On June 14, 2009, Asia Bibi, a poor Christian woman, was picking fruit in the field of Itan Wali village in Pakistan, about 30 miles from the city of Lahore. On the landowner’s order, Bibi fetched drinking water for her co-workers, but three Muslim women among them accused her of contaminating the water by touching the bowl. An argument followed.
Later, the Muslim women accused Bibi of making blasphemous statements against the Prophet Muhammad — a charge punishable by death under Pakistani law. Despite little evidence, Bibi spent nine years in prison — eight in solitary confinement on death row — till she was finally acquitted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in late October.
Pakistan’s religious right has violently protested her acquittal and Bibi is being held in an undisclosed location to keep her safe. The initial accusation against her was not about religion but caste. Her handling of a drinking vessel was seen to pollute the water inside because she belonged to an “untouchable” Hindu caste that had converted to Christianity.
When this offense turned into the charge of blasphemy, the shift signaled the simultaneous disavowal and internalization of caste discrimination by Muslims who otherwise attribute the practice to Hindus in India. Caste discrimination in Pakistan often involves its non-Muslim population and its Hindu past, and allows Muslims to minimize their own caste differences by projecting discrimination outward.
When Pakistan was created after the partition of colonial India, upper-caste Hindus and Sikhs fled or were forced to leave for India, leaving their poorer and less mobile lower-caste coreligionists behind.
In the southern province of Sindh, some upper-caste landowners stayed, while low-caste Hindus took the religion, its temples and practices into their hands in a startling departure from Hindu tradition that has no Indian counterpart. In Punjab Province, former “untouchables” accelerated their conversion to Christianity, taking given names common among their Muslim neighbors while replacing the caste surnames with appellations like “Masih,” the Urdu word for Jesus in his role as Messiah.
Discrimination and ethnic cleansing reduced the population of non-Muslims in Pakistan from about 30 percent at its creation in 1947 to less than 5 percent now. Yet the nearly absolute majority of Muslims in the country has not reduced religious conflict, but rather displaced, increased and internalized it among Muslims.
It is now Muslims, especially in Punjab, who maintain a caste hierarchy. And since Islamic beliefs don’t include a caste system, the discrimination cannot be defined in terms of caste and is labeled religious. This shift was illustrated by turning Bibi’s quarrel over sharing water into blasphemy.
Perhaps Asia Bibi mentioned to her three accusers how the Muslim prophet and religion did not permit such discrimination. But in Pakistan, neither the Christians, who are understood to have been low-caste Hindus, nor the Muslims, who have adopted the role of their high-caste coreligionists, can refer to the vanished past that mediates their relations.
The increasing refusal of Muslims to share water or food with Christians suggests an inability to come to terms with a past that defies the religious identifications meant to structure all of Pakistan’s social relations.
The debate about blasphemy is also tied to cultural issues assuming unprecedented importance with the emergence of a technologically mediated global arena after the Cold War. But such protests and violence over depictions of Islam’s prophet began during the middle of the 19th century in colonial India, where they had to do with urban politics and competition in newly capitalist societies.
These controversies are about struggles over representation in a public space. What defines Muslim outrage is never the traumatic encounter of the believers with the images of the prophet or his representation, but merely the rumor of circulation of his images and his representation beyond their control.
When controversies over insults to the Prophet Muhammad first arose in colonial India, the cases arising from them were dealt with under the Indian Penal Code written by the British politician Thomas Babington Macaulay, who criminalized the injury of religious and other sentiments in secular rather than theological terms by treating it the same way as defamation, libel and other such offenses.
In post-colonial India and Pakistan, religious offense among Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians continues to deploy the secular language of hurt sentiments rather than the theological category of blasphemy. In Pakistan, Lord Macaulay’s equal-opportunity conception of injury was done away with, and insulting the Prophet Muhammad was made into a specific crime above all others.
In the early years of Pakistan, a group called the Ahmadis, who are accused of not accepting Muhammad as the last prophet, were the first to be charged with blasphemy. But the charge of blasphemy was soon being leveled by even the most acceptable of Muslims against one another, often for petty and personal reasons. Such accusations are ways of legitimizing the individual motives of those who make them, whether these are concerned with quarrels over money, property or marriage.
But the accusations of blasphemy are also related to anxieties about the Muslim prophet’s vulnerability to insult, which have emerged from profound shifts in the life of Muslim societies.
These include efforts by Muslims to create a “modern” Islam by ridding it of “superstitions” like attributing superhuman powers to the prophet. But by becoming more human, Muhammad has also become more vulnerable to insult, and as a result requires the protection of his followers in an ironically secular way.
In contrast to these global concerns, Ms. Bibi’s case is resolutely local and has led to no Muslim agitation outside Pakistan. This is because it emerges from the Muslim disavowal of caste and refusal to acknowledge Pakistan’s ethnic cleansing of the Hindus who are seen to represent it. Just as Muslims take on the character of their vanished Hindu enemies by persecuting low-caste Christians if only in the name of religion, so do Hindu militants in India lynch Muslims by acting the part of medieval invaders who happened to be their coreligionists.
Familiar across the subcontinent, such playacting involves practices such as caste restrictions, forcible conversion and other, more grotesque forms of bodily violence in which a community takes on the role it attributes to its enemies.
Implying a relationship of perverse intimacy with one’s foes, this impersonation also distances perpetrators from their own brutality by turning it into a piece of theater. In all cases it involves the impossible and infinite desire for vengeance against an enemy who has vanished in time, like India’s Muslim invaders of a thousand years ago, or in space, like the Hindus and Sikhs who left Pakistan.
In Pakistan, both the discrimination of caste and the history of religious difference are officially proscribed and forgotten. But for this very reason they continue to haunt the present in disavowed ways that include the charge of blasphemy against Ms. Bibi. In this sense, the passionate defense of their prophet represents a kind of traumatic memory, one that only allows Muslims to obscure a reality that remains unrecognized and therefore unresolved.
Faisal Devji is a professor of Indian history at the University of Oxford.