The blasphemy case against a young Pakistani girl known as Rimsha increasingly appears to be less about the alleged acts of a young girl than it is about a larger struggle for power in defining the future of Pakistan.
Rimsha’s arrest made international headlines almost immediately following reports that the accused was “a mentally disabled 11-year-old girl.” The case appeared to be following a disturbing path of injustice when subsequent news reports indicated that the accused was denied meetings with her lawyer. An independent medical board determined that the girl’s age is between 13 and 14, and that her mental state did not correspond with her age, but that she is not mentally ill. The Pakistani court hearing the case has postponed a decision on whether or not to grant the girl bail in order to review the report.
Questions about the girl’s age and intellectual capabilities, though, may be the wrong questions.
Pakistani journalist and Member of Parliament (PML-N), Ayaz Amir, traveled to the scene of the alleged incident to get the facts. What he found, is troubling.
What is this case about? Groping for an answer I went into the maze of rundown streets which is the old locality of Mehra Jaffer just outside Islamabad where this supposed blasphemy occurred, and there met Amad the complainant in this case. In my mind I had imagined the glittering eye of the fanatic. What I found was a friendly guy slightly confused at the sudden attention he was getting. I asked him his education and he said he had studied up to class five, could read a bit but knew not how to write.
Amad runs a CNG car-fitting shop in the G-11 Market. In a room upstairs I sat with him and a few other car mechanics and put a few questions. Amad said he had spotted Rimsha carrying a few burnt pages in a plastic shopping bag which on closer inspection turned out to be pages from the Nurani Qaida, a helpful primer for mastering the Arabic alphabet, preparatory to reading the Quran…pages not from the Quran then, and spotted by a person who could not read.
Forget for a moment the technicalities of what was burnt, I said. Did he think the girl Rimsha had any quarrel with Islam? No, he said, the others too nodding their heads in agreement. So what was all the fuss about and how was the glory of Islam affected? They all looked pretty blank. Had Rimsha meant to hurt anyone’s sentiments? Again silence. Amad looked a well-meaning person but clearly out of his depth.
If the complainant in the case could not read the texts alleged to be from the Quran and did not believe the accused to have any quarrel with religion, how did Rimsha end up jailed under suspicion of blasphemy? This is what Ayaz Amir found.
The imam held a council of war and Rimsha’s family was told to leave the locality within an hour. The police were also informed. Mercifully, no announcement was made on the mosque loudspeaker but matters took an ugly turn when news of the supposed outrage spread to the nearby bazaar. From most accounts it was Muhammad Amir Kazmi, an Urdu-speaking migrant from Karachi who runs his small Mashallah General Store, who was in the forefront of the agitation. After repeated announcements from the local mosque, a crowd gathered and the road was blocked. The crowd then marched to the Ramna police station where, discretion triumphing over valour, a blasphemy case on Amad’s complaint was registered against Rimsha and she was arrested.
While the Imam, Hafiz Chishti, denies instigating the incident, he openly accuses the local Christian community of conspiring against Islam and readily accepts that he has encouraged his followers to strike back.
Despite backtracking from his earlier stance, Hafiz Chishti was still scathing of the alleged blasphemy committed by Rimsha Masih, saying what she did was a “conspiracy” to insult Muslims.
He told AFP that “The girl who burnt the Holy Quran has no mental illness and is a normal girl. She did it knowingly; this is a conspiracy and not a mistake. She confessed what she did.”
Chishti claimed that the local Christian community had previously caused antagonism by playing music in services at their makeshift church during Muslim prayer time and said burning the pages was deliberate.
“They committed this crime to insult us further. This happened because we did not stop their anti-Islam activities before,” he said.
“Last Christmas, they played musical instruments and there was vulgarity in the streets during our prayers time. I warned them but they did not stop.”
During his sermon at Friday prayers, Chishti told worshippers it was “time for Muslims to wake up” and protect the Holy Quran.
Hafiz Chishti’s position, however, is by no means representative of the Muslim community. Earlier this week, Pakistan’s leading body of Muslim clerics, the All Pakistan Ulema Council urged protection of the Christian community and demanded an impartial investigation and accountability for anyone making false allegations under the blasphemy law. Still, this might be small comfort for local Christians who face the threat of vigilante violence regardless of the outcome of the case.
Rao Abdur Raheem, the lawyer representing Rimsha’s accuser, threatened on Thursday that if the girl is not convicted, Muslims could “take the law into their own hands,” and made reference to Mumtaz Qadri, the man who murdered Salmaan Taseer for supporting reforms to the blasphemy laws, and locals have reportedly “constituted a committee to expel Christians from the area.”
Supporters of the accused girl point to her age and the possibility of deficiencies in her intellect as reasons why she should be granted clemency in the case. But the few facts that have been reported suggest that this is missing the larger context of the case. There are some in Pakistan who believe the country needs to be “cleansed” – and not just of non-Muslims, but anyone considered the wrong type of Muslim including Ahmadis, Shias, and Sufis.
Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, Chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, warned this week that religious violence threatens the very existence of Pakistan and urged the government to crack down on militant religious groups. Viewed in this context, the blasphemy charges against Rimsha are but the latest battle in a larger war over whether Pakistan will be a tolerant and inclusive nation.