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Sanity Speaks In Pakistan, Eventually

Tahir Naveed Chaudhry (left), a lawyer for Rimsha Masih, a Christian girl accused of blasphemy, speaks to the media along with other lawyers after he appeared before a judge at the district court in Islamabad on September 3.
Rimsha Masih, the 14-year-old Christian girl accused of blasphemy and currently in police custody in Pakistan, has stirred public sentiment on both sides of the divide -- right and left -- in the highly polarized Pakistani society.

At the same time, the case has focused unprecedented international concern on Pakistan's blasphemy law being used by religious fanatics among the Muslim majority to frighten and intimidate their non-Muslim compatriots (3 percent).

The latest reaction is a statement from the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan demanding the immediate release of the girl.

ALSO SEE: Court Grants Bail In Masih Case

Keeping in mind the reaction on the local and international levels, the case is unique mainly because the religious groups best-known for their hard-line views when it comes to "blasphemy" either stayed silent or called for investigations into the case to ensure that justice was done.

One among such voices is the chief of Pakistan's Ulema Council, Tahir Mahood Ashrafi, who demanded bail for the Christian girl and stressed the need for a thorough investigation into the case.

Going a step further, the chief of the Ulema Council -- which is known for its support for the blasphemy law -- appeared in a live television debate and pressed the need for action against the prayer leader of a mosque in the neighborhood where Masih allegedly burned the pages from the Koran.

The prayer leader, Khalid Jadoon Chishti, is currently in police custody for "fabricating" the blasphemy case against Masih by "deliberately stuffing pages of the Holy Koran in the bag" containing burned pages from a book used to familiarize children with Arabic words before they study the Koran.

Since August 16, the day the young girl was arrested, the case has proven to be a watershed for a number of reasons. Never in its history has Pakistan seen such a vociferous response on an issue as sensitive as the burning of the Koran, and by a Christian besides.

Let's look at a few examples from the recent past.

When a police guard gunned down Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, Pakistan's largest province, in January 2011 and his bodyguard-turned-killer, Mumtaz Qadri, confessed before a television camera, people from some religious groups and other walks of life showered the killer with rose petals.

"How could they do so?" asked Taseer's eldest son in an article for the British newspaper "The Daily Telegraph." Taseer was maligned and ultimately killed because he demanded clemency for another Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, who was condemned to death by a local court for her alleged blasphemy. Bibi's trouble began following a dispute with a fellow Muslim woman over water sharing in June 2009.

Three months after Taseer was killed, Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal minorities minister, was shot dead by armed men in the country's capital, Islamabad. The motive was the same: silencing a voice against the blasphemy law.

Again, with the exception of a few silent protests by human rights activists, no political party or group -- not even the ruling Pakistan People's Party, to which both Taseer and Bhatti belonged -- dared to speak a word in support of the two political stalwarts who laid their lives on the line to secure the rights of minorities promised by Pakistan's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in his first address to his newly independent country's constituent assembly on August 11, 1947.

Not only have minorities accused of blasphemy since 1986 (the year when the blasphemy law was introduced by military ruler General Zia ul-Haq) not been given a proper opportunity to defend themselves in a court of law; the successive governments shied away from investigating the charges that many believe are usually motivated by family and land disputes, personal rivalries, disputes over money, or hatred for a minority member or the whole sect.

Khalid Chishti, the imam of a local mosque, has been charged under the blasphemy law he tried to use against Rimsha Masih.
Khalid Chishti, the imam of a local mosque, has been charged under the blasphemy law he tried to use against Rimsha Masih.
However, the Rimsha Masih case is different: Not only because the cleric who accused the young girl of blasphemy was arrested and charged under the same law, but clerics as well as common Pakistanis demanded a full probe into the case to ensure justice for both parties.

Unlike in the past, not a single demonstration has so far been held in any Pakistani city or town to condemn the girl. The Pakistani media and intelligentsia have heartily endorsed the government's decision to arrest the cleric and to ensure transparent investigations.

And more encouraging is the fact that, at least so far, no one -- not even the factions known for their religious fanaticism -- has made any threats as opinion leaders on live TV talk shows and op-ed articles in leading newspapers ask for amendments to the blasphemy law.

Not too long ago, calling for amendment of the blasphemy law was seen as a case of blasphemy in itself. It seems that sanity speaks -- and change is coming in Pakistan -- but very, very slowly.

-- Daud Khattak

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