripes painted on white latticework, a decent square of garden.The next night I hail a taxi and make my way to Karachi University in the north-east of the city, heading towards one of the back entrances, past a Rangers checkpoint where guards in khaki camouflage swing their AK47s lazily as we pass. I’ve been told not to leave the hotel compound without an armed guard and armoured car, but it is a balmy evening and Karachi seems anything but threatening under the glow of a yellow moon.

This was Auj’s home.

‘Here, I’m giving you dots’

The front door is answered by Hassan, Auj’s son. Wire-thin, he stoops a little as he shows us into the drawing room where his youngest brother, Yamman, 23, sits. Yamman is handsome, sardonic, confident. Both are at the university: Hassan working in the medical centre, Yamman preparing for postgraduate study in business while also teaching on KU’s MBA programme.

On the wall above Hassan’s head I see a plaque with a picture of Auj, the sickle moon and star of the Pakistani flag. “It was for his Tamgha-e-Imtiaz,” Yamman tells me. Auj had another son, Malhan, who comes and sits silent, ghostly, beside his brothers. Auj’s wife is upstairs, observing the ritual of idda by which a widow must not meet men outside her immediate family for the duration of her period of mourning.

Yamman sits back and watches as we speak. He cuts his older brother off mid-sentence several times, seeming to want to hold him back from revealing too much. I ask them whether they’re happy that their father’s killer has been caught. Hassan tuts and shakes his head.

“Mansoor was not the murderer. He was the recce man. Someone gave him a task to keep an eye on the police and Rangers. He did two rounds on a bike and said that there were no police or Rangers about. So what the police are claiming as a huge victory is nothing. I had a meeting with the police and I told them that he was a very minor player. I just want the mastermind.” Hassan leans forward: “My father was not a political man.”

If it wasn’t MQM, then who was it? Hassan pauses, steeples his fingers, and gives what feels like a carefully prepared speech. “My father was murdered for one of three reasons: because of politics; because of his moderate religious views; because of internal pressures at KU. I completely rule out the political explanation. Religion is a possibility: religious attacks came from below, from the students, and from around him, from his colleagues. In terms of the pressures at KU, he was a person of merit who never tolerated anyone who plagiarised articles. This is a huge problem in Pakistani universities, a very common thing. There’s so much cheating and bribery going on.”

Hassan carries on. “Many people thought he would be the next Vice-Chancellor of KU. If he had been Vice-Chancellor,” he says, “he would have been able to stop these problems at a higher level. He was dean, he was stopping those things at a level of the Department of Islamic Studies. If he’d been Vice Chancellor …” He wags a finger at me. “Here I’m giving you the dots and you only have to join them. My father repeatedly made written complaints to the current Vice-Chancellor about plagiarism, about his fellow members of staff cheating or helping students to cheat. And he received threatening calls, SMSes. He was threatened time and again. My father kept shouting that people were trying to kill him. And finally it happened.”

Yamman nods. “As soon as he became a dean, the trouble started. My father’s greatest problem was that he was unbuyable. In this country, if you want to control someone, you don’t have to kill them. You just find out what their weakness is, you bribe or you blackmail.”

In 2012 Auj filed a police report against his predecessor as dean of Islamic Studies, Dr Abdul Rashid, who was briefly arrested and then released. A student, Sami-uz-Zamaan, had sent threatening SMS messages to Shakeel Auj and disseminated the fatwa calling for his murder. He told the police he had been ordered to do so by Dr Rashid. When Auj was murdered, Rashid was arrested again, and questioned alongside another colleague from the Faculty of Islamic Studies, Dr Nasir Akhtar. Both professors are members of the hardline Deobandi sect, a school of thought held by the majority of the leadership and foot soldiers of the Taliban. No charges were pressed against either of them.

As we move into the small hours of the morning, I feel I’m missing some central point, as if my distance from the culture, from the particularities of Karachi life, is blinding me to something obvious that the brothers are trying to tell me. The brothers begin to accuse others, making veiled allusions to the security services and gnomic pronouncements about banned religious movements.

I push him and he backs off. “Think about it. There were four people sitting in the back of the car but they knew where he was. They knew the particular location of the vehicle, they knew where he was sitting, they knew his height, where his head would be. They got him in the back of his head. The killer knew he was done after two shots. He could have fired more, but he knew he didn’t need to. It was a moving- target-to-moving-target assassination. A difficult shot. Even a police marksman I spoke to told me he couldn’t have made such a shot. Think about who could have made a hit like this.”I ask whether they think Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT), the flourishing student fundamentalist movement, was involved in their father’s death. “I won’t label them,” Hassan says, shaking his head. “All I will say is that the killers are far beyond IJT, much more radical. These are things that I just can’t talk about.”

We leave and walk out into the cool night air, the boys waving us off, looking very young and rather lost as they stand in front of the large white house. Beside the park, we run into two professors taking a post-dinner stroll. One of them, Dr Qadri, I recognise from a television debate in which he’d appeared alongside Shakeel Auj. “It is very sad, he was my neighbour, he was a good friend,” Dr Qadri tells me. He invites me to come and visit him on campus which I do, the following week.

In his office Dr Qadri is friendly until he hears I’m a journalist writing about the assassination of Auj. “I didn’t know him well,” he says, contradicting his words of a few nights earlier. “Since investigations are going on and university agencies are involved in this, I would advise you to speak to the Vice Chancellor. I know nothing more than that.”

The Vice Chancellor, Muhammed Quaiser, turns down a request for a meeting and does not respond to emails. I continue to hold on to Hassan’s initial presentation of the case – that it was either political, religious, or professional, and do my best to work from there.

While I’m in Karachi, there are further breakthroughs. The police finally admit Mohammed Mansoor was only a bit-part player, although he continues to be held in custody for other crimes, and that they are looking for two other men, Fahim Jabalpuri and Ehtasham, hired killers and members of MQM.

Sniper, marksman, inside job

There are other discoveries: that a group of students led a campaign against Auj in the wake of the blasphemy accusation in 2012, accusing him of “humiliat[ing] the Prophet Mohammed”. And that his sons’ claims that their father was on his way to being Vice Chancellor of KU were wide of the mark. The position is entirely political, granted to his favourites by the Governor of Sindh. Since 2002, the Governor has been Ishrat-ul-Ebad Khan, an MQM man. One of the KU faculty members described the idea of Khan nominating Shakeel Auj as “preposterous”.

I arrange a meeting with the Inspector General of Police in Sindh to try to untangle what the motive for Auj’s killing could have been. Behind a high wall topped with barbed wire, through a vast chicane of concrete blocks, Qadir Thebo sits in his grand office – a genial, soldierly man resting his elbows on a large leather-topped desk.

“We were amazed at the way he was killed,” he says. “Our thinking was then that he must either be a sniper or marksman, or it was an inside job. That they were provided with information from Karachi University.” He confirms the early arrest of Auj’s fellow professor, Dr Abdul Rashid. “But we could find no proof. We don’t think he was directly involved.

“There is so much corruption in Karachi University, “ he says. “There are professors cheating, lying, it’s a bad place. There is a lot of political influence among the professors. KU is under the control of the Governor. This is important. And the Governor is MQM. So we have discounted the religious angle and we believe now that there was a political motive.”

Mohammed Mansoor’s confession was convenient for the police: they had been under pressure over the spate of professional Karachiites – including lawyers and doctors as well as university professors – being murdered. The confession came only after a lengthy interrogation. The IG complained of the difficulty he has in securing convictions for the suspects he arrests:

“It is the greatest frustration to arrest culprits while knowing that they won’t be brought to justice.” But, in Pakistan, the judiciary protest the sometimes brutal methods by which the police extract information.

Qadir Thebo, and hence the police force as a whole, is affiliated with the PPP, the strongest political party in Sindh and sworn enemies of MQM.

After a long period in which the police – along with everyone else in the city – lived in fear of MQM, Qadir Thebo has made his name by taking them on. The IG Police has a distinct interest in Auj’s murder being the work of his fiercest foes, and in being seen to be bringing them to justice.

Fatwa by email

Dr Abdul Rashid is also keen to claim a political motive for Auj’s killing. We agree to meet at his office on the KU campus. Though he retired from the university in the wake of Auj’s death, moving down the road to the Federal Urdu University, he has been allowed to keep an airy first-floor room in the Department of Arabic.

In the car on the way to see him, I check my emails to find several from a Yahoo address I don’t recognise. One of them contains a copy, in Urdu and then in English, of a letter written by Shakeel Auj to the Vice Chancellor, Quaiser.

It reads: “A fatwa is being circulated to all against me, in which it is written that I am (GOD forbid) expelled from Islam and an infidel … This fatwa is being circulated by some teachers of my faculty. Sir, this horrible and dangerous language shows that my enemies want to kill me or get me killed. I want to request you to provide me adequate security and also inform interior ministry office so that adequate measures can be taken. I hope you will listen to my plea, and will take appropriate action.”

Dr Abdul Rashid ushers me into his office, dominated by a broad billboard advertising the PhD students he has supervised over the years. He is a big, bear-like man, a sprawl of white beard, deep-set eyes. I begin by asking him about the tensions I’d heard about on the campus between the increasingly marginalised moderate students and their fundamentalist peers.

“There are no problems,” he says. “It is a peaceful university. It is the media that overstates things.” He admits to me that he was a member of IJT when he was at KU and that he continues to support Jamaat-e-Islam. He grew up studying in the madrassas, he is a conservative, he says.

It is only when I mention the name of Shakeel Auj that the atmosphere in the room turns suddenly icy. “It was a political murder,” he tells me, the deep eyes flashing. “I have nothing more to say about it.”

It is clear that the interview is over and he shows me awkwardly to the door. I follow up a few days later over email and, back in the UK, receive a reply. “Regarding the Shakeel Auj murder, the police report is clear and sufficient and now when the killer of Auj has already been identified by police, the chapter must be closed.”

Mental torture

Auj’s son Hassan stays in touch on my return to the UK; we exchange lengthy Facebook messages, chatting long into the London night. Most mornings in the weeks following my trip to Karachi there are also a series of emails from the Yahoo account. One of them draws my attention to an inconsistency in the police report of Auj’s murder.

I track down the number of Dr Jamil Bandhani and call him. Press and police reports claim he was in the car at the time of Auj’s death (in the passenger seat, hence the four people squeezed on the back seat). He wasn’t. Bandhani is a colleague of Rashid at the Federal Urdu University. I ask him about Auj’s murder. “It was my car I send for Shakeel Auj,” he says. “He was my teacher at Karachi University. I send my car, my driver, to collect him at Karachi University, then he come to collect me at Federal Urdu University.”

The place where Auj was killed, the Nipa Overpass, is just over a kilometre from the Federal Urdu University gates. I ask Bandhani whether he had any involvement in the killing, whether perhaps he told someone where the car was going to be and when. It seems strange, I add, that the killer knew so precisely where Auj would be sitting. “No. I have nothing to do with this. I tell no one,” he says.

We come on to discuss Dr Abdul Rashid. My lawyers won’t let me reproduce Bandhani’s allegations, but Rashid’s name comes up so regularly, so conveniently, I wonder if somebody might be trying to frame him for Auj’s murder.

Following this conversation, another email comes through, titled “IMPORTANT”. The body of the message is empty, but there are 11 attachments, all of them scans, some in Urdu with English translations appended. All carry claims of one sort or another linking Dr Rashid to KU’s various scams (apart from one, which details the story of Rashid biting the hand of a fellow member of staff in the late 90s).

The most damning is a letter, in English, dated 2013 and written to the Vice Chancellor by a student of Rashid. It accuses him of bullying and “mental torture”. It also complains that, although the PhD was begun in 2000, it is yet to be awarded because the student refuses to pay Dr Rashid “sums of money” or to “do his personal chores”. The letter was written by a student, her cellphone beneath her signature.

I call the number. The moment I mention Shakeel Auj’s name, the student, who we’ll call Huma, begins to sob. “Please leave me alone,” she shouts. “Why won’t you people leave me alone? I want nothing to do with this.” It’s not the first time I’ve encountered this kind of response. The fear following Auj’s killing is pervasive – enough to have convinced Amna Afreen to move to the US soon after the murder and to have persuaded two of Auj’s students who had been initially helpful to break off all contact with me.

Several hours later, Huma calls back. “I’m sorry for my reaction,” she says. “You are with Scotland Yard, I presume.” Her voice is still trembling at the edges, her English poised and careful. She tells me about her friendship with Shakeel Auj, about how scared she now is. I do my best to persuade her that I’m not a detective, but she breezes over me. “You’re doing your duty, now I must do mine. I was very frightened when I first heard from you, but the truth needs to be told.”

For the next half-hour, Huma speaks to me about the death of Shakeel Auj. Her tone, initially careful, becomes more and more frenetic, her allegations against Dr Rashid, at first credible, spiral out into the speculative and ludicrous. She is in hiding, she tells me. “I’m frightened, of course I am. I’m not in Karachi, I’m not stupid,” she says. “I have kids, I’m a single mother, I have to take care of myself.”

As soon as I get off the phone with Huma, I type up our conversation and send it to Hassan. I wait impatiently for his response, figuring that – looking past the nuttiness – Huma was a genuine lead, a student of Rashid who appeared to have intimate knowledge of the animus her teacher bore towards Auj. Hassan’s response, when it comes, is underwhelming.

“I’ve seen all this before,” he writes, “just after father’s murder. Different people coming with different stories, everyone trying to use my father’s name to settle their own scores. I’ve spoken to Yamman about this – we are both dubious.”

Beyond the intrigue, the hysteria, the mess of claims and counter-claims surrounding the death of a leading reformer and academic remains the clear image of a precise assassination and an enduring mystery. Whether the motive for his death was political, religious or professional is still unclear.

Shakeel Auj may not have been a political man, but those he came up against had political links. An MQM worker scouted the area before Auj was assassinated. While the police might have had an interest in the killers being MQM-affiliated, this doesn’t mean they weren’t.

Auj had been the subject of a fatwa. He was known for promoting people within his department regardless of their sect. He was on his way to receive honours at the Iranian Cultural Centre, perhaps confirming rumours that he was sympathetic towards Shias. It’s hard to read the final lines of the letter written by Auj’s students – apparently with the help of Rashid’s colleague Dr Nasir Akhtar – without a shudder: “We appeal to the administration that this characterless, villainous and evil-eyed man should be kept away from our pious department, otherwise we will boycott the classes, will invite the media and protest, and we will beat this person out of our department.”

There were many who would have wanted to stop Auj’s upward trajectory at the university, not on the grounds of his religious liberalism but because of his stance against plagiarism and academic corruption. It has now been more than six months that I’ve been following the story of Shakeel Auj. Hassan’s Facebook campaign has barely abated; he looks thinner and more drawn than ever. The emails still come in irregular bursts from the Yahoo account. To one is appended the English translation of another letter from Auj to Vice Chancellor Quaiser, this one dated March 2014 and protesting the appointment of a certain Dr Noor Ahmed Shahtaz as head of KU’s Sheikh Zayed Islamic Research Centre, accusing him of financial corruption and of faking his degree. Every day seems to bring a new academic with an interest in getting Auj out of the way.

Shakeel Auj lived in a country where people are routinely murdered for much less than his “blasphemy” or his campaigning. It is likely that his murder will be listed, along with so many others, as unsolved. Hassan and I chat every few days on Facebook, picking over the evidence. I message him one evening, asking how he’s holding up.

“I’m good, but numb,” he writes back. “I keep staring at the facts of the case, keep thinking that I will suddenly get the meaning, understand who killed him. I pray that when your article comes out, it will make some noise, make the government look into the death of my father properly. It is my last hope.”

Gunfights and brawls on campus

With more than 80,000 students, the University of Karachi, often known as KU, is Pakistan’s largest university and among its best-regarded. Situated in the open eastern suburbs of the city, it was established by Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan shortly after the founding of Pakistan. It is known particularly for its teaching in Political Science and its Institute of Business Administration.

KU’s history has not been an easy one, with regular rioting and on-campus violence between warring political factions, all of whom seek to stamp their seal on the upwardly mobile young Pakistanis who pass through the university.

Tensions in Pakistan find themselves expressed in microcosm on the campus of KU. The 1970s saw “Language Riots” between local Sindhi students and the incoming Mohajirs, immigrants from India, which split students and faculty. In the mid-1980s, there was a series of violent riots on campus after the murder of a student, Bushra Zaidi, with buses set ablaze and tear gas deployed by police.

Since 1989, the university has had a Rangers barracks within the campus – a paramilitary police force aimed at curbing the outbreaks of campus violence, as well as cracking down on the presence of Taliban and al-Qaida-linked cells within the university. 2011 was another bloody year for the university, with regular clashes between political groups closing the university several times, with a series of curfews imposed by Rangers in an effort to assert control.

Nadeem Paracha, one of Pakistan’s leading journalists and columnist for Dawn, as well as a KU graduate, explains that Karachi University had seen a sharp rise in the number of students embracing movements like Islami Jamiat Talaba in the post-9/11 years. “It’s universal and it has been happening across the Muslim world. The roots of radicalisation were always middle class.

“KU was a hotbed of progressive politics until the mid-1970s, when it fell into the pocket of conservative forces, principally IJT. In those days, a large number of students from the countryside, from tribal areas, came to KU. They couldn’t relate to the progressive politics because they came from socially conservative backgrounds. So IJT were really smart. They told them that what they had in common with the others on their campus was religion. They gave them books, organised study groups, gradually brought them round to IJT.

“Finally,” he says, “there was the government of General Zia, who in the 1980s banned student political movements, as a threat to his dictatorship. Islami Jamiat Talaba was allowed to continue because its mother party, the Jamaat-e-Islam, was supporting the regime. They had an organisation called the Thunder Squad whose job was to beat up Left-wing student groups, disrupting their festivals. They used to get into gun fights, huge brawls.

“So middle-class radicalisation is not a new thing, but has it increased since 9/11? Certainly.”