Arooj Sultan, BA Economics and Politics
Co-Editor in Chief at the SOAS Spirit
Asia Bibi’s case, perhaps more so than any other of its kind, has become symbolic of Pakistan’s relationship to blasphemy. The case has a long and bloody history. Those who have dared to defend her were either silenced forever or forced to flee the country. Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Federal Minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti were both murdered, and Bibi’s current lawyer Saiful Mulook was forced to seek asylum in Europe. Whilst Asia Bibi herself languished in prison, on death row, for eight years.
Pakistan’s blasphemy law is incredibly flawed and dangerous, and should not exist as part of the legislation. It has been severely misused, and more often than not the cases registered under it stem from a desire to settle personal scores and vendettas as opposed to protecting the honour of the Prophet. Once someone has been accused of blasphemy it becomes almost impossible for them to live in the country, as for a law with the ultimate punishment of death there is a surprisingly low burden of proof required. And, if by some miracle the accused survives long enough to be acquitted, like Asia Bibi, then the would-be defenders of the faith line up to mete out their own brand of justice. Ever since her acquittal Bibi and her family have been in hiding, owing to the very palpable threat to their lives. The Tehreek-e-Labaik Party, a far-right religious party coincidentally born out of the desire to safeguard the blasphemy law, led widespread protests against her release. The streets were blocked with protestors destroying shops and public property, the blood-thirst even reached social media with calls for her to be hanged immediately. There are even reports of religious extremists leading door to door witch hunts in Christian neighbourhoods to find and kill Asia Bibi and her family. The frenzy around her release illustrates the plight of minorities in Pakistan, and the power of the tide of religious extremism.
Asia Bibi’s treatment is indicative of how far Pakistan has succumbed to the blight of religious bigotry. The wave of religious extremism that has been building in Pakistan seems to have come to a head now, as the government bowed down to the demands of the protestors and agreed to allow Asia Bibi’s acquittal to be reviewed. Although that agreement may have been an attempt to diffuse the tension around this case, in reality, the message it sends out is that violence works. The visible narrative then becomes one of the state’s weaknesses in the face of religious extremism. It shows that even the state —the prime institution obligated to protect all— cannot or will not step in to save those that have been marked out by religious extremists.
“It seems as if religious minorities in Pakistan are the children of a lesser God, with a weaker claim to the basic rights of life.”
After all, the reason for Asia Bibi’s suffering was an argument with her Muslim co-workers when they refused to share water with her, believing her to be tainted due to her Christian faith. Owing to that dispute she was accused of blasphemy and robbed of her normal life. Pakistan has a track record of treating it religious minorities terribly, from the persecution of Ahmadi Muslims to the forced conversion of Hindu girls.
Over the last few decades, the politicisation of Islam has empowered religious fanatics to gain a space within the mainstream culture of the country. Pakistan, despite its struggle with religious fundamentalism and terrorism has still not seceded control to the far right: until now a far right and or religious party has never been elected to govern the country. However, parties like the Tehreek-e-Labaik are gaining ground at an alarmingly fast rate. In the last general elections in many constituencies, their votes were tailing those of the main three parties. Thus, Pakistan now is at a crossroads where it must decide what sort of country it wants to be: one that is safe, progressive, and a haven for all those who inhabit it, or one whose practices are so toxic they become a miasma choking its own people.
“The protests against Asia Bibi are not just about blasphemy, they are, in fact, part of a larger movement that seeks to impose its violent, stringent, and intolerant brand of religious identity and culture upon the country.”
Hence, in order to break free of that narrow vision, Pakistan needs to uphold its secular and democratic values. By defending Asia Bibi’s freedom, the state can rewrite the narrative and turn it from one of fear and oppression to one of equality and tolerance. Pakistan, by virtue of resisting the demands of religious extremists can finally take the first step towards being a country that embraces its all people, irrespective of their caste or creed.
Photo Credit: Creative Commons