Blasphemy Laws: Alive and Well in Pakistan
by Komal Ashfaq | published Jan. 13th, 2019
No matter how much we progress, there are incidents all around that are a testament to the cruelty of mankind. One recent story from Pakistan serves as reminder.
Asia Noreen, known as Asia Bibi, is a Pakistani Christian woman who has been on death row for the past eight years, away from her children. In 2010 she was convicted of blasphemy, a religiously-derived law in the Pakistani constitution. The blasphemy law vaguely attempts to punish disrespect to religion — particularly Islam, the state religion of Pakistan.
Bibi has now been released after eight years in jail. One would think a great injustice has been righted. However, instead of celebrating her release, Pakistan’s extremist groups descended into rioting mobs demanding that she be hanged. They did everything in their power to have Bibi hanged, ranging from staging sit-ins, to throwing stones at government buildings, to congregating and giving sermons on punishing blasphemers, to threatening the state. The protests only stopped on Nov. 3, 2018 after the Pakistani government struck a deal with the protesters, agreeing to disallow Bibi from leaving the country.
The trail of blood and destruction in this story highlights the fact that although religious extremism in Pakistan is declining, its waning remains are still a threatening presence.
The History of Asia Bibi
Asia Bibi was a simple laborer on a farm in a small village in Sheikupura, Punjab. The real events that led up to her conviction aren’t known, but all versions center around Bibi drinking water from the same glass as other Muslim laborers in which she was working with. She got into an altercation when villagers accused her of being “unclean,” citing a cultural belief that Muslims and non-Muslims cannot share utensils because non-Muslims are impure.
Though eye-witness accounts vary, according to the BBC, Bibi allegedly defended herself using a controversial claim that insulted the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). This caused an uproar and allegations of blasphemy. Bibi and her family were the only Christians in the village, and thus were easy to strongarm. She was beaten by a mob in front of her children and imprisoned, where the Sheikupura court sentenced her to death by hanging.
While no one had yet been hanged on blasphemy charges, the accused often die at the hands of angry religious extremists practicing mob justice. The blasphemy law is notorious for how it can be abused to put innocents in jail. Talha Azhar, a fourth year Computer Science major from Pakistan, had strong views on the matter.
"I feel like the issue in hand is much larger than just this one case. The issue is with the blasphemy laws and the protection of the religious minorities," he said. "Speaking from a religious point of view, all Islamic schools of legal theory agree upon the fact that an individual is not punishable by death for blasphemy against Islam," he said.
The Millionaire Governor Who Died Defending Asia Bibi
Pakistani liberals were dismayed by the handling of the case. News articles and social media showed that many locals saw the case for what it was — a cruel means of scapegoating minorities. However, most such people were much less vocal than religious extremists, who led processions chanting “hang her” and led mosque prayers asking for her to be beheaded. A local cleric even put a bounty on her life.
Why were the masses who opposed this extremism so quiet? The general concern is for personal safety. Extremists tend to be violent, and with the blasphemy laws as loose as they are, it would be easy to brand anyone siding with Bibi similarly. This is not justifiable, but it is understandable. Her two most powerful supporters, Governor Salman Taseer and Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, were brutally murdered.
Punjab Governor Taseer was perhaps her single most vocal opponent from the liberal sphere was businessman. Taseer was openly disdainful of the blasphemy laws, saying he would free Bibi and then demolish the laws. He wanted them out of the Pakistani constitution. His strong position made him a champion to liberals in Pakistan, but unfortunately it garnered a lot of attention from extremists as well.
Taseer had a security team, but it turned out members of this team had been radicalized. His bodyguard, a man named Mumtaz Qadri, shot him 28 times. His murder was lauded and celebrated by local extremists, and the bodyguard was lauded as a hero. He was hanged for his crime, but became an icon to the extremists, who showered his body in rose petals. The death of Taseer, the largest voice against the extremists, was snuffed out. His death broke Bibi’s heart, who felt he had sacrificed his life struggling to free her. Taseer had been a towering figure in his lifetime, a multi-millionaire and provincial governor. If even he could not escape the brutalities of madmen steeped in religious fervor, what chance would the common man have?
The message was clear: the extremists were winning, and whoever opposed them would be dealt with violently. No matter how small the group, they cast a lasting, fearful silence on groups that intellectually oppose religious extremists.
Azhar said on behalf of liberal Pakistan, "The people of Pakistan have had their priorities wrong all along, politically and religiously. These religious extremists think it is their utmost duty to judge and fix all the other Muslims around them, but to ignore what they are doing themselves."
He continued, "Taking a step back and talking about the Asia Bibi case ... I feel the need for immediate change in the blasphemy laws in Pakistan and the improvement of government support towards the minorities. I hope for a more prosperous Pakistan free of all these absurd and senseless complications."
Where Is She Now?
On Oct. 31, 2018, Asia Bibi was released. She reportedly cried with disbelief, asking if it was really true. Liberal Pakistan celebrated. Extremists went into nationwide strikes, paralyzing the country as they demanded she be beheaded. To appease them, the Pakistani government struck a deal with protesters to prevent her from leaving the country. However, it is rumored that this is not the case, and she will be assisted in leaving the country for her safety.
Currently, Bibi is in hiding with the assistance of the state, but is still under custody. She is seeking asylum abroad, and many countries are offering it to her but the state has not yet taken measures to have her flown out. It is too dangerous for her and her family to remain in Pakistan, where hate groups have been baying for her blood for the past 10 years.
Asia Bibi's case has cast a shadow on Pakistani Christian celebrations. She herself celebrated Christmas under security, out of concerns for her safety. Security was also deployed to Christian residences over Christmas to ensure no extremists attempted retaliation by targeting other Christians.
Nabiha Raza, a Pakistani Computer Science graduate said, "Her release gave many Pakistanis relief that a great wrong had been righted. It shows that liberal Pakistan won't stand for this treatment of minorities anymore, no matter how violent extremists become. However, we clearly have a very long way to go in terms of minority rights and justice.”