Sentenced to death: On Pakistan’s minorities

November 20, 2010

aasia bibiEarlier this year I asked someone who had been a senior minister in the government of Pakistan why the country could not change laws which discriminated against minorities. I asked the question because more than 80 people from the minority Ahmadi sect had just been killed in two mosques in Lahore, which at the time served as a wake-up call of the dangers of growing religious intolerance in Pakistan.

His answer was unhesitating. You could not possibly do something like that in Pakistan.

Such is the power of the religious lobbies that no government dares challenge them. Each ”wake-up” call is soon forgotten until another injustice against religious minorities punches its way to the surface.

The latest was the sentencing to death for blasphemy of a Pakistani Christian woman.  According to press reports Aasia Bibi had been working in the fields in Punjab province when she was sent to fetch water. When she returned, some Muslim women refused to drink it, saying it was unclean because it had been carried by a Christian.  As the argument escalated, police became involved and Aasia Bibi was charged with blasphemy for allegedly insulting Islam. After a year in jail, she was convicted and sentenced to become the first woman to be hanged for blasphemy in Pakistan.

Aasia Bibi’s sentence has garnered unusual international attention, with human rights groups like Amnesty International calling for her release and the Pope using his weekly public audience to plead for her life. President Asif Ali Zardari has now stepped in, asking his government to look urgently into the case. Her plight has also prompted a fresh round of calls for a change in the law.

Yet whatever happens in her particular case, it is hard to escape the idea that once the noise dies down, everything will go back to the way it was before.

The blog Changing Up Pakistan complained that Aasia Bibi’s case was not noticed until she was sentenced to death rather than when she was first accused.

“I am not sure what’s worse – that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws [sections 295 and 298 of the Penal Code] are still in effect and arbitrarily used to persecute the country’s minorities, or that Aasia Bibi’s case is only really garnering headlines now, not a year ago, when this case first transpired.”

Human Rights Watch analyst Ali Dayan Hasan argued that the problem with Aasia Bibi’s story was not that it was unusual, but that it was commonplace.

“Aasia Bibi’s case is so unremarkable, so commonplace, so routine in its casually callous violation of basic rights that it did not even register in the public consciousness. And, of course, it is no secret that the belief that Christians, and non-Muslims in general, are ‘unclean’, though not propagated by any known school of Islamic thought, has widespread currency, particularly in Punjab. In all likelihood, the police felt the mob was justified. There is a thin line between faith-based lack of hygiene and blasphemy goes this logic. And it is crossed if you refuse to view your faith as filth,” he wrote in Dawn newspaper.

“But Pakistan’s lower-level judiciary managed through a shockingly bigoted judgment passed on Nov 7 to bring Aasia Bibi’s case to centre stage. In sentencing Aasia Bibi to death under Section 295 C, Judge Naveed Iqbal of the Sheikhupura district and sessions court “totally ruled out” any chance that Aasia was falsely implicated and said there were “no mitigating circumstances”. Apparently, the court thought that it is absolutely fine to argue that Christians are simply unclean and if they respond by accusing the allegers of bigotry, they are guilty of blasphemy.”

There is a long history to this.  Among the litany of recent examples, eight Christians were killed in the town of Gojra in Punjab last year following unsubstantiated allegations that a Christian had desecrated the Koran.  In a barely noticed incident this month, Pakistani police forced an Ahmadi family to exhume the body of a relative because it was buried in a Muslim graveyard.

Sectarian bombings have extended to Shiites and even to the majority community who attend Sufi shrines in Pakistan.

When the Ahmadis were gunned down in their mosques in Lahore, some commenters on this blog compared it to the Kristallnacht, when Jews were targeted in Nazi Germany in 1938.  Others quoted the lines of German Pastor Martin Niemoeller, usually remembered as  “First they came”, about a mindset in 1930s Germany where the majority looked the other way while the Nazis targetted communists, Jews, trade unionists and other pereceived enemies. “Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

It might have been a watershed. It was not.

With the sentencing of Aasia Bibi, the anguish about the treatment of minorities, so alien to the spirit of Pakistan founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah, has begun again.

Yet that former minister I spoke to earlier this year was probably right.  The government will not, and dares not, repeal the laws which leave Pakistan’s minorities vulnerable.  That can’t happen until the overall environment changes in a way which makes religious tolerance possible. And nobody quite knows how to change that environment in a country which already faces so many problems.

(Reuters photo: Aasia Bibi’s daugthers hold up a photo of their mother/Adrees Latif)

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