Aasia Bibi blasphemy case a symbol of Pakistan's religious intolerance

The Pakistani government's handling of the case of Aasia Bibi, a Christian facing the death penalty for insulting the Quran, indicates a willingness to let extremists have their way.

Anjum Naveed/AP
Ashif Masih (r.) husband of Christian woman Aasia Bibi who had been sentenced to death, and daughters Sidra Shahzadi and Isham Ashiq listen to Pakistani minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, unseen, during a meeting in Islamabad, Pakistan on Wednesday, Nov. 24.

The Pakistani government’s refusal to repeal or amend the country’s blasphemy laws have renewed concerns about its resolve to tackle extremism at home.

The key symbol in the matter is Aasia Bibi, a 45-year-old Christian woman currently facing the death penalty on the charge of insulting the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad. Government officials originally promised to pardon but she continues to languish in jail. Some analysts say that the government's apparent willingness to bow to Islamist extremists in the matter could undermine the country's gains in the ongoing battle against the Taliban.

"The government has been trying to rely too much on symbolism, as a substitute for substantive measures” says Ashar Rehman, a senior editor at Dawn, Pakistan’s leading-English daily.

“They are giving medals to people like [Myanmar's dissident political leader] Aung San Suu Kyi, and encouraging certain cultural events, but are not allowed the leeway to just do something in the areas where it really matters,” he says, citing what he sees as the undue influence of the country’s conservative military establishment.

The ongoing imprisonment of Ms. Bibi has divided the country along ideological lines, and ignited a debate about the future of the country’s blasphemy laws. The existence of blasphemy laws date back to British rule in the 19th century, though the laws were strengthened after independence. Critics say that today the laws are misused to persecute minorities.

Awaiting a court verdict

The mother of five has already spent a year and a half in jail on charges of insulting Islam. Critics say she's a victim of the legal system. According to court documents, Bibi was first accused of blasphemy by a Muslim woman who took offense at being served water by a Christian.

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At first, senior government figures said Bibi would receive a presidential pardon. Then the Lahore High Court on Nov. 28 issued an order to prevent a presidential pardon for Bibi. Amid it all, Islamist groups have called for her execution and law minister Babar Awan announced the government won't repeal the blasphemy law used to convict her.

Bib now awaits a higher court’s verdict which will determine whether her execution, originally planned for Nov. 8, goes ahead.

The government's mixed signals show a “wavering commitment to creating an environment in which Pakistanis can tackle sensitive religious and social issues without fearing an extremist backlash,” wrote Huma Yusuf, a Pakistan scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, in Pakistan's Dawn newspaper.

Why the government is equivocating

The government's equivocation may be due to the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) need to balance its own principles with the interests of its more conservative coalition partners, as well as pressure from Pakistan’s military establishment.

The PPP, led by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto until her assassination in 2007, is socially liberal in theory. Since coming to power in 2008, the party has created a Ministry for Minorities as well as launching a “Sufi Advisory Council," seen as an antidote to the hard-line vision of Islam promoted by the Taliban.

Still, critics see it as a case of one step forward, two steps back.

In late November, the PPP-led government appointed Senator Mohammad Khan Sheerani, a hard-line cleric, to the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII). The CII is a constitutional body that advises the legislature on whether laws are Islamic and as such its decisions impact lawmakers' ability to pass progressive legislation.

According to Saaeda Diep, founder of the Institute for Peace and Secular Studies in Lahore, the move represents "nothing more than a political move to please the JUI-F," a member of the ruling coalition widely seen as having close links to the Taliban.

Education compounds intolerance

While certain developments are recent, others are chronic, such as Pakistan’s lack of investment in education and a curriculum some see as promoting a mix of jingoism and intolerance toward minorities.

In 2008, the Monitor reported on the pernicious effects of bigoted textbooks on Pakistani school children. Since that time, the government has broken its own promise to spend 4 percent of GDP annually on education and in fact spent slightly less than 1.5 percent in the last fiscal year.

“No matter what the rhetoric is, they just aren’t serious about education,” says education expert Baela Raza Jamil, a former technical advisor to the Ministry of Education. While there's been some improvement thanks to the introduction of a progressive national curriculum, dissemination of texts remains limited due to lack of funds, she says.

Efforts to reform

For now, the business of reform is being spearheaded not by those at the center of government but at the fringes. Sherry Rehman, a lawmaker from the PPP who resigned a cabinet post last year, tabled a bill two weeks ago that seeks to amend the blasphemy law to remove the death penalty. The bill is supported by a prominent opposition politician, Ayaz Amir, as well as another PPP stalwart Raza Rabbani who also resigned from the cabinet in 2009.

Rehman acknowledges she has not taken the “the purest position” of repealing the law, “but at least approach it from a sensible centrist view, to take the bad clauses out.” The key, she says, is to address reform from an Islamic, as opposed to a secular point of view, because “injustice is not tolerable in Islam or the Quran.”

She says she has already faced death threats by extremists for bringing the issue up, but won’t be deterred.

“This is the beginning of a long battle. It starts with one battle. Some say it won't be tabled, some say it will. Some will try to block it, others won't. It’s the beginning of a process and a mainstreaming of this idea of justice, because we have to move beyond symbolism.”

“We’re trying to regain space for the majority to not be silent. We can’t keep taking it,” she adds.

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