The persecution of minorities in Pakistan is a real issue. Asia Bibi’s story shows how terrible the situation is in Pakistan for people who do not follow the state religion of Islam.
Asia Bibi Background
Asia Bibi was a Pakistani Christian who lived in the village of Ittanwala, some 40 miles south-east of Lahore. The village was surrounded by green fields and fruit orchards. Asia lived peacefully with her husband and five children and worked as a farm laborer like many of the women of her village in fields.
How Asia Bibi was falsely booked under Blasphemy Law
It was the month of June 2009, Asia was working with women for picking berries in fields. After working for hours under the scorching sun, all women were thirsty and exhausted and stopped for a break. Her coworkers asked Asia to fetch some water from the nearby well.
After fetching water from well, Asia on her way back took a sip of the water from the bowl before handing it over to her Muslim co-workers. This sipping of water made her coworker women mad and they got very furious with Asia. In Pakistan, many conservative Muslims don’t like to eat or drink with people of other faiths as they believe that non-Muslims are impure and are lower class humans.
Asia’s co-workers throw racist remarks on her, declaring her as “dirty filthy women” and as a result, an argument got erupted and fierce words were exchanged on both sides.
After five days of women’s fight over water, Asia was taken by surprise when the police barged their way into her house. She was accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Asia was cold-blooded after she felt that the conditions are worst. There was a big mob outside her house chanting slogans “Death to Asia” and the mob was led by the village cleric who had accused her of blasphemy. The mob dragged Asia outside and tried to kill her right in front of the police. But, she was arrested and charged with blasphemy
Asia was put under trial but she maintained her innocence throughout the trial. But in 2010 Pakistan‘s lower court as per Blasphemy Law sentenced Asia to death. In Pakistan, the punishment for blasphemy against Islam and its prophet is either life imprisonment or death.
But as in most cases, the allegation is misused as a way to settle personal scores. Asia was also booked under the same false pretext. As in most cases, if someone has been accused of blasphemy in Pakistan before the accused has even gone to trial, the accused and his families come under attack from local community and Asia’s family is not an exception.
Asia has to spend nine years of her life in solitary confinement away from her 5 children and husband.
Asia’s Family Turmoil and Nightmare during her imprisonment
Asia’s husband Ashiq and her 5 children had been on the run ever since Asia’s arrest under false blasphemy case.
Asia Husband Ashiq with somber face and maintaining his composure has told in an interview to BBC “If a loved one is dead, the heart heals after some time. But when a mother is alive, and she gets separated from her children, the way Asia was taken away from us, the agony is endless,” He further stated “Despite the years of insecurity and uncertainty I have gone through, And although I have lost my freedom, my livelihood and my home, but I am not ready to give up hope. I will keep struggling for Asia’s release.”
Asia’s older daughter weeping abruptly in an interview to BBC mentioned “We are living in constant fear, there is always a feeling of anxiety and insecurity, that anything could happen to us. We haven’t seen our mother in years. We just go to school, are not allowed to play outside, we have lost our freedom….”
Asia Acquittal and Post-Acquittal Riots
Asia was finally acquitted from Blasphemy charges on 31st October 2018, nine years after her arrest by the Supreme Court despite the pressure of thousands of hardliner Muslims due to lack of evidence.
Islamic extremists have pledged to pursue the Christian woman and kill her for the act of blasphemy of which she was accused and later acquitted. Bibi may spend the rest of her days looking over her shoulder in fear of an international assassin. (source: The Guardian)
Within hours of Asia’s verdict, outraged by the landmark ruling, millions of hardliner jihadis took to the streets demanding one thing – “Death to Asia Bibi”.
Hardliner Muslims attempted to force the whole nation and government into submission for three consecutive days. All cities and towns main roads were blocked, cars and buses were set alight, toll booths ransacked and police officers attacked. The administration was forced to close many offices, businesses, and even schools particularly in the eastern province of Punjab, as commuting became impossible.
Pakistan people watched everything in horror while the newly-elected Imran Khan Administration seemed barely visible. And after three days of escalating chaos, the government finally capitulated as there were lots of minorities’ bloodshed on road.
Political Party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) and his hardliner leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi took to social media advocating civil disorder and violence. He openly called for the judges who acquitted Asia to be killed, and encouraged mutiny within the army, declaring chief of the army was an apostate and he had renounced Islam.
Rizvi put his Jihadi thoughts in the tweets he did after Asia release
“If Asia is found not guilty despite her confession in court and before the trial court, and acquitted after 9 years it can be a big question mark on the decision. It means that there is something rotten in judicial procedure or there is some third umpire making a decision”. He further accused the West of encouraging blasphemy against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. He also tweeted “People deliberately committed blasphemy so they could get money and be granted asylum by Western countries”.
Asia Asylum in Canada
Canadian Government gave asylum to Asia after her release and she finally landed on May 8th 2019 in Canada where she reunited with her family and finally Justice has been dispensed,
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws carry a potential death sentence for anyone who insults Islam. This is mainly used as a tool to persecute minority faiths and unfairly target minorities.
Origin of Blasphemy Laws
This Law was first collated by India’s British rulers in 1860. The purpose was to contain religious strife between Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs across British-ruled India. It protected places of worship and sacred objects and made it a crime to disturb religious assemblies, to trespass on burial sites, and to deliberately insult religious beliefs of any person, punishable by up to ten years in prison. Source (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/Asia_Bibi)
The law was further expanded in 1927, time when British India was under a time of political tension and antagonism between different communities, hence the law was tightened.
Meaning of Blasphemy Law under British Rule
British law was enacted in 1860, and dictates it a crime
- To disturb a religious assembly,
- Trespass on burial grounds,
- Insult religious beliefs
- Intentionally destroy or defile a place or an object of worship.
The maximum punishment under these laws ranges from one year to 10 years in jail, with or without a fine.
Pakistan Blasphemy Laws inheritance
After Partition of Undivided India on August 14th, 1947, Pakistan came into existence. Pakistan inherited these laws but under the military government of General Zia-ul Haq, between 1980 and 1986, several clauses were added to the laws. His main agenda was first to “Islamicise” these Laws and second to separate the Ahmadi community legally. Although Ahmadis have already been declared non-Muslim in 1973, from the main body of Pakistan’s overwhelmingly Muslim population.
Under General Zia-ul Haq dictator military rule, during the 1980s new blasphemy laws were created, expanded and enacted in several installments.
In 1980, making derogatory remarks against Islamic personages was made an offense, carrying a maximum punishment of three years in jail.
In 1982, Dictator added another clause prescribed life imprisonment for the “willful” desecration of the Koran, the Muslim holy book.
Finally, General Zia-ul Haq introduced the clause “295-C” which dictates “The use of derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad a crime punishable by death, or life imprisonment”. And there was only one politician in Pakistani Parliament who opposed it. His name was Muhammad Hamza.
In 2009, the same year Asia Bibi was arrested, Politician Hamza who lives in his old constituency, the Punjabi city of Gojra, made international headlines after a series of attacks targeted the city’s biggest Christian settlement.
Pakistan Blasphemy Law, Description and Penalty
||Uttering of any word or making any sound or making any gesture or placing of any object in the sight with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person.
||1 year’s imprisonment, or fine, or both
||Use of derogatory remarks etc., in respect of holy personages. 1980
||3 years imprisonment, or fine, or both
||(Ahmadi blasphemy law) Misuse of epithets, descriptions and titles etc., reserved for certain holy personages or places, by Ahmadis. 26 April 1984
||3 years imprisonment and fine
||(Ahmadi blasphemy law) Aka Ordinance: f a Muslim, or preaching or propagating his faith, or “in any manner whatsoever” outraging the religious feelings of Muslims, or posing himself as a Muslim. 26 April 1984
||3 years imprisonment and fine
||Injuring or defiling places of worship, with intent to insult the religion of any class
||Up to 2 years imprisonment or fine, or both
||Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs. 1927
||Up to 10 years imprisonment, or fine, or both
||Defiling, etc., of Quran. 1982
||Imprisonment for life
||Use of derogatory remarks, spoken, written, directly or indirectly, etc. defiles the name of Muhammad or other Prophet(s) 1986
||Mandatory Death and fine (Feb. 1990)
Trial must take place in a Court of Session with a Muslim judge presiding.
Victims of Pakistan Blasphemy Law
Christians Shama (L) and Shehzad (R) were accused of desecrating the Koran and killed by a mob
For decades, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), the voluntary organization has been documenting blasphemy cases in Pakistan. The Commissions states that the majority who are booked under Blasphemy laws are Muslims, very closely followed by the Ahmadi community.
However, another organization called the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) shows different data. Its report says that a total of 1540 have been booked under this law.
Data provided by National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) shows a total of 776 Muslims, 505 Ahmadis, and 229 Christians and 30 Hindus have been accused under various clauses of the blasphemy law from 1987 until 2018. (Source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-48204815)
The vast majority of these cases were lodged for the desecration of the Koran and fewer for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad.
But facts are that Pakistan minorities figure so prominently in the blasphemy cases which clearly shows how the laws are unfairly applied. Additionally, the laws are used often to settle personal scores and have little or nothing to do with religion.
Those who are mere accusation of blasphemy is enough to make someone a soft target for Jihadi hardliners, as is defending those accused of blasphemy or even for those who are calling for the laws to be reformed.
Pakistanis People prospective of its country Blasphemy Laws
It is believed that the vast majority of Pakistani people support Blasphemy laws and also the fact that blasphemers should be punished, but very little has an understanding of what the religious scripture says as opposed to how the dictator codified this law.
Conversely, many in Pakistan, where literacy rate is just 58% from the previous 60% (Source: https://nation.com.pk/24-Feb-2019/alarming-literacy-rate ) and 40% of the population lives below Poverty line from 31.3% in June 2018, as per Pasha in an article that first appeared in Business Recorder (Source: https://tribune.com.pk/story/2115274/2-millions-fall-poverty-line/ ) believed the law, as codified by the military regime of General Zia-ul Haq back in the 1980s, is straight out of the Koran and therefore is not man-made.
Pakistan Prominent Leader who raised voice against Blasphemy Laws
In 2011 when Salman Taseer Punjab Governor, a prominent critic of the blasphemy law, was assassinated by his bodyguard in 2011, Pakistan’s population was divided and Jihadi hardliners hailing governor killer as a hero.
Salman Taseer, the Punjab governor who tried to reform the laws, was assassinated in 2011
On March 2nd, 2011, another Pakistani Leader Shabazz Bhatti Religious Minorities Minister, a Christian, was also shot dead in Islamabad just after a month Taseer was killed because he also spoke out against the laws.
When Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard who killed Punjab Governor Taseer, was executed in 2016, he was treated as Hero and thousands of Hardliner Jihadi turned out for the funeral.
Hurdles in amendment of Pakistani Blasphemy laws
Although many popular Pakistan secular parties Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Pakistan Muslim League (PML) always have blasphemy laws amendment on their agenda but none progress has been made principally because of sensitivities over the issue, and no major party wants to antagonize the Hardliner Jihadi parties.
Sherry Rehman a member of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), introduced a private bill to amend the blasphemy law in 2010. Her bill sought to change procedures of religious offenses so that they would be reported to a higher police official and then the cases heard directly by the higher courts. Although this changed bill was passed on to the parliamentary committee for vetting but was finally withdrawn in February 2011 under pressure from religious forces as well as some opposition from other political groups.
The current Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan had also vowed to defend the country’s strict blasphemy laws in the run-up of the 2018 general election which he finally won in October 2018.
Pakistan’s top advisory body on religious affairs Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), headed by Qibla Ayaz, in an interview in February 2019, stated that no government will ever be ready to make changes to the blasphemy law due to fears of a backlash even though they have it on their Election Manifesto. And, the status quo is still in place till date.
He further mentioned that he had advised Pakistan’s Ministry of Law and Justice to suggest penalties for misuse of this law. And the law department has yet to make any recommendations in public.