Pakistan has taken several important steps forward over the past four years. From President Zardari’s willingly devolving powers that had been consolidated under past military dictators to an elected parliament completing its full tenure, there are, as Peter Bergen recently noted, many reasons to be hopeful about Pakistan’s future. But despite Pakistan’s overall positive trajectory, there remains a disturbing trend that threatens the promise of a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Pakistan – the ongoing attempts to silence Pakistan’s progressive voices.
As the story of an 11-year-old girl in Pakistan charged with the capital crime of blasphemy continues to make headlines around the world, Al Jazeera’s Folly Bah Thibault spoke with Ayesha Tammy Haq, a barrister-at-law and civil rights activist; Khalid Rahman, the director general of the Institute for Policy Studies, specialising in domestic and regional politics; and Aasim Sajjad, a professor of political economy at Quaid-i-Azam University, and a member of the central committee of the Worker’s Party, about the history of the laws and whether they can be enforced in a just manner, or whether they should be repealed.
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.
Last night’s PBS NewsHour featured a segment on Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) parliamentarian Sherry Rehman whose support for reforming the nation’s blasphemy laws has made her the target of threats from extremists. In the clip below, she talks to NewsHour’s Margaret Warner about the rising tide of pro-democracy moderates in Pakistan.
Citizens for Democracy (CFD), a coalition of Pakistani professional groups, NGOs, trade unions, student unions, political parties and individuals outraged by the consistent misuse and abuse of the ‘blasphemy laws’ and religion in politics, recently held a letter writing campaign in Karachi during which 15,000 letters were posted demanding an end to vigilante violence and justice for the late Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti and Governor Salmaan Taseer.
At a camp set up in front of Jahangir Kothari Parade, opposite Park Towers, Clifton, Karachi, people signed and posted letters addressed to the president, prime minister, interior minister, chief justice of Pakistan, and Chief Ministers, for interfaith harmony and action against calls for violence and vigilante justice. The letter demands that notice and action be taken against the rampant lawlessness in Pakistan, in an atmosphere “in which extremist and militant forces are operating with impunity, and where calls to murder and violence are publicly made, celebrated and rewarded”.
Referring to the murder of Federal Minister for Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti and governor Salmaan Taseer, the letter urges the government and its functionaries to swiftly apprehend, charge, try and punish their murderers. It urges political parties, parliamentarians and government functionaries “to take a clear stand” on the blasphemy issue: “no citizen has the right to cast aspersions on the faith and beliefs of any other citizen or to term someone a ‘blasphemer,’ ‘kafir,’ or ‘non-Muslim’.”
The campaign aimed to dissipate the atmosphere of intimidation, draw people out of their homes and enable them to speak up and voice their concerns by directing them to the relevant authorities. The signature campaign will be taken to other parts of the city including North Nazimabad, Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Boulton Market etc., as well as to other cities of Pakistan.
Anti-democratic groups in Pakistan such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Jamaat-ud-Dawa may be able to materialize large street protests at short notice, but their nuisance factor is far larger than their actual influence among the public. Most hard working Pakistani families have neither the time nor the inclination to make their voice heard through burning tires and chanting slogans in the streets. Unfortunately, this is too often used to claim that there is no popular support for democracy, justice, and tolerance in Pakistan. Nothing could be further from the truth.
By organizing a family-friendly event where ordinary Pakistani citizens could come out and peacefully express their desire for democracy, justice, and tolerance, ‘Citizens for Democracy’ was able to demonstrate that, despite the often dour headlines, the people of Pakistan have not given up on Jinnah’s vision of a Pakistan “where there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another,” a Pakistan based on “this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State.”
Riz Khan recently hosted a discussion of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law with Gov. Salmaan Taseer’s daughter, journalist Shehrbano Taseer; President of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan and human rights activist Asma Jahangir; and Professor of Islamic Studies Amjad Waheed.
Pakistan’s blasphemy law has taken center spotlight since the assassination of the former Governor of Punjab last week, his killer claiming that he murdered Taseer because he sought to change the laws. Despite the volume of discussion around these laws, many Americans don’t have a clear understanding of the historical background of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and how are they applied by the state. More problematic, media coverage has tended to highlight demonstrations in favor of the laws organized by Pakistan’s right-wing religious parties, political parties that, while able to organize large street protests, have historically been unpopular at the polls.
The following discussion between Pakistani political analyst Zafar Jaspal and journalist Omar Waraich was featured on Al Jazeera’ Inside Story and provides a more in depth look at the controversial laws – where they came from and the differing opinions among Pakistanis about what should be done to change them.
Today, Pakistan lost an outspoken defender of justice and democracy when Governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated in Islamabad. Governor Taseer was a vocal critic of religious extremism and called for the government to reform laws that discriminated against women and religious minorities.
Speaking to Newsweek Pakistan, Governor Taseer spoke about the need for Pakistan’s political leadership to take a strong stand against terrorism.
Dealing with the militants has to be no holds barred. Their lives should be made hell; they should be prosecuted, and sent to hell where they belong. You saw what happened with the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal [a coalition of religious parties] government in Khyber- Pakhtunkhwa during the Musharraf years. They turned a blind eye, and in five years the terrorists had established a whole network of safe havens and training camps to launch their campaign of terror. The MMA government never claimed to be with them, but never took them on. If you take the same approach in the Punjab, you’ll get the same results.
Just last week, Governor Taseer reiterated his call to defend Pakistan’s most vulnerable citizens against the forces of religious extremism and intolerance – a principle he took from his own deeply held religious beliefs.
Unfortunately and sadly there are people who feel bigger when they pick on someone who cannot fight back. It’s called bullying. I went to Sheikhupura jail to stand up against a bully and it has encouraged others to do so as well. That’s what taking a moral stance is. I am honestly happy to say that I am heartened by the huge response from ordinary folk. Even people who are deeply religious have spoken out against this black law. Ghamdi, for example, has stated clearly that this has nothing to do with Islam – Islam calls on us to protect minorities, the weak and the vulnerable.
In recent months Governor Taseer took up the fight to reform Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, and called for the pardon of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death late last year. His support for justice and democracy was passionate, but always based in reason.
With his quick wit and sharp tongue, Salmaan Taseer was a larger than life figure in Pakistani politics. Our thoughts and our prayers go out to his family and loved ones on this sad day. Far from silencing the call for democracy and justice, though, Salmaan Taseer’s assassins have only strengthened our determination. His words will continue to guide us in the struggle to protect the rights of all Pakistanis.
Yesterday’s New York Times published an article about demonstrations by Islamist parties defending Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Salman Masood, the reporter who covered the story, called the protests “crippling” and suggested that conservative religious forces had Pakistan’s government on the run. But Masood’s report ignores fundamental points, including the fact that the strongest supporters of reform have been from the governing party and that a counter demonstration has already been scheduled for the 15th.
Salman Masood wrote that the demonstrations have put the governing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) “on the retreat.” But the officials Masood quotes opposing the blasphemy law – Salmaan Taseer, Governor of Punjab, and Sherry Rehman, Member of the National Assembly – are members of the PPP. In fact, the PPP has been the most vocal and active proponents of changing the law with President Asif Zardari repeatedly calling for the law to be reviewed.
In addition to support for reform by government officials, a group of Pakistani citizens including prominent bloggers and journalists has organized a counter-protest for January 15th as a peaceful demonstration of the nation’s large community of liberals who want to see the law amended or overturned.
From the group’s Facebook page:
For thirty years, Pakistani Muslims and non-Muslims alike have been victimized by our blasphemy laws. We all know that these laws are often grossly misused. They do not account for the intent to commit blasphemy, and are most often used to settle personal or monetary disputes. For no fault of their own, victims end up either in jail for the rest of their lives, or killed by mobs. The victims of this law are almost always poor and powerless, and have no one to speak for them.
Recent developments have brought this issue in the public eye once again. It is time to say enough is enough. For too long, one side has dominated this debate, and drowned out our voices. We must remind them that we too are citizens of this country and that we too have a right to express our opinions.
Those of us against this law will be at Karachi Press Club on Saturday, January 15 at 3:00 p.m. to peacefully protest against it. Join us, stand with us, and let your voice be heard for equality and freedom for all Pakistanis.
Blocking traffic is always easier than getting elected – something right-wing religious parties can’t seem to do in Pakistan when facing open elections. Though it’s true that the government has tempered its rhetoric about amending the law, passing a new law is often far easier than changing one that’s been on the books – especially when the laws in question are wrapped in the emotion of religion.
The outsize media attention given to right-wing groups notwithstanding, Pakistanis are ready to shed the residual traces of past dictatorships. They said so quite loudly when they elected a progressive democratic government in 2008, and they will reiterate this call for reform when they come together on January 15th to call for an end to the religious discrimination enshrined in Zia’s blasphemy laws. The Question is: Will The New York Times be listening?
The case of Asia Bibi has commentators in Pakistan’s media speaking out against the nation’s blasphemy laws, archaic leftovers from Gen. Zia-u-Haq’s dictatorship in the 1980s – a relic more of Zia’s strategy to secure his grip on power than any personal religious zeal.
While no legal execution has occured under these laws, dozens of individuals are sitting on death row, and over a thousand people have been convicted of violating these laws. Worse, the laws are often used to justify violent acts of vigilantism. The threat of accusation, conviction and death hangs over the heads of Pakistan’s religious minorities.