guardian.co.uk, Thursday 9 December 2010 15.00 GMT
While the country reels from flood devastation, an increasing gap between rich and poor, and a ceaseless energy recession, Pakistan’s religious lobby has lined up to attack a straw woman. Yet again a powerful political lobby has decided to focus on an issue that will not solve the nation’s most pressing problems.
It all began when last year Muslim women in the village of Ittan Walli refused to take water from mother-of-five Asia Bibi because she was Christian. According to one of the women, Bibi reacted with disgust and, it is claimed, made disparaging remarks about the prophet Muhammad. Soon the local cleric and police were involved and Asia was behind bars for breaching Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws. She has already spent close to 18 months in one of Pakistan’s hellish prisons.
The blasphemy laws – a set of provisions inserted into Pakistan’s criminal laws under the Islamist dictator General Ziaul Haq – made it a crime punishable by death for anyone charged with defiling the Qur’an or defaming the prophet Muhammad.
The Lahore high court has taken the unprecedented step of barring the president of Pakistan from pardoning Bibi, a step decried as unconstitutional by legal experts. The blasphemy law “turns them [minorities] into second-class citizens, deprived of freedom of expression or belief,” says Human Rights Watch’s Ali Dayan Hasan.
If squeaky wheels do indeed get the grease then Pakistan’s vocal religious lobby have been liberally lathered by successive governments and a pliant media. Along with criticism of the military establishment, honest and critical exposure of religious chauvinism is a dangerous business.
In Peshawar, Maulana Yusuf Qureshi offered a reward of Rs500,000 (£3,600) to anyone who killed Bibi if the government did not execute her, an astonishing incitement against a fellow citizen. That included calling on the Taliban to take matters into their own hands and murder Bibi if the government did not. A lead editorial in Nawa-e-Waqt, one of the biggest Urdu-language newspapers in the country, lauded Qureshi’s rhetoric. If only sharia law applied in Pakistan, the editorial went on to lament, the current debate over reforming the blasphemy law would be entirely moot.
Meanwhile in Mohmand tribal agency, the Taliban claimed responsibility for a massive suicide blast at a meeting of government officials and a local anti-Taliban Lashkar that killed 44.
Pakistan’s federal minister for minorities and the governor of Punjab have both been threatened with death for calling for Bibi’s death sentence to be commuted. Former information minister Sherry Rehman has also received death threats for introducing a private members bill calling for the blasphemy laws to be amended to reduce its misuse.
The clear link between the terrorism that has rocked Pakistan and the blasphemy-related incitement to violence cannot have been lost on the Nawa-e-Waqt editors, Qureshi or others. Like the popular mantra that the terrorism is the work of India and other foreign actors and not home grown, the kill Bibi campaign reflects the simple fact that our most powerful religious leaders have no answers relevant to the crises faced by Pakistan.
At a time when WikiLeaks has disclosed the abject hypocrisy of one of the key apologists for the Taliban and Islamist excesses in our country – who despite publicly blaming the US for all the problems faced by Pakistan privately lobbyied to be made prime minister “for a price” – it is worth remembering that the Islamist lobby represents the worst kind of opportunism.
Even Sufi-religious orders such as Sunni Tehreek, often touted as a more liberal antidote to the Taliban and its Wahabi supporters in Pakistan, have called for Bibi to be killed and the existing blasphemy law to remain in force.
Scholars who genuinely practice the theological precepts of ijtihed, or independent reasoning, a vital ingredient for challenging the present chauvinism, are thin on the ground. One of their most important members, Dr Umar Farooq, was murdered by the Taliban because of his involvement in an impressive army programme to deradicalise young men trained to be suicide bombers.
Even the architect of the blasphemy laws under which Bibi has been sentenced has admitted they are too draconian and liable to abuse. Others have argued that at least, for the first time, some Pakistanis are able to openly talk about amending or repealing the blasphemy laws. And true we are not a nation of intolerant Muslims. But if the majority of us remain silent as the dangerous winds of intolerance spread through our villages and mosques, what exactly does it mean to be tolerant?[This article first appeared in The Guardian on December 9, 2010: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/dec/09/religious-lobby-pakistan-asia-bibi]
- Pakistan: The moral collapse of a nation | Editorial (guardian.co.uk)
- ‘We are not going to amend’ blasphemy laws, Pakistani PM says (cnn.com)
- Pakistan: Taliban-linked cleric offers $5,800 for killing Asia Bibi (teaandpolitics.wordpress.com)
- Pakistan’s PM reassures Sufis: “Why don’t you trust when I say that government would never amend the Blasphemy law?” (jihadwatch.org)