Blasphemy laws, death threats – and a Pakistani woman’s ruined life
(COMMENTARY) First the good news: After eight years on death row, Pakistan’s Supreme Court has acquitted Asia Bibi, an illiterate Christian farm worker accused of blasphemy against Islam’s Prophet.
Then the bad news: Following Asia Bibi’s acquittal, raging hordes of protesters continue to swarm Pakistan’s streets and boulevards, demanding her public hanging. As they set aflame poster-sized photos of their primary target, they also threaten the lives of her lawyer, who has fled the country, along with the three judges – Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar and Justices Asif Saeed Khosa and Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhe – who proclaimed her innocence.
Worst of all, this beleaguered mother, who has spent much of the last decade in solitary confinement, still remains confined – but now for her own protection. While declared not guilty of her “crime” in the eyes of Pakistan’s highest court, she remains a guilty blasphemer in the eyes of wild-eyed lynch mobs.
Even more to her disadvantage, she’s a woman, therefore possessing considerably fewer legal rights than a man under Islamic law. So Asia Bibi remains in grave danger. She has no choice but to flee Pakistan.
But where will she find safety? Due to its huge Pakistani immigrant population – some of which is notably radicalized – Britain has already denied her request for asylum.
Other possible countries of refuge will have to weigh their humanitarian impulses against the very real threat of local Islamists shattering the peace while seeking Asia Bibi’s blood. Indeed, it is unlikely that any country in Europe can fully guarantee her security. At the core of this outrageous injustice lies the Pakistani constitution, which since the 1980s has specified the death sentence as punishment for blasphemy. In fact, so far-reaching and merciless is the law that even repeating the accused’s words of blasphemy can expose speakers or writers to deadly allegations of their own.
Beyond question, the case of Asia Bibi has proved that Pakistan’s government is intimidated by its own draconian legislation. At least two high-level Pakistani officials who tried to defend Bibi publicly have been murdered in cold blood.
Associated Press reported, “Asia Bibi’s case drew global criticism in 2011 when Pakistan’s minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti and eastern Punjab governor Salman Taseer were killed for supporting her and opposing blasphemy laws. Taseer was killed in the capital Islamabad by one of his police guards after visiting Bibi in jail. Bhatti was killed months later by the Pakistani Taliban, who called him an ‘infidel Christian.’”
Jews and Christians as well as Muslim reformers have spoken out, sought solutions and prayed for Asia Bibi, and in his very first tweet of 2018, US President Donald Trump declared precisely what many Pakistan-watchers have been saying for years.
“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years,” Trump tweeted, “and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” On September 2, it was reported that the US Defense Department has suspended $300 million in funding to Islamabad over what it calls “the government’s failure to take action against terrorists. The suspension is part of a broader pullback in military aid for Pakistan announced by the Trump administration in January.”
Meanwhile, beyond the borders of Pakistan, the case of Asia Bibi raises significant questions in other lands and in various contexts about speech offenses against Islam, the Koran or the Prophet. In the guise of preventing “hate speech,” special consideration and protection are increasingly provided for Islamic beliefs and believers. Various governments’ fear of mobs, legal accusations, violence and bloodshed continue to erode free speech – not only in Islamic countries, but also in Europe and beyond.
I asked my colleague Nina Shea, Director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington DC, what lessons can be gleaned about religious freedom and free speech from Asia Bibi’s ruined life.
“Each new blasphemy case in Pakistan seems to fan the flames of Islamist fanaticism. Religious sensitivities are heightened, violence is intensified and demands are increased for government intervention to protect Islam from subjective feelings of religious insult. The rule of law and justice itself are sacrificed. “The fact that the Asia Bibi saga caused the shutdown of transportation and communications across the world’s largest Muslim country for half a week should be a wakeup call. We need to recognize that upholding Islamist demands against blasphemy can disrupt every aspect of society while endangering security.
“And lest we forget, these demands now being made to the non-Muslim world were first introduced by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie’s novel Satanic Verses in 1989.”
(Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in the Jerusalem Post)