The reaction by extremist Islamist groups to the Pakistan Supreme Court’s decision to acquit a poor Christian woman, eight years after she was charged with blasphemy, highlights the country’s deeper problem.
After years of religious rhetoric as an essential element of national politics and statecraft, Pakistan often finds itself at the mercy of hardline clerics and unscrupulous individuals seeking to exploit religion for political gain. The result is not only loss of individual liberty but also a state of permanent crisis.
The Asia Bibi case has all the elements of Pakistan’s inherent weaknesses. First, the law allowed neighbours with a grudge to persecute Asia Noreen, usually referred to as Asia Bibi, and now, even belated judicial recognition of her innocence seems unacceptable to those rioting in the streets. They want to kill someone against whom the Supreme Court found no credible evidence and are threatening apex court judges as well senior military commanders while trying to force Pakistan to a halt.
Ms. Bibi, an illiterate berry picker, was convicted of defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed. She was accused by her Muslim neighbours who objected to her drinking water from the same glass as them because she was Christian. Under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, her alleged comment is punishable by death. In 2010, Ms. Bibi, at age 39, was sentenced to hang, but her final appeal remained pending until the Supreme Court decision on Wednesday.
In intervening years, Ms. Bibi’s case became an international cause célèbre. Earlier this year, Rome’s Colosseum was lit in red in support of persecuted Christians, including her, and Pope Francis described Ms. Bibi, alongside a Nigerian woman who was captured by Boko Haram, as “martyrs”.
The Pope’s attention to Ms. Bibi’s case paralleled efforts by the European Union’s Special Envoy for the promotion of the freedom of religion or belief to secure her release by making it a condition for continued European market access for Pakistani products. The Pakistani government was informed that the future of Generalised System/Scheme of Preferences (GSP) status to Pakistan, which allows Pakistan duty-free access to EU markets, would be directly linked to the peaceful resolution of the blasphemy case.
The reason the Supreme Court heard Ms. Bibi’s appeal and acknowledged in its judgment what had been widely known — that witnesses against her had either retracted their testimony or contradicted each other — can be found in Pakistan’s severe financial woes. Ms. Bibi got relief she should have been entitled to as a right just because the Chief Justice wanted to help a weak new government struggling to manage the country’s external finances.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws date back to the military dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq. A series of changes were introduced in the 1980s, making derogatory remarks against any Islamic personage a crime under Section 295 of Pakistan’s Penal Code and punishable by three years in prison; prescribing life imprisonment for “wilful desecration of the Quran”; and punishing blasphemy against Prophet Mohammed with “death, or imprisonment for life”.
Ms. Bibi’s case illustrates how blasphemy laws are used to persecute the weakest of the weak among Pakistan’s religious minorities. As a poor Christian from a low caste, she was among the most vulnerable and susceptible to discrimination. And the legal system — which, in theory, should be designed to protect the innocent — failed her in every way until political expediency necessitated otherwise.
Laws prohibiting blasphemy or harming religious feelings exist in many countries, although in some places they are rarely used even if they still exist on the statute books. But in Pakistan, which has one of the highest numbers of blasphemy cases in the world, the charge is used widely to settle grudges or property disputes.
There is also political advantage to be gained by appealing to the religious sentiment of majority Muslims against Christians, Ahmadi Muslims, and members of other minority communities. The constant state of religious frenzy that Pakistan’s machinery of state maintains as a guarantee of Pakistani nationhood heightens vigilante violence against alleged blasphemers and their alleged protectors.
As with her previous trials and appeals, large crowds gathered outside the court in Islamabad on Wednesday demanding that Ms. Bibi’s conviction be upheld, and the execution carried out. In messages sent to the media, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan asked soldiers to rebel against the Army Chief, saying that the acquittal presumably had the military’s backing.
As Pakistan gets increasingly isolated internationally, the military may have sought Ms. Bibi’s acquittal and reported departure to safety abroad to relieve some pressure on Pakistan’s image around the world. She is reported to have left Pakistan and to have been reunited with her husband, daughters and grandchild.
The Jamaat-e-Islami, which, like Tehreek-e-Labbaik, has a very strong street presence, has asked its members to come out in Islamabad to demand that the acquittal be reversed. Even the army’s overt protégé, Hafiz Saeed of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, has joined the call for protests over the Supreme Court judgment.
Amidst reports of violence, the national media, especially television channels, have gone totally silent about Mr. Bibi’s release. They, too, are under threat from the baying mobs.
To claim moral leadership, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan attacked hardliners and appealed for calm in a televised address, taking a U-turn from his pre-election rhetoric that had projected him as a defender of the Prophet’s honour and a crusader against blasphemers.
According to Mr. Khan, the hardliners were “inciting [people] for their own political gain” and were “doing no service to Islam”. But Ministers have also started negotiating with the extremist clerics, and it is only a matter of time before another U-turn is taken to fashion some compromise with the hardliners.
The Supreme Court’s decision in the Asia Bibi case is a small step in the right direction but a long journey awaits Pakistan in reversing the cumulative injustice it has meted out to its religious minorities over the decades.