By Adil Bhat
In an inevitable corollary of democracy, the Supreme Court of Pakistan on October 31, 2018, pronounced a historic judgement, acquitting 53-year-old Asia Bibi, a Christian woman and an illiterate farm labourer, who was sentenced to death on charges of blasphemy in 2010. Bibi was falsely accused of insulting Prophet Muhammad after a brawl over sharing water from the pitcher of her fellow Muslim workers on the field. For eight long years, Asia Bibi languished in solitary confinement in Rawalpindi’s Adiala jail. While the time lost in jail cannot be retrieved, the victory for her is certainly noteworthy.
Under the Pakistan Penal Code, an act of blasphemy is punishable by death or life imprisonment. Tracing it back to the colonial period, Pakistan’s blasphemy law has its roots in the British declaration of 1860 that criminalised disturbing of religious gathering, insulting religious beliefs and defiling of a place or an object of worship.
Largely, a colonial construct, the blasphemy law was further entrenched and legitimised with the growing influence of Islam in the polity and society of the country in late twentieth century. In 1980 during the military dictatorship of General Muhammad Zia ul Haq and under Pakistan’s Penal Code Section 295, making derogatory remarks against any Islamic figure was defined as a crime, punishable by three years in prison. This was later changed to life imprisonment with an additional clause “willful desecration of the Quran” in 1982. Four years later, in 1986, the punishment for blasphemy against Prophet Mohammed was added in a separate clause that called for “death or life imprisonment” to the blasphemer.
As blasphemy law evolved in the country – from colonisation to Islamisation – Pakistan continued to advance with the colonial structures of knowledge with the elites of a newly independent country mimicking their colonizers. Such measures and actions by the leadership entrenched the political sociology of fear. While the process of decolonisation was completed with the creation of Pakistan, the struggle for decoloniality – detaching and abandoning colonial practices – still continues.
A contemporary history of blasphemy shows that people from minority communities have been accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad, tearing pages of the holy Quran or wall chalking on the facade of the mosques. Asia Bibi is one of the many victims of blasphemy law. The law has been misused – sometimes for settling personal vendettas – to threaten the beleaguered minority communities, like the Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis and Shias among others. According to the Centre for Social Justice, a total of 1,472 people have been charged under the law between 1987 and 2016. Of these, 730 were Muslims, 501 were Ahmadis, 205 were Christians and 26 were Hindus.
The violence unleashed on religious and sectarian minorities has also spilled over to target progressive liberal voices within the country. Notably, way back in 2011, the former Governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was murdered by his elite bodyguard, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, for espousing views against the controversial blasphemy law and in support of Asia Bibi, whose mercy plea was then lying with the President. The bodyguard who killed Taseer was incensed by his dismissive remarks against the punitive law. Following this attack, which was carried out in broad daylight, a group of frenzied mob of Islamic clerics hailed Qadri’s murderous conspiracy and warned the people from expressing any sympathy for the slain governor. Taseer’s killing was unprecedented as it was for the first time that an appointed Head of the State was targeted for denouncing the blasphemy law. This led to a spiralling of violence and intimidation of state authorities and public figures by the radical elements. Shahbaz Bhatti, the Federal Minister for Minority Affairs, was the second high-profile victim as he publicly supported Bibi. The issue of Asia Bibi turned into a festering wound in the polity of the nation.
Today, a similar wave has swept the country. While Bibi remains to be released from jail till the prison authorities receive the court order, the streets across Pakistan have erupted in protests from the large religious constituency of the country. At one hand, this watershed moment in Pakistan’s judiciary is being hailed by the liberal voices across the world; on the other hand, the faultlines within the Pakistani society have resurfaced once again. Significantly following the verdict on Bibi, thousands of religious zealots took to the streets in the national capital, Islamabad, protesting the Supreme Court order, calling for an indefinite sit-in until their demands – of revoking the order – are met.
Following the zealotry uproar, Asia Bibi’s lawyer, Saiful Mulook, fled the country while Bibi continues to be in prison owing to security concerns.
As the streets overwhelmed with fanatical voices, Prime Minister Imran Khan took a tough stand telling the hardliners to not to “confront the State” and refrain from engaging in acts of vandalism. Khan’s sturdy remarks against the religious bigots can be seen from two diverging perspectives – firstly, as part of his vision of “Naya Pakistan” that ought to be inclusive and progressive and, secondly, as an attempt to placate the international community and rework on his image following the Atif Mian fiasco.
Mian was selected by Khan himself as the member of Economic Advisory Council. However, he was arbitrarily removed by the Prime Minister succumbing to the pressure of religious groups that opposed Mian’s appointment to the council because he was an Ahmadi – an ostracised Islamic community. Given this track record, the fears of Khan falling under the Islamist trap in Asia Bibi’s case are not unfounded.
The diverging reactions – rejoice and resentment – over Asia Bibi’s acquittal by different sections of the society, bring to the spotlight on the widening divisions within the Pakistani society. As Pakistan grapples with the divisions within, it remains to be seen if the process of decoloniality comes through.
The battle in this case is for decoloniality and the detachment and legitimisation of such colonial practices from Islamic traditions.
A thorough perusal of Islamic canonical texts and traditions reveals that there exist profound uncertainties and ambiguities over concepts like blasphemy and Islamic State. With no clear foregrounding in the sacred Islamic texts, the creation of this draconian law in the name of Islam is subject to further scrutiny as it has no Islamic justification and is rather used for scapegoating dissenters and minorities like Bibi.
While the acquittal of Asia Bibi is a reason to rejoice, the bigger victory lies in the reconstitution of oppressive colonial structures and the eventual repealing of the blasphemy law. Clearly, a colonial inheritance, blasphemy in Pakistan is equally Islamised. Asia Bibi’s case is a window to the clash within – between the liberals and the zealots.
Adil Bhat is Assistant Editor at Cafe Dissensus. Twitter: @Adiljourno
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