The Friday Times (TFT) Editorial
26 Nov, 2010
The Aasia Bibi blasphemy case has caught the world’s headlines because it is full of desperate and nasty ironies. She is a Christian mother of two children, sentenced to death in a Muslim country that is notorious for making and practicing laws that persecute its minorities even as its official state religion of Islam proclaims special protection for them; whose citizens “hate” the West even as they line up outside Western embassies for work, education and tourist visas; whose governments shamelessly clamour for financial handouts from Western aid agencies even as they roundly condemn the “begging-bowl syndrome”; whose military establishment provides “safe havens” for Al-Qaeda-Taliban terrorists in North Waziristan even as it fights them in South Waziristan and Swat; whose security posture compels its strategic US ally to look upon it as both the problem and the solution for the war in Afghanistan.
Aasia’s crime: an allegedly blasphemous and angry retort to some Muslim village women who taunted her faith and her low caste by refusing to drink water from a utensil tainted by her “unclean” infidel hands. She was imprisoned for a year during trial and sentenced to death by a magistrate quaking in fear of the mullahs. The Punjab law minister, Rana Sanaullah, says that Aasia’s conviction is a miscarriage of justice. But there is deep irony here. Mr Sanaullah’s PMLN party rules in Punjab province. He has close links with hard line religious groups. In 1992, his PMLN was in power in Islamabad and mandated the death sentence for blasphemy.
At least two judges have been assassinated in the past for acquitting victims of the blasphemy laws and thirty two persons have been “extra-judicially killed” by mobs on the spot, inside prisons or outside courtrooms. According to the National Commission for Law and Justice, from the mid 1980s, when the blasphemy laws were enlarged under the regime of General Zia ul Haq, to 2009, over 960 people have been thus charged, among them 479 Muslims, 340 Ahmedis (who are prosecuted for insisting they are Muslims), 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and various others. An overwhelming 70% of such cases are situated in the “settled” areas of Punjab province. Of the nearly 2 million Christians in Pakistan, nearly half live in seven settled districts of Punjab, namely Lahore, Faisalabad, Sialkot, Qasur, Gujranwala, Sheikhupura and Toba Tek Singh.
The Penal Code was established by the British Raj in 1860. In 1927, the law for offenses against religion was beefed up to include all deliberate and malicious acts, by words or visible representations, aimed at outraging anyone’s religious feelings and the maximum punishment was extended from two to ten years and/or a fine. The aim was to clamp down on rising communal passions amidst Hindu demands for independence from the British and Muslim demands for separate electorates.
The real mischief came in 1982, 1984 and 1986 in Pakistan when General Zia ul Haq increasingly relied upon the religious parties for political legitimacy and decreed so-called Islamic edicts which enveloped “desecration” of the Holy Quran and use of derogatory remarks in respect of the Holy Prophet (pbuh). The critical “willful intent” conditionality behind any such outrage, even by “innuendo or imputation or insinuation”, was removed and the sweeping punishment of death or life imprisonment was made a weapon in the hands of mullahs against their secular or mundane opponents. In time, these laws were exploited to settle property or personal disputes not just between Muslims and non-Muslims but also amongst Muslims themselves.
In 2000, another military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, professed “enlightened moderation” to woo the West and promised to end the embarrassing exploitation of these laws. But, like Gen Zia earlier, he too reneged on his pledge when he cemented an electoral alliance with the mullahs in 2002. In the last few years, feeble anti-blasphemy law voices in parliament and civil society have been drowned out by the self-righteous and cowardly rhetoric of the majority.
To his credit, the PPP’s President Asif Zardari is considering a mercy petition from Aasia Bibi to commute her death sentence, which he is entitled to do by law, even as a High Court is about to review her conviction. As the mullahs gather to protest any dilution of the law or punishment – which has nothing to do with Islamic theory or practice because the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) forgave all blasphemers in his time – there are two points of view in civil society: one insists that pressure should be brought to bear on the courts to acquit Aasia on the basis of due process of law and evidence, thereby institutionalizing the judiciary’s freedom from fear of the mullahs; the other wants to lean on President Zardari to send a strong signal to all and sundry at home and abroad by pardoning Aasia and pre-empting the courts.
The best course of action would be to officially protect Aasia from harm in prison, help her mount a stout legal defence in the High Court and get her acquitted, failing which the President could set her free. He could do much better by instructing his coalition partners to suitably amend an atrociously unjust and exploitative law that defames Pakistan and harms its citizens.