The fate of an illiterate berry picker on death row for blasphemy has gripped Pakistan in a furor of religious fanaticism. Few examples better illustrate the misplaced priorities of the Pakistani government and the country’s Islamist ideologues.
Asia Bibi was scheduled to appear before Pakistan’s Supreme Court last week. She was arrested in 2009 following an angry dispute with her fellow field hands over whether she, a Christian, was too impure to sip from a cup of water she had fetched for them. The mother of five denies that she blasphemed, and has testified that she was merely professing her Christian faith.
At her initial trial, Ms. Bibi’s inexperienced lawyer failed to cross-examine the two witnesses or object to errors in the proceedings. Ms. Bibi was convicted under Pakistan’s 1986 blasphemy law and sentenced to death by hanging.
Since then, Ms. Bibi has been on death row and placed in solitary confinement, ostensibly for her own protection. Though Pakistan has never carried out the death penalty for blasphemy, some defendants in prior cases were murdered by cellmates and guards. Ms. Bibi’s was the first capital blasphemy conviction against a woman to be affirmed by a Pakistani appellate court.
When one of us met with Ms. Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, at a New York conference in April, Mr. Masih said through an Urdu translator that the family was hopeful Ms. Bibi would soon be exonerated. He said that a court official told him her appeal would be heard as soon as things “cooled down” after the judicial execution in February of Mumtaz Qadri.
Qadri, a bodyguard for Salman Taseer, who was at the time the governor of Punjab, was convicted in 2011 of murdering Taseer for publicly defending Ms. Bibi. After Qadri’s execution, mobs rioted in Islamabad for four days, calling for Ms. Bibi’s blood.
That fanaticism returned to full boil last week as the Supreme Court was scheduled to hear Ms. Bibi’s case. Perhaps that’s why one of the three judges recused himself for a conflict of interest, waiting until the last minute to explain that he had also presided over the Qadri case.
“Many Sunni Muslim groups in the country have jointly held mass demonstrations across Pakistan, chanting slogans and displaying signs that read ‘#HangAsia,’” the Catholic outlet AsiaNews.it reported. Some praise Qadri as a martyr.
Among them are the Barelvi Sunni sub-sect, which the media has described as relatively moderate due to its association with the syncretic Sufi tradition. But there seems to be little moderation when it comes to the blasphemy law, which is wielded as a weapon, particularly against minority faiths, whether Ahmadiyas, Christians, Hindus, Shiites or even Sunni reformers.
The protests have even called for anyone who rescues or assists those accused of blasphemy to be viewed as blasphemers and executed too. This is a view shared by preachers at the notorious Red Mosque in Islamabad and one that has led to the murders of defense lawyers, journalists and human-rights advocates. In addition to Taseer, victims include Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s minister of minority affairs, an outspoken critic of the blasphemy laws who was assassinated in 2011.
The clerics of the Red Mosque, the scene of a pitched battle between its militants and the Pakistani army a few years ago, have threatened “dire consequences” if Ms. Bibi is spared. Its spokesmen vowed to lay siege to Parliament, and one reportedly threatened to issue a fatwa against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The affiliated Shuhuda (Martyrs) Foundation warned that its supporters would take to the streets and become “a centre for the anti-government movement.”
In the past, the judiciary has thrown out charges of criminal conduct against the Red Mosque leadership, validating the leaders’ belief that they—and their religious violence—are above the law. The blasphemy code is empowering them and their ilk to spread extremism.
Saif-ul-Mulook, a Muslim lawyer braving death threats to defend Ms. Bibi before the Supreme Court, has said it could take months for the appeal to be rescheduled. But if Pakistan’s government remains paralyzed in the face of blasphemy-law vigilantism, the decision will be between the judges’ lives and Ms. Bibi’s. Realistically, she may never get her day in court. And Pakistan would take a step closer to the edge of political and cultural chaos.