A Win for Pakistani Democracy

Conviction for `blasphemous' graffiti was overturned, but Islamists are still powerful

WHILE most 14-year-olds concern themselves with dating or the next television show, Salamat Masih had graver things to worry about until two weeks ago.

He and Rehmat Masih, his uncle, both Christians, had been accused of defiling a mosque with sacrilegious graffiti. On Feb. 9, a judge in Lahore, Pakistan, found them guilty and sentenced them to death, in accordance with the blasphemy laws of that country.

The court acted on dubious evidence and under great pressure from Islamic militant groups, such as the Anjuman Khatbe Nabuwat. The defense in the case maintained that both the Masihs were illiterate and couldn't have written the graffiti.

On Feb. 23, a two-judge panel of Pakistan's High Court overturned the conviction and freed the two Christians of blasphemy charges, citing unsubstantiated evidence. This decision marks a triumph of democratic institutions over militant Islamist elements that have tried to undermine Pakistan's political system.

Last summer, I received a research grant to study the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan. I worked with Asma Jahangir, who chairs the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and also the attorney for the Masihs. I met with the Masihs, who were in hiding at the time. I remember a button-eyed and smiling Salamat, with whom I discussed the events of the World Cup Soccer final from the previous day.

At the time there was optimism that justice would prevail and that Salamat and Rehmat would go free. It seemed rational, it seemed democratic.

But achieving and sustaining democracy is never an easy task. Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's fragile government, under stress from Islamic militants, was hesitant to interfere in this crucial case. Ms. Bhutto's Islamist opposition last summer made death threats against then law minister Iqbal Haider, who had attempted to amend the blasphemy laws established under the dictatorial regime of General Zia.

The High Court's Feb. 23 decision seems a step toward consolidating democracy. The next step in that direction is to revise the extreme blasphemy laws responsible for the Masihs' ordeal.

The scenes unfolding in Pakistan are part of a larger drama of Islamic resurgence in Muslim countries. In Egypt and Algeria, Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Salvation Front have been forcibly excluded from the political system. Pakistan, like Jordan and Turkey, opted to give Islamists a say in politics and bring them into the mainstream.

On a governmental level the Pakistanis are helping to curb the rise of militants, as evidenced by Pakistan's recent cooperation in apprehending a prime suspect in the New York Twin Towers bombing. The problem, however, is that militant Islamists are using their political freedom to subvert democracy through organized street power and demagoguery. In effect, these Islamists are using terror tactics to hijack the Pakistani political system.

These groups feed on gossip, illiteracy, and chauvinism. They draw impetus from petty causes more than religious doctrine. At the street level, a country mired in illiteracy has no means to combat this rabble-rousing.

In countries such as Algeria and Egypt, where the governments have dealt with the Islamists coercively, tensions have mounted explosively. It is too early to say whether Pakistan, a country that has chosen the alternate policy of co-opting the Islamists, will succeed. One thing is certain: that in the months prior to the Feb. 23 ruling, co-optation had become akin to appeasement.

The government should now continue to follow a policy of ``firm'' co-optation, as espoused in this ruling, which allows Islamists a say in the government yet ensures that limits to their power are inscribed in the system.

To revel in this victory is premature. Salamat Masih may have been redeemed in the eyes of the government, but to the Islamists he remains a blasphemer. The Islamists' appeal of the High Court decision to the Supreme Court is unlikely to be heard, but one cannot be sure.

Until democracy is firmly entrenched and an educated citizenry dominates Pakistan, Salamat and other young Pakistanis, Christian or not, will have to deal with a system where word of mouth often matters more than the word of the law. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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