In Pakistan, proceedings in the now infamous blasphemy case of Rimsha Masih, a 14-year-old, mentally disabled Christian girl, took a turn for the better after the powerful Muslim Ulema Council backed her against the accuser. Last Saturday, Rimsha, jailed since August 16, was released on bail pending a court investigation into whether there is any evidence that she actually did burn pages of a Qur’an while sweeping out an Islamabad neighborhood school. Rimsha was taken away from jail in an armored vehicle to a helicopter, demonstrating the extent of the threat of violence from Pakistani extremists. Rimsha Masih will not be in the courtroom for the trial, which is scheduled to start tomorrow, September 14.
With luck, she and her family who, as her lawyer points out, still remain in mortal threat from vigilantes, will be kept protected and enabled to start their lives anew, whether in another location in Pakistan or abroad.
Many in Islamabad and Washington alike religious textbook deepen this feeling. But if we exhale thinking an atrocity has been averted, we do so at our own peril.
While Rimsha has been freed, Pakistan itself faces a grave danger from the corrosive criminal blasphemy law regime — to its fragile democracy and rule of law, and to its historically pluralistic society. The case’s resolution or even any ensuing reforms short of repeal cannot spare the country from the extremism that this law’s mere existence feeds.
Rimsha’s case is one of thousands brought since the 1980s when the laws were adopted as part of the Islamization championed by the brutal dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq, and it is all too typical. It exposes many of the injustices inherent in such laws, which carry harsh penalties of life imprisonment for allegations of desecrating a Qur’an, or possibly death for insulting Islam’s Prophet Mohammad, his companions or family members. In most cases individuals, found by human rights organizations to commonly have ulterior motives, have initiated these charges.
The laws are as vague as they are harsh. Intent to commit an act of blasphemy is not required. Illiterates, children and the mentally ill, like Rimsha, have all been put on trial for desecrating Qur’anic pages they could not read. They provide that an offense against the prophet can be committed by “any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly” — in other words, unwittingly.
Testimony, even the bare accusation itself, is often the only evidence, and in such cases is weighted more in court if it comes from a male or a Muslim than from a female or a non-Muslim. Under just such circumstances, Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five from a village outside Lahore, was convicted in 2010 and remains on death row. The upshot is that Pakistan’s Christians, Ahmadiyas, Hindus and Shiite Muslims are disproportionately accused of blasphemy.
But members of the Sunni majority are also victimized. Educators who advocate religious reforms are vulnerable to blasphemy charges brought by their extremist students. One is Dr. Mohammad Younas Shaikh, a professor of Islamabad’s medical college, who reportedly told a student that Mohammad was neither a prophet nor a Muslim before he was forty. An anti-blasphemy vigilante group, the Movement for the Finality of the Prophet, brought charges and also incited a mob that threatened to burn down the college and the local police station. After three years of legal proceedings, he was acquitted and fled to Europe. Another, Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, was not so fortunate; for criticizing the blasphemy law, he was murdered in broad daylight last year, as was Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian.
The law empowers extremists within the society. They invoke it to enflame sectarian sentiment, raise an angry mob, determine what can be said, and thus leverage their own political power. Blasphemy laws are often justified as necessary for social harmony, but they do the opposite. Rimsha’s case stands apart because of significant protest it stirred nationally and internationally and the arrest of its provocateur, local mosque leader Khalid Chisti, whose inflammatory threats nevertheless frightened some six hundred Christian neighbors from their homes, trapped presidential advisor Paul Bhatti inside the Ministry of Harmony, and continues to worry her lawyers.
One rumor, one accusation of a Qur’an desecration over a mosque loudspeaker, can trigger the torching of an entire area as happened in Gojra in 2009, when forty houses were razed and seven Christians were burned alive.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are incompatible with its aspiration of being a modern, democratic, Muslim state respected by the international community. Instead of allowing this travesty in the name of religion to continue, Pakistan needs to revisit the ideas of its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who declared on the eve of independence, “You are free; free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”