No country for an Asia Bibi

Blasphemy is a highly sensitive issue in Pakistan. In an environment of relative impunity, the state’s opportunistic appeasement of extremist groups dedicated to the implementation of the stringent laws encourages their use as a potent tool of persecution and prevents reasoned debate or reform.

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“I cried alone, putting my head in my hands. I can no longer bear the sight of people full of hatred, applauding the killing of a poor farm worker. I no longer see them, but I still hear them, the crowd who gave the judge a standing ovation, saying: ‘Kill her, kill her! Allahu Akbar!’ The court house is invaded by a euphoric horde who break down the doors, chanting: ‘Vengeance for the holy prophet. Allah is great!’ I was then thrown like an old rubbish sack into the van... I had lost all humanity in their eyes.” This is how Aasiya Noreen, commonly known as Asia Bibi, described the day in 2010 when a Pakistani court sentenced her to death under the country’s draconian blasphemy laws.

Her freeing by the Supreme Court last October sparked violent protests led by the hard-line Barelvi Islamist group Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), committed to vigorously implementing the infamous laws. The government of Prime Minister Imran Khan quickly capitulated to its demands that it prevent Bibi from leaving the country and allow an appeal against the judgement. On January 29, the SC upheld the acquittal of the Christian woman on death row for more than eight years over the false charges.

 No country for an Asia Bibi

File image of Asia Bibi. Reuters.

Blasphemy is a highly sensitive issue in Pakistan. In an environment of relative impunity, the state’s opportunistic appeasement of extremist groups dedicated to the implementation of the stringent laws encourages their use as a potent tool of persecution and prevents reasoned debate or reform. Bibi’s is only the most well-known case among the victims of these legal provisions which prescribe extreme punishments, such as the death penalty for insulting the Prophet Mohammad and life imprisonment for desecrating the Holy Quran.

While colonial in origin, it was the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq who enhanced the punishments under the laws in 1986 in his political bid to Islamize Pakistani state and society. Exact numbers remain unknown but Pakistani human rights groups claim that blasphemy cases have since increased from about a dozen to over 1,500. The laws are typically used to settle personal vendettas or feuds. For instance, Asia Bibi was accused of insulting the Prophet after she had a heated argument with a group of co-workers over her use of a cup of water in her village in district Sheikhupura, Punjab. Those accused of blasphemy have virtually no hope of receiving justice. Instead, many have been killed by mobs or languish in jails like Bibi did as most lawyers are unwilling to defend them out of fear for their own lives. While Muslims also become victims of blasphemy accusations, the axe typically falls on Pakistan’s politically disempowered and pervasively persecuted religious minorities.

In this context, the court’s acquittal of Bibi is indeed a step in the right direction. Observers and rights activists at home and abroad quickly hailed the decision as a potential turning point in the Pakistani state’s longstanding collusive relationship with religious extremism. That it is not. In 2002, the Supreme Court had similarly acquitted Ayub Masih, a Christian man accused of blasphemy. While the verdict in Bibi’s case applied the legal standard of proof needed for obtaining a criminal conviction, the judges quoted verses from the Quran at length to justify the need for the “severe punishment of death” for blasphemers since respecting the Prophet is an inviolable part of the Islamic faith. Notably, their main focus was on the “misuse” of these laws, not the laws themselves. As one prominent legal analyst noted, the judges emphasised the necessity of blasphemy laws for properly prosecuting blasphemers lest infuriated Muslims lynch them. By implication then, vigilante justice in matters of religion is but natural and inevitable. Yet, the judges ignored the fact that before these laws were promulgated in the 1980s, blasphemy cases were rare and mob lynchings were unheard of.

Take the TLP, a group inspired by the police guard Mumtaz Qadri who murdered Punjab governor Salman Taseer in 2011 over his call for pardoning Asia Bibi and reforming the blasphemy laws. It shot to meteoric national prominence in 2017 after it blocked the main highway into the capital Islamabad to force the resignation of the-then law minister of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz who was accused of altering the oath of elective office declaring Mohammad as Allah’s final prophet.

As then opposition leader Imran Khan opportunistically sided with the TLP, the military refused to come to the aid of the government, thus forcing it to accept the protesters’ demands including the minister’s resignation. Having publicly humiliated the PML-N government on account of its ousted leader Nawaz Sharif’s tussle with the generals, the military subsequently weaponised blasphemy by encouraging the TLP to field candidates in the July 2018 parliamentary elections and by backing the Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) which portrayed the PML-N as a party of blasphemers, an ultimately successful strategy designed to cut into Sharif’s conservative vote bank to ensure that his party stays out of power.

After Bibi’s acquittal, TLP leaders had declared the judges apostates deserving of death, and even incited the army to revolt against its chief of staff General Qamar Bajwa because he is an Ahmadi, a widely persecuted minority Muslim sect officially declared “non-Muslim” in 1974 because of their putative disbelief in the finality of the Prophet Mohammad. Under pressure, the PTI government ceded to the TLP’s demands. It was only after the TLP leaders refused to call off another planned protest that the authorities belatedly sprang into action, detaining top TLP leaders and hundreds of their followers. The military had to put the genie back in the bottle, albeit temporarily, since it had outlived its utility.

Asia Bibi became a global symbol for all that is wrong with blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Her acquittal understandably attracted international attention. But there is no indication that it represents a critical inflection point for state-religion dynamics in Pakistan. The judges are not out to make history, and will most likely not go beyond acquitting those falsely accused of blasphemy. The power to amend these laws lies with Pakistan’s parliament. While there have been some procedural amendments to the laws to prevent their misuse, even suggesting substantive reforms, let alone their repeal, can prove to be deadly for politicians as demonstrated by Taseer’s murder. The ruling PTI has shown itself capable of crass political cynicism on the blasphemy issue. In fact, it is highly unlikely that any political party or leader touches the country’s blasphemy laws with a 10-foot pole. Pakistan is no country for Asia Bibi, or anyone accused of blasphemy.

(Aqil Shah is Wick Cary Assistant Professor of South Asian politics in the David L Boren College of International Studies at the University of Oklahoma and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)

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