In June 2009 in Punjab, Pakistan, Asia Bibi, a mother of five and a farmhand, was asked to fetch water. She complied, but some of her Muslim co-workers refused to drink the water, as Bibi is a Christian and considered “unclean” by them. Arguments ensued, resulting in some co-workers complaining to a local cleric’s wife that Bibi had made derogatory comments about the prophet Muhammad. A mob reportedly stormed her house, assaulting Bibi and her family.
However, the police initiated an investigation of Bibi, not her attackers. She was arrested and prosecuted for blasphemy, under Section 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code. She spent more than a year in jail. On Nov. 8, she was sentenced to death by hanging; she has since filed an appeal.
There is a need for broad legal and social reforms in Pakistan, and it can start with the repeal of this law. But the assassination Monday of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, by one of his official security guards shows how difficult that will be. The alleged assailant reportedly gave a statement after his arrest expressing no remorse as he was ostensibly “protecting Allah’s religion.” Taseer was perhaps Pakistan’s most brave, vocal and liberal statesman. He had met with Bibi in prison and subsequently lent his support to the campaign calling for the repeal of the blasphemy law.
Section 295C was introduced into the Pakistani legal system in the 1980s by the military dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq as part of his broader effort to Islamize laws in Pakistan. It stipulates that “derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet … either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly … shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”
Bibi is far from the first person from a minority community in Pakistan to be sentenced to death for blasphemy. Although no person has yet been executed under the blasphemy law, at least 32 people have been killed while awaiting trial or after they have been acquitted of blasphemy charges. In 2009, 40 houses and a church were set ablaze by a mob of 1,000 Muslims in the town of Gojra, Punjab. At least seven Christians were burned alive. The attacks were triggered by reports of desecration of the Koran. The local police had already registered a case under Section 295C against three Christians for blasphemy. Hence a conviction or even an accusation under this law is often a death sentence.
The blasphemy provisions were an important component of a social engineering campaign devised and implemented by Zia during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The ostensible objective was to Islamize the Pakistani state. But the goal was also to tailor the social and legal system of the country to aid the mujahedin (loosely, the contemporary Pakistani Taliban) by making them appear to be indigenous freedom fighters.
The infamous discriminatory Hudood Ordinance, supposedly based on the Koran, was put into effect. It sought to charge women who were raped with adultery if they could not bring forth four pious male Muslims who were witnesses to the rape. Zia also undemocratically amended the constitution to implement Sharia, or Islamic law. The school curriculum was modified to make it more Islamic. Female television anchors were ordered to cover their heads on the air; heavy censorship was exercised on the print and electronic media to safeguard the glory of Islam.
But it is not only Pakistan that has been adversely affected.
Zia’s Islamization efforts played a significant role in today’s global war on terrorism because of his social engineering, aimed to deliberately introduce ethno-centrism and intolerance into the moral fabric of Pakistani society. This, in turn, aided in the rise of the Taliban in the region, particularly the Pakistani Taliban.
It is almost an accepted fact now that the war on terrorism, both globally and in Pakistan, cannot be won by military might alone. Stopping Al Qaeda is still important, but the Taliban has become the top priority. We must isolate the Taliban, and not only geographically. It must also be stripped of all moral authority and public sympathy. That is hard to achieve with provisions like the blasphemy law in place. Institutionalized biases influence human behavior.
Legal and social reforms in Pakistan are imperative not only to save many like Asia Bibi but to provide a long-term, sustainable solution to the growing threat of extremism inside and outside Pakistan.
Pakistan and its democracy are in a state of ethical and political uncertainty, and the coalition government is too fragile to address the crisis without internal and external help. A tolerant and secular Pakistan is crucial for eradication of global Islamic fundamentalism. And the international community is well placed to demand change, given Pakistan’s extraordinary reliance on foreign support.
Bibi needs to be saved, and the laws perpetuating these barbaric practices need to be repealed.
By Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer and human rights activist based in Lahore, Pakistan.