Blasphemy is serious business in Pakistan. Even the perception of it can prove fatal, as Punjab governor Salman Taseer found to his cost in January 2011. He opposed the death sentence passed on Asia Bibi, a poor Christian woman, for allegedly offending the blasphemy laws. He swore to work for a change of law and for his ‘blasphemous’ behaviour was shot dead by his own bodyguard who is now a hero for Islam in Pakistan.
The latest case, of Rimsha Masih, 14, is even more curious. She is Christian and more importantly she is a minor, so it is not clear how the Pakistan Penal Code can apply to her case. Yet she was arrested last month, charged with a capital crime, refused bail, sent to jail and a board was set up to inquire into her mental health. It was only because some human rights activists made Rimsha’s case a cause celebre that her story drew more attention.
It was later discovered that her accusers, who include one Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti (also known as Maulana Jadoon), had planted the evidence that led to her jailing. She was released on bail on September 7 and flown to an undisclosed location. Her family is in hiding and Pakistan’s minorities have an additional cause for fear. That is an indication of the environment in which non-Muslims in Pakistan live.
There are those who would say that the justice system works, but others might argue that it is a perversion of justice to subject a child to this kind of trauma. But the real point is, how did it happen, how did it come to this?
Although Pakistan was born because its founders felt that Muslims would not get a fair deal in Independent India, their idea of the new country was a mirror version of the vision of India. They saw it as a land that had a Muslim majority but was perfectly content to let other faiths flourish. Of course, there were the Islamic enthusiasts but they were a tiny minority then.
The founders were not mistaken because at the time Islam in Punjab and Sind, the two biggest provinces, was syncretistic and easy-going, Sufi more than Salafist. Mullahs were as much the butt of jokes as pundits in parts of India. But the vivisection did eventually have its effect as India became the enemy. It was all that Pakistan could not be.
The idea of the Islamic republic made its way into the public consciousness and the large tolerance of the average Punjabi gave way to a creeping intolerance. And then came General Zia-ul-Haq with his vision of Nizam-e-Mustafa, or the rule of righteousness.
As a usurper, having overthrown the elected prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1978, he may have felt the need to create a power base of his own and an insistence on purist Islam was one way of doing that. Religion is one of the most useful tools for political consolidation, as so many politicians are discovering anew. Whatever the motives, Zia’s rule saw a hardening of the lines on faith, especially as it coincided with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which turned into a jihad, sponsored by an unlikely combination of American and Saudi Arabian interests. From this point on, Islam became another tool in the jockeying for power under or after Zia’s regime.
Offences relating to religion were first codified in the Indian Penal Code (1860) in undivided India and amended in 1927. These provisions were general in nature, not specifically intended to protect any particular faith.
That was the position at Partition and there it remained for the next two decades and more. The real changes came in 1980-86, when Zia’s regime added a number of clauses to the laws in a systematic attempt at “Islamisation” and also legally to separate the Ahmadi community, declared non-Muslim in 1973, from the main body of Muslims.
In the 25 years since the passing of these laws, the pressure on Pakistanis to embrace purist versions of the faith has been relentless.
It’s been encouraged by successive military-backed regimes keen to carve out a space for themselves and to go one up on organisations such as the Pakistan People’s Party and the Mohajir Qaumi Movement. More than anything else, however, it was the war in Afghanistan that set the purist and the moderate on a collision course. The almost unlimited supplies of money and weapons to the resistance gave the fundamentalists an unbeatable advantage over the moderates. They used it to dramatic effect.
In everyday Pakistan it meant a competitive fanning of religious paranoia that resulted in a toxic zealotry that forbids any discussion of the effects of these laws. Today, a majority of Pakistanis agree with the laws on blasphemy, so the dissenters are reluctant to attract the Islamists’ wrath.
Defiance has fatal results, as the examples of ex-governor Salman Taseer and Roman Catholic ex-federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti (March 2, 2011) show. Rimsha may be free now but it is only a matter of time before the zealots find another blasphemer and the entire sequence of events is repeated.