BY AYESHA ISHTIAQ
Pakistan seemed well on its way to establishing successful social and political reforms in the past two years when it came face to face with one of its long standing adversary. Section 295-C of the Penal Code of Pakistan, most commonly known as the ‘anti-blasphemy law’, has been a subject of controversy ever since the process of Islamization enacted by the military dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq. Under this law, whoever ‘defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet’ can be punished by death or sentenced to life in prison. Encouraged by this law, a large number of Islamic groups have made it their duty to accuse other religious minorities of blasphemy. In a country where 96 percent of the population is Muslim, this situation has created a devastating repression of freedom of religion and speech for non-Muslim minorities. There have been countless cases of intolerance leading to mob lynching and massive public furore against almost anyone belonging to a religion other than Islam. One centerpiece of this environment in the past few years has been the case of a Christian woman—Aasiyah Noreen, publicly known as Asiah Bibi.
Asiah Bibi’s case spans through almost a decade with complex layers attached to it regarding the Pakistani judiciary, political parties and the role of the military. Connecting all this together is the barbed wire of extremism and blatant intolerance of religious minorities. In 2009, a small incident with a Muslim woman over a water bucket reached severe heights leading to the arrest of Asiah Bibi and her subsequent placement on the death row by the Supreme Court. Despite being beaten, humiliated and coerced into renouncing her faith, Asiah stood her ground in the face of such intolerance. The next day saw her behind bars, where she was to stay for the next nine years of her life, as the fury of one religious extremist group left no room for any clemency. The topic of blasphemy in Pakistan is an amalgamation of sin and controversy, and serves as a breeding ground for radicalism, continuously endorsed by the government’s inability to face its horrifying consequences. Finally, on Oct. 31, 2018, in a historic move, the Supreme Court finally announced its verdict to drop all charges against Asiah Bibi. This was a massive win for the left-wingers, resulting in a collective sigh of relief from all religious minorities throughout the country.
Sadly, as the day unraveled, the verdict’s controversial status among the far-right induced them to take the law into their own hands, echoing their historical tendencies. The few statesmen who have dared to venture into this discussion have been caught up in some horrifying sectarian and religious politics. One such official was the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, an advocate for Asiah Bibi and one of the few statesmen openly vocal about the changes needed in Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. He was murdered by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, for having such beliefs. Following this event, the only Christian cabinet minister in Pakistan who was working to abolish the death penalty was also shot dead. There seems only one end to this subject in the country and that is in death. Either the verdict of an assassination will be given by a zealot or by an indecisive, ambiguous judiciary.
By keeping the case of Asiah Bibi open for almost 10 years, the state only further endorsed the extremist Islamist factions. The sudden religious fanaticism was embodied in the rise of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) Party in 2015, led by Khadim Rizvi, a right-wing firebrand mullah. Since 2007, following the siege of Lal Masjid from Islamic militants by the Government of Pakistan, there has been a considerable rise in support towards religious leaders. Considering the presence of such sentiments, the conclusion of Mumtaz Qadri’s trial was turned into another nightmare when the TLP made him into a religious hero for Islamic fanatics. His grave now serves as an honorary site for many of these religious fanatics. Even in death, intolerance means honor for such groups.
Hope simmered this year when Imran Khan was elected Prime Minister, representing the left-leaning political party of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). His popularity is massive within the country, adored especially by the youth tired of the conservative traditions of the state. He became a symbol of change, of ‘naya’ Pakistan, a phrase coined by himself that became a nation wide phrase of rejoicement. However, at the same time, Khadim Rizvi accumulated considerable support towards his cause of defending Islam and Sharia law. So, when the 56-page verdict of Asiah’s acquittal by the same court that placed her on death row was announced last week, it was expected that the TLP would be infuriated and retaliate.
And retaliate they did.
As day broke, thousands of TLP protestors blocked the roads, calling for the death of not just Asiah Bibi but also the judges involved in overturning her case. TLP put forth its set of demands that included the placement of Asiah Bibi on Pakistan’s Exit Control List, barring her from leaving Pakistan. A reaction such as this was expected as violent protests and city lockdowns have previously been a favored tactic of the TLP. What was not expected was the sudden murder of Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, a popular Islamic cleric. His murder and the timing of this assassination raise critical questions on the current religious atmosphere of Pakistan. Being a well-known mediator between the Pakistani establishment and the armed Islamic group of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), he was a controversial figure. He had connections with the Afghan Taliban and also headed the Haqqani Madrassa, an Islamic school the TTP’s founder attended. Pakistan is in the middle of peace talks with Afghanistan regarding national security issues, and the murder of Haq, a key figure in these talks, does not bode well. Not only does his death deteriorate any middle ground the two nations may have found, it also instigates the religious parties already inflamed due to the Asiah Bibi verdict.
All this religious violence created a threatening situation, almost on the cusp of becoming full-blown sectarian violence. Protests locked down schools, public places, major highways, and railways. The country was paralysed, unable to get a grip on the sudden religious anger, highlighting the fragmented ideologies of the country. There was a short moment of comfort when Mr. Khan addressed the situation and warned of the state’s action against extremism. His clear response to the religious clerics was hailed as a bold move by liberals all over the country, but the comfort lasted a short while in the face of the protestors’ increasing agitation. Eventually the newest form of left-wing government succumbed like its predecessors to the alarm of Pakistan’s political left; the seemingly strong PTI gave in to the demands of the TLP by reaching an agreement. Many saw this as a cowardly move that was not only sympathetic to bigotry, but also encouraged the continued growth of zealotry.
Under the deal brokered, the TLP protesters were granted legal amnesty and initiated the process of placing Asiah Bibi on the country’s Exit Control List. This strips Asiah of the right to seek asylum for her own safety and forces her to stay in a country where her beliefs and religion have become unacceptable. This deal has handed a win to the religious extremists, showing how regardless of political orientation, the state will succumb to their pressures. A mother of five, first arrested due to the fanaticism of an angry mob, yet declared innocent by law, still somehow has her fate resting in the hands of that same mob run on an ideology of prejudice and intolerance, the likes bred by the Zia-ul-Haq era.
The reaction of the state to blatantly ignore this baffling scenario, forgetting the sanctity of minorities’ rights, and the procedure of law has highlighted a worrisome stance of the authorities. Does brokering short-term appeasement deals with fanatics bode well for the future of the country already on a delicate balance in its fight against terrorism? Rather than having a hard-line approach, such a response only showcases a weak rule sympathetic to terror acts. The continued marginalisation of minorities and the inability to treat them as equals has created a massive crack in any attempt towards reforms. The current atmosphere remains, where extremist ideologies of an untamed mob maneuver the law in their hard-line favor, thus contradicting the legitimacy of a court authority. If this goes on, will the country ever be able to emerge from its entanglement in terrorism and religiously adherent doctrines towards an atmosphere of equality and progress?