Open Essay

It’s Not Blasphemous

Mehr Tarar is a well-known Pakistani columnist and author
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Extremists in Pakistan fail to see that the acquittal of Asia Bibi is not unIslamic

ONCE UPON A time in Pakistan...

June 2009: In a quiet little village Ittan Wali, district Sheikhupura, Punjab, while working in a field, she had an argument with some women. It was an apparently little thing, but it was anything but little. She didn’t know that her life was going to change, irrevocably, in those few minutes. As she picked up an old, used glass to drink water, the women objected.

Was it a class thing, the hierarchy that decides who drank from which glass? Here, it was a matter of faith. Religion was the determinant: she belonged to a faith those women considered inferior to theirs, and ergo, lines had to be drawn whose hands and mouth touched that glass. Body parts become impure as per the way you bow to God. A two-way argument between followers of two religions should have ended there; it became global news very soon, very unexpectedly.

A charge of blasphemy appeared. Not on all women, but only that one who had dared to touch the glass she wasn’t meant to. An FIR followed, an arrest occurred, an investigation started, and a family was destroyed, one witness statement at a time.

In November 2010, she was sentenced to death, the first female ever to get the death penalty in a case of (alleged) blasphemy.

Her name was Asia Noreen. She was a Christian.

Once upon a time in Pakistan...

January 4th, 2011: In Islamabad, in broad daylight, Mumtaz Qadri, part of the security detail of the then governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, shot Taseer 27 times at point-blank range. The shooter was eerily calm, terrifyingly composed. In his eyes, he was a ghazi, a future martyr, destined for jannat, as he had killed a ‘blasphemer’ in the name of Allah. Jailed and sentenced to death, Qadri was eulogised as a hero not just by religious groups, but also by many lawyers, so-called enlightened folks on social media and countless of those who believed killing a blasphemer is a noble act with a confirmed ticket to heaven and houris.

Governor Taseer’s ‘crime’: In 2010, Taseer, on the request of Asia Bibi’s family, met Asia in jail, heard her story and having reviewed the legalities of her case said that the poor Christian woman was not guilty of blasphemy but was merely a victim of persecution done in the name of religion; that the British-made blasphemy law was a ‘black law’ which needed revision if not a repeal. Any law that is misused to persecute people under made-up allegations and can be exploited for myriad personal and political reasons must be reviewed.

Taseer wished for a Pakistan that was kind and fair, that didn’t persecute people on the basis of their religion, using the bullet of a law that could be horribly and opportunistically misused to punish people who belonged to faiths other than the majority one. Qadri assassinated Taseer for daring to ask for a review of the blasphemy law, for defending a ‘blasphemer’, and for speaking for the rights of non-Muslims, a minuscule minority in Muslim- majority Pakistan.

Mumtaz Qadri was hanged on February 29th, 2016. In Pakistan, Salmaan Taseer is a hero. Qadri’s death anniversary appears once in four years.

Once upon a time in Pakistan...

March 2nd, 2011: In Islamabad, the then federal minister for minority affairs, Shehbaz Bhatti, a Christian and a fearless and vehement critic of the blasphemy law, and an advocate for the need to reform the law, was assassinated. His car sprayed with gunfire by two men, Bhatti was shot eight times. Around his car were pamphlets with the words ‘Christian infidel’ and ‘Taliban al-Qaida Pakistan’.

Once upon a time in Pakistan...

August 2012: Rimsha Masih, a girl, accused of burning the pages of the Holy Qur’an, was arrested and locked up in a jail for adults. She was said to be 12 years old at the time of her arrest. Pakistan, for once, erupted in shock and dismay. Rimsha was just another Christian accused of blasphemy; in her case, the complainant was Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti, the imam of a mosque in her locality. A hafiz is a Muslim who knows the Holy Qur’an by heart, and is considered a man of great moral and religious values. As the outrage against the incarceration and post-incarceration grew, it was discovered during further investigation that Chishti was guilty of ‘desecrating the Qur’an himself and tampering with evidence’.

Rimsha, even after having been proven innocent, along with her family, had to go into self-imposed exile in a Western country. While Chishti, the ‘good’ Muslim, had no shame and fear even after falsely accusing— a huge sin as per Islam—a girl, almost a child, the Christian child accused of blasphemy had to vanish fearing for the safety of her life and that of her family, given the vigilante-justice-obsessed elements around her. They are everywhere—in different disguises, blatant, hiding in plain sight.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan, after a thorough review of Asia Bibi’s case, gave a verdict that will go into the annals of the complex, flawed and yet hopeful judicial and social history of the country as a landmark decision in which justice was done to an innocent Christian woman

Once upon a time in Pakistan...

March 9th, 2013: In Joseph Colony, Lahore, a scene straight from a Hollywood horror movie unfolded in the middle of the day when dozens of houses of the low-income locality were torched. Thousands of protestors, armed with stones and clubs, burnt houses, chanting Allah’s name, forgetting everything their Allah has ordered them to do. There were images of houses burning like cardboard cutouts. Several shops were burnt. As many as 125 houses were torched, and 25 protestors were arrested. A church was burnt. On social media, there was a photograph of a cross lying on the ground after having come off a church.

The issue was alleged blasphemy, the alleged blasphemer was Christian, Joseph Colony was predominantly Christian, and the torchers, the protestors, the outraged were Muslim.

There was no loss of life. What was lost, irretrievably, that day was the little sense of security and confidence non- Muslims had about living in Pakistan. They knew they were pariahs in their own homeland.

A fight that was originally over liquor had been presented as a case of blasphemy.

No case of blasphemy was made against those who had destroyed a church, disrespected a cross, the holy icon of Christianity, and desecrated the name of Prophet Isa, Jesus Christ (peace be upon him), one of the most revered Abrahamic prophets, and one of the most-mentioned prophets in the Holy Qur’an.

Once upon a time in Pakistan...

November 2014: In Chak 59, Kot Radha Kishan, district Kasur, Punjab, hundreds of people howled and shrieked and unleashed their fury on Shehzad and his pregnant wife, Shama. Two poor brick kiln-workers, trying to make a meagre living for themselves and their three children, were the latest victims of a blasphemy allegation. What happened to them is the stuff of stories that are so violent, so brutal, so horrific that they seem fictional.

A shrieking mob of more than 1,000 people dragged the 25-year-old pregnant Shama and her husband Shehzad from their home. They tortured Shama and Shehzad, mercilessly, non-stop, secure in their misplaced belief they were doing it all for Allah. That Allah that prohibits every form of cruelty done to human beings by their fellow human beings. Shama and Shehzad were thrown into the furnace of the kiln.

Accused of burning pages of the Holy Qur’an, without being formally charged and tried, Shama and Shehzad were tortured and burnt by the self-avowed vigilantes of Islam doing everything Islam prohibits people to do. There is no vigilantism in Islam, there is no punishment without a due process of law.

Once upon a time in Pakistan...

April 13th, 2017: It happened at the Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He was 23 years old. He was a student of journalism. He was accused of blasphemy. He was stripped, tortured, shot and killed by his fellow students. They threw his body down from the second floor of his dormitory. When his mother kissed the hands of her dead son, all his fingers were broken.

Salmaan Taseer wished for a Pakistan that was kind and fair, that didn’t persecute people on the basis of their religion

His name was Mashal Khan.

A normally apathetic Pakistan went into a deep state of shock, grief and anger. Everyone, including politicians and leaders of religious organisations, demanded justice for Mashal.

One of his killers got the death sentence, five were given life imprisonment.

And then on October 30th, 2018 in Pakistan...

The unthinkable happened. The Supreme Court of Pakistan, after a thorough review of Asia Bibi’s case, gave a verdict that will go into the annals of the complex, flawed and yet hopeful judicial and social history of Pakistan as a landmark decision in which justice was done to an innocent Christian woman. The three-judge bench, headed by the Chief Justice of Pakistan Saqib Nisar, reviewed the case in its entirety and concluded that the allegation of blasphemy was unproven, and ordered Asia Bibi’s immediate release.

Muslim Pakistan had done the right thing for its Christian Asia Bibi.

It is imperative to note: The verdict is not the result of acceptance of a mercy appeal or overturning of the death sentence of a guilty accused.

The Supreme Court’s verdict is the result of the following considerations: unsatisfactory evidence, delayed filing of an FIR, conflicting statements of witnesses, complainant’s muddle about the date of the alleged crime, enormous incongruities concerning the FIR and arrest, falsehoods of the primary complainants, and the extrajudicial confession of Asia Bibi.

Whereas the verdict elicited a great deal of amazement and elation in Pakistan, and internationally, the reaction of a certain section of society was expected. All over Pakistan, protests erupted demanding a reversal of the verdict and death for Asia Bibi. Throngs of bearded men, armed with hockey sticks, batons and banners and posters cursing Asia Bibi in a language most frowned upon by Islam, the self-avowed vigilantes of Islam did everything Islam prohibits: incitement to violence calling the three judges wajib-ul-qatl (worthy of murder), threats against Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government, and a call for sedition in the army.

Their leader, the new self-declared guardian of religion, Khadim Hussain Rizvi of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), through his speeches posted on social media, asked his followers and likeminded people to wreak havoc in Pakistan until his demands were granted. For three days, life came to a halt: schools were closed, roads and highways were barricaded, ambulances were stuck in traffic jams some of which lasted for more than 20 hours, offices, businesses and markets were closed, and Pakistan sank into a familiar sense of doom and gloom.

Everything that happened was a direct and a blatant challenge to the writ of the state. The state did what was expected: offer a ceasefire. In what is being termed as a meek capitulation to extremist elements, after three days of mayhem in Pakistan, the government signed an agreement in which the TLP has ‘apologised’ for creating unrest and has demanded a legal review of Asia Bibi’s verdict and having her placed on the Exit Control List.

After inflicting damage of billions of rupees on state and individual property, and pushing Pakistan into a temporary state of uncertainty and fear, the TLP leadership in addition to still being foul-mouthed and incendiary has threatened more protests in case of governmental non-fulfilment of its demands.

FIRs have been registered against those who damaged property across Pakistan. Monetary compensation for this damage has been announced. Many rioters have been arrested. Reportedly, there is a plan to arrest the TLP leadership. Too little too late, or a new mechanism of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government to fight extremism in Pakistan? Only time will tell.

And in Lahore, Pakistan...

On this slightly chilly November night of 2018, I wonder as I type paragraph after paragraph of incidents that curdle my soul, and send chills down my spine even though I’ve been writing on the issue of blasphemy and religious persecution for years: how will this darkness ever end? The questions are many; the answers are non-existent.

In 1986, the military dictator-turned-president General Zia-ul-Haq, in his forced Islamisation of Pakistan, added Section 295-C to the Pakistan Penal Code. The blasphemy law was now dark and unforgiving: 295-C mandated the death penalty for blasphemy. The British-created blasphemy law meant to keep people from harming one another in the name of religion then assumed the shape of a lethal tool to legitimise religious persecution, politicise religious differences and further alienate Pakistan’s non-Muslims.

All over Pakistan, protests erupted demanding a reversal of the verdict and death for Asia Bibi. The self-avowed vigilantes of Islam did everything Islam prohibits

Devotion to religion is a beacon to be good, to do good, to seek good. Respect for the religious sensibilities of others is a personal act, not a stick to whip an individual into a model human being. Respect is voluntary, not forced. Respect is reciprocal, not one-way.

Why does an almost 97-per cent Muslim Pakistan have this inexplicable and violent need to protect Islam? From where does this paranoia stem? How do groups of so-called religiously enlightened Muslims act on ignorance of the very important teachings of the Holy Qur’an, the eternal guidebook for Muslims? From where have these ignorant human beings acquired the right to be vigilantes and guardians of a divine religion that does not need their protection? How have they invented punishments for blasphemy when in the Holy Qur’an there is no worldly punishment for blasphemy?

Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, the esteemed religious scholar who was forced into self-imposed exile in 2011 after his denouncement of the blasphemy law of Pakistan after Governor Taseer’s assassination, said: “The blasphemy laws have no justification in Islam. These ulema (council of clerics) are just telling lies to the people. But they have become stronger because they have street power behind them, and the liberal forces are weak and divided. If it continues like this, it could result in the destruction of Pakistan.”

The aftermath of Asia Bibi’s verdict is not an overnight phenomenon. It is déjà vu of what has happened many times in Pakistan. Chanting Allah’s name, they wreak havoc. Chanting Allah’s name, they destroy. Chanting Allah’s name, they accuse, threaten, harm and kill the innocent and the unarmed, all acts that Allah has strictly forbidden. It is decades-long indoctrination and conditioning that turn ordinary people into machines of hate and violence. It is the exploitation of the needy and the vulnerable, using misinterpreted and distorted religious teachings. It is perpetuation of a naked agenda of hegemony that comes cloaked in piety, moral sanctimoniousness and religious superiority.

Religious persecution is institutionalised through a mechanism of divide-and-rule, the creation of schisms of various faiths and formation of sections of one faith, the pushing of political and personal agendas, and the manipulation of masses on promises of afterlife rewards.

All political parties of Pakistan, at some point or the other, are guilty of appeasement and support of extremist elements that harm Pakistan in more ways than one. It is appeasement on a loop. The onus of mainstreaming these organisations that are unable to get an electoral foothold is on all governments. It is the military establishment that is alleged to be the creator and enabler of most of these apparently fringe organisations.

The first and last casualty of these organisations that pretend to be guardians of religion is one: Pakistan.

Forgotten is the message of the Holy Qur’an, whose 113 of 114 surahs open with: ‘In the Name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful.’

Allah’s Islam preached by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) teaches empathy, compassion, mercy and forgiveness.

Which Islam do those who harm and kill in the name of Islam follow?