Pakistan needs to extinguish the flames of bigotry to save face

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Pakistan needs to extinguish the flames of bigotry to save face

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In a landmark judgment passed today, the country’s top court acquitted a Christian woman who was convicted and sentenced to death by a lower court on charges of blasphemy in 2010. She had been on death row ever since. The ruling ended the horrific ordeal of Aasia Bibi, a mother of five, who was falsely implicated in a blasphemy case after a quarrel with local women in her village. 

Her case drew international attention on the growing misuse of the country’s blasphemy law which requires a mandatory death sentence if an individual is convicted of the crime. Bibi was accused of committing blasphemy in 2009. A trial court found her guilty and awarded her the death sentence which was upheld by the Lahore High Court. Following the verdict, Bibi’s lawyers had approached the Supreme Court in 2015 as a last resort, looking to repeal her sentence.

A three-member bench led by the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Saqib Nisar, set aside the conviction today reasoning that the prosecution had failed to provide substantial evidence for the crime. “Keeping in mind the evidence produced by the prosecution against the alleged blasphemy committed by the appellant, the prosecution has categorically failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt,” he concluded. He further noted that “tolerance is the basic principle of Islam”, and that the “religion condemns injustice and oppression”.

The court’s ruling seeking Bibi’s release angered several radical Islamic groups, with supporters protesting the move by blocking roads and resorting to violence in several cities across the country, including Islamabad. Some of the fanatics have threatened to kill Bibi and the three judges. Bibi, on her part, will most likely join her family in London where her family has taken asylum with reports saying that they were worried for her safety. 

Pakistan’s blasphemy law was enforced by former military ruler General Ziaul Haq in the 1980s. It has been grossly misused by religious zealots looking to target non-Muslims in the country, with any move to change the law or stop its misuse thwarted by radical Islamist groups. 

According to a report by the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, hundreds of people are languishing in jail facing trial on blasphemy charges. There have been several cases where the accused were killed, too, after the court acquitted them.

Bibi’s case is one such example whereby the extremist groups are fanning religious sentiments to further their own interests.

Zahid Hussain

Radical groups and clerics have used the blasphemy law as a weapon to instill a sense of fear by openly inciting people to kill in the name of religion. Bibi’s case is one such example whereby the extremist groups are fanning religious sentiments to further their own interests. 

In 2011, former Punjab governor Salman Taseer -- who had voiced support for Bibi -- was gunned down in broad daylight in Islamabad. His assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, was executed five years later after the court found him guilty of murder. Taseer’s brutal assassination and the growing stridency of religious extremists following the incident has widened the ideological divide in the country. 

Radical clerics publicly cite Qadri’s example to incite others to kill anyone who does not subscribe to their obscurantist views, thereby turning Pakistan into one of the most intolerant societies of the world. 

What the extremists have tried to do is to create a sense of fear and suppress the voices of reason and moderation. The forces of radical Islam have succeeded in infusing religion in the very fabric of the state. Many respected Islamic scholars who challenged the extremists and militants have either been killed or forced to leave the country. 

More worrisome, however, is the failure of the state to provide protection to its citizens. The extremists have gained ground because of the moral bankruptcy of our political leadership and criminal abdication of the government in the face of extremist violence. Although they remain on the fringes of power politics, religious groups in the country continue to wield more influence than their electoral support base indicates.

Meanwhile, the spectacular rise of radical groups such as the Tehrek Labaak Pakistan (TLP), which is leading the protests against Bibi’s acquittal, has changed the dynamics of religious politics in the country. In fact, it has become a movement rather than a well-knit and organized political party born out of Qadri’s execution. Led by firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the TLP used the blasphemy issue to whip up religious sentiment, both in the urban and rural areas. What is more troubling is that the flames of bigotry are sweeping across other parts of the country as well creating a dangerous confluence of religion and politics. 

— Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC.

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