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Why the U.S. Must Oppose Blasphemy Laws — Not Just Their Abuse

Nina Shea

Today’s New York Times and Washington Post shed rare light on the latest gross injustices that result from Pakistan’s blasphemy law. They report on yesterday’s arrest of Rimsha Masih, an 11- or 12-year-old Christian girl, who, according to some accounts, suffers from Down’s syndrome. Rimsha has been jailed for allegedly burning pages of the Koran while sweeping a facility in her slum neighborhood near the capital of Islamabad.

Should the case go to trial, the girl now faces a virtually certain sentence of life imprisonment, since under the sharia court, her testimony is worth a quarter of a Muslim male’s and there is only oral evidence in this case. Should she be released back to her community, she will face the wrath of the mob, incited by mosque leaders who are quoted by the Post as condemning her to death by burning. Meanwhile, her mother has been incarcerated with her, and hundreds of her co-religionists have fled their homes, terrorized by vigilantes.

Christians, Ahmadiyyas, Shiites, and Hindus have been disproportionately targeted under Pakistan’s blasphemy law. But moderate and reformist Muslims from the country’s Sunni majority have also been victimized by this very bad law. As the Post states:

“Under Pakistani law, those found guilty of defaming the Islamic prophet Muhammad face the death penalty, while defiling the Koran can bring a life sentence. The case of the girl is the fourth in recent months to alarm human rights advocates, who say the law is frequently used to persecute Christians and also has been unfairly applied to the mentally ill including some Muslims.”

A notable feature of the law is that it engenders more killings from extra-judicial violence than from court-ordered death sentences. In July in Punjab province, a mob whipped into a frenzy by radical leaders hunted down a man thought to have blasphemed against Islam, beat him to death, and burned his body burned outside a police station. In other cases, defendants awaiting trial, or even those who have been released or acquitted, along with the acquitting judge, have been murdered or threatened with murder. Last year, Pakistani minister of minority affairs Shahbaz Bhatti and Punjab governor Salman Taseer who dared to criticize the law were themselves accused of “blasphemy” and gunned down by Islamist extremists. In Taseer’s case, the murderer was heralded as a hero by the bar association, though eventually convicted of his crime; the presiding judge, however, was forced to go into hiding by vigilante death threats. No one has been convicted in the murder of Minister Bhatti, a Christian.

The Times reports that some officials involved with Rimsha’s case have commented that the charges are “baseless” and that she and her mother will be let go. But the mobs, even now swarming the jail where Rimsha is held, will seek bloody retribution against any official who allows this to happen. If Asia Bibi (Christian mother of five imprisoned since 2009) and other past cases offer any precedent, Rimsha is likely to languish in prison for a long time.

When asked about the case at yesterday’s press briefing, U.S. State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland spoke in terms of “misuse of the blasphemy law.” It is time for U.S. diplomats to recognize that this is not a problem of “misuse.” No reform or legal tweaking can perfect this law. It is an irredeemably unjust statute that is routinely used to persecute minorities, crush reformers, and in the process subvert the rule of law and individual freedoms. The Times accurately concludes about Pakistan that “it is the emotionally charged blasphemy issue that has most polarized society.” Rather than quelling sectarian violence, it enflames it, and gives Islamic extremists a platform within society to further manipulate and radicalize it.

The United States government needs to understand the dynamic of the blasphemy law and get its response right. This threat is spreading: Blasphemy charges are surfacing in Egypt and Tunisia along with the rise of Islamist rule, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation persistently presses for such laws within the United Nations.

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