When news of Asia Bibi’s aquittal disseminated across the world, there was largely a sense of relief. Some rejoiced, others wondered if the Naya (new) Pakistan Imran Khan had promised was finally coming to fruition. However few were reluctant in celebrating this monumental victory against Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws, it seemed too good to be true.
For those who haven’t been following the trail of blood left by these laws let me briefly summarise it for you;
Religion related offences were codified by the British Raj in 1860, at the time Pakistan didn’t exist, so it inherited that legislation upon indpendence from India in 1947. The laws have been modified over the years . So for example, in 1982, a clause ordered life imprisonment for ‘wilful’ desecration of the Quran. And in 1986 a seperate clause was inserted to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad, the penalty recommended ‘death or imprisonment of life.’
Since the 1990s at least 65 people accused of blasphemy have been murdered.
But it was the murder of Salman Taseer in 2011 that drew my attention to the treatment of minorities and the oppressive nature of these laws. Taseer was a revolutionary , a politician who served as the Governor of Punjab. During his career, he became an outspoken critic of the blasphemy laws and called for the pardon of Asia Bibi. For this he was murdered by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri who vehemently disagreed with him.
Qadri was hailed a hero, he was showered with rose petals and over 500 clerics pledged support to him and urged others to boycott Taseer’s funeral. Even after his execution, Qadri’s poisonous message lives on, in March 2016, Tanveer Ahmed from Bradford travelled to Glasgow and murdered shop keeper Asad Shah. His motivation was fuelled by a hatred towards Shah’s faith, he was an Ahmedi. It later transpired that Tanveer was influenced by the actions of Qadri.
The murder of Salman Taseer was described by The Guardian as ‘one of the most traumatic events in recent Pakistani history.’ It was an event that drew significant attention to the country. Back in 2011 I wrote a blog titled ‘Deluded Defenders of God.’ I was horrrified by what I was seeing on the news, hearing from family and friends in the country and couldn’t believe the murder of an individual was being celebrated.
My disbelief stemmed from my faith, the very faith these men were using to justifiy the killing of an innocent man. As Muslims we are taught that if you take the life of one person it is akin to taking the lives of all humanity. Such is the value of the sanctity of life.
Then last year we heard of the murder of Mashal Khan, a student accused of blasphemy, but in reality he was like any normal uni student, using his new founded knowledge to critically think in a society which suffocates those that dare to. He was using social media to share his humanist views, to connect with like minded individuals and to find his place in the world.
He soon found himself at the centre of a deadly attack. Stripped, beaten and executed. His lifeless body thrown from the second floor and beaten with wooden planks. A hundred people gathered to watch this brutal theatre of death and depravity. Over 20 policemen were present, they intervened only when the mob was about to set fire to Mashal’s dead body. Arrests were made and it emerged that some of the University officials where Mashal had studied had also taken part in his gruesome murder.
So here we are again, November 2018, a mother of five, a Christian, Asia Bibi has spent eight years on death row after she drank from the same cup as a Muslim. She was falsely accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Note the word false. Rumours spread of her alleged crimes.
On 31st october she was aquitted, but for Asia Bibi, freedom is still beyond reach. Following her aquittal, hysteria erupted across the country.
Protests were called for Bibi to be put to death, to pacify their opposers, Pakistans ruling party, PTI signed an agreement with the anti blasphemy faction on Friday night giving in to most of their demands. Worryingly, Bibi will be placed on the exit control list which will prevent her from leaving the country. It is certain that if she does not leave the country her life is at stake. The woman who was on death row for eight years, protected only by the four walls in which she was imprisoned, continues to fear for her life, this time without much protection.
Yesterday I struggled to keep up with the news from Pakistan, news of buildings burnt, stalls looted and crowds proclaiming they would die to protect the honour of the Prophet. News that Bibi’s lawyer, Saif ul Mulook has fled the country in fear for his life. News that a woman falsley accused of insulting the prophet and imprisoned for eight years for drinking out of the same vessel of a Muslim still remains in a prison cell.
And as the tweets were flocking in, I found myself thinking i cannot relate to this hysteria, I do not ascribe to this interpretation of Islam, I find it alien, insulting and a distorted representation of a faith that for me and so many others is rooted in compassion and empathy.
I am second generation British Pakistani, I was brought up with the teachings that God mentions His compassion and Mercy more than His wrath. I grew up with stories of the Prophet peace and blessings be upon him, stories of him suffering persecution, fleeing from one town to the next, being pelted with stones but instead of punishing the people responsible, he prayed for God to have mercy on them. I was taught that actions speak louder then words, that the way you behave, speak and conduct yourself is the most important attribute of a Muslim. I was taught that if you are a person of faith it should manifest itself in the love and compassion you have for others. I was taught that it is incumbent upon us to look after the weak, disadavantaged and minority communities.
So to the clerics and mobs on the streets of Pakistan, I ask, whose religion are you defending? Whose honour are you protecting? Ask yourselves, is this what your religion wants from you? Will the death of a mother truly satisfy your lust for blood? If so it won’t be long before there are rivers of blood flowing through Pakistan.
Let me remind you of the principles upon which Pakistan was founded;
‘I assure you Pakistan means to stand by its oft repeated promises of according equal rights to all its nationals irrespective of their caste or creed….In any case Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic state, to be ruled by priests with a divine mission. We have many non-Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Parsis- but they are all Pakistanis. They will enjoy the same rights and privileges as any other citizen.’ Muhammad Ali Jinnah
By Sabbiyah Pervez
Sabbiyah Pervez is a journalist.