The case of Aasia Noreen aka Aasia Bibi illustrates how far Pakistan has to go to secure freedoms for its religious minorities.
Christians and Hindus are not the only minorities who are persecuted for their beliefs but it is also Muslim minorities such as the Ismailis, Ahmadis, and Shiites who are routinely harassed, discriminated and also killed. Sadly, it is the case of Aasia Bibi that has brought some much needed attention to Pakistan’s sad state of affairs towards the treatment of its religious minorities.
Several sections of Pakistan’s Criminal Code consist of its blasphemy laws and of all the Muslim countries of the world that have anti-blasphemy laws, Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws are by far the strictest. There is section 295 that forbids damaging or defiling a place of worship or a sacred object. Then there is section 295-A that “forbids outraging religious feelings.” There is also 295-B which prohibits defiling the Qu’ran and was originally punishable by life imprisonment but has since been amended to up to three years imprisonment.
No section of the blasphemy law is more controversial or harder to prove than Article 295-C, the law that Aasia Bibi is allegedly charged with having broken. In respect to prophet Muhammad, this statute states that ” Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life and shall also be liable to a fine.”
Aasia’s case and charges against her started almost a year and a half ago when there was a quarrel over a bowl of water in a dusty village in the heart of Pakistan’s Punjab province. A group of women were working the fields in the heat of the Pakistani sun when one of them, Aasia Bibi, dipped her glass in the communal bucket of drinking water to fetch herself and others a glass of water to drink and immediately was rebuffed by the other women who claimed that the water was now unclean as it had been touched by a non-Muslim. According to witnesses, instead of quietly bowing her head and taking the indignities, Aasia’s crime was that she mounted a strong defense of her faith and remained steadfast in her demeanor that she did nothing wrong. Too often in Pakistan, the blasphemy laws are used against religious minorities to settle personal vendettas and old scores according to Pakistan’s Human Rights Watch, a watchdog group monitoring the case.
The news traveled fast in Aasia’s village of Ittan Wali, in Punjab’s Sheikhupura district that a Christian woman had insulted the prophet. The local mullah got on the mosque loudspeakers, urging the “faithful” to take action against Aasia Bibi. In sad but familiar pattern, her defense of her faith was somehow twisted into an accusation of blasphemy, according to her family and others familiar with the case. Soon as a mob gathered outside her home ready to take the law into their own hands and handing out vigilante justice, the police moved in and took her into custody. But instead of protecting her, they charged her with insulting Islam and its prophet under the blasphemy laws.
And then on Nov. 8, after suffering 18 months in prison, Aasia Bibi was sentenced to death by a district court, making her the first person to be handed the death penalty in Pakistan under the blasphemy laws. Many before her over the years have been charged, but punishment had been commuted to lesser penalties than the death sentence imposed on Aasia Bibi. No concrete evidence was ever presented against Aasia, according to Pakistan’s Human Rights Watch. Instead, the district judge relied on the testimonies of three other women, all of whom were hostile towards her.
Unfortunately this is a common insult hurled at many of Pakistan’s 2 million Christians who make up just 1.59% of the total population. Often, Christians in Pakistan are discriminated and persecuted and many times only get the lowest of the low jobs such as street sweepers, janitorial and sanitation workers. In fact, in Pakistan, the term ‘Chura‘ has become synonym with the Christian community as it relates to an unclean person akin to how the untouchables or Dalit community is seen in India. In India however, the Dalits are not subjected to arcane state blasphemy laws geared towards religious minorities as in Pakistan or are threatened with their lives at the hands of the Hindu majority.
As discussed in a couple of my previous articles, Taliban 1o1, History and Origins and Taliban 201, The Rise of the Pakistani Taliban, the Islamization of Pakistan started under the late General Zia ul Haq of Pakistan who took over the leadership of the country through a military coup in 1977 when he hung the deposed and democratically elected Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Earlier in 1973, the 1973 Constitution of Pakistan had declared that “Islam shall be the religion of the Pakistan” and had systematically begun the process of restricting the participation of religious minorities in government and politics.
Before General Zia, there were only two reported cases of blasphemy. Since the death sentence was inserted in 1986 into the Penal Code for the blasphemy laws, this number has now reached 962 — including 340 members of the Ahmadi Muslim community, 119 Christians, and 14 Hindus. A close examination of the cases reveals the blasphemy laws are often invoked to settle personal scores, or they are used by Islamist extremists as cover to persecute religious minorities, sadly with the help of the state under these laws.
General Zia began this policy of Islamization of Pakistan in conjunction with his support for the war against the Russians and assistance to the Afghan Mujahedeen as well as the building of thousands of madrassahs or religious schools across Afghanistan and Pakistan which nurtured the young men into what later became the Taliban. Many of these blasphemy laws fully came into being under his reign, although some were around since as early as more than 100 years prior when the British drew up the Indian Penal Code of 1860 which was initially an ill foreseen aim at keeping the peace among the many fractured faiths of the subcontinent. For instance, section 295-A, which “forbids outraging religious feelings”, could have been applied against a Muslim who insulted a Hindu or a Hindu who taunted a Sikh or Christian or vice versa. However under Zia, the blasphemy laws were expanded and almost exclusively applied against Muslim minorities such as the Ahmadis, Islamilis and Shiites as well as against the Christian and Hindu populations.
Recently, a religious ‘leader’ came out and has offered over $6000 to anyone who can kill Aasia Bibi while she awaits her punishment in police custody. Outrage and denunciations on this case are coming from across the world as many people are appalled at the sad state of rights for religious minorities in Pakistan. The Pope has intervened also asking for clemency for Aasia Bibi from Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari. Against all manner of reason and justice, Lahore’s High Court recently issued an order on November 29, 2o1o, preventing Zardari from exercising his constitutional authority to pardon Aasia Bibi.
In a country rife with violence and chaos and one that has become synonymous with terror the world over, the case of Aasia Bibi is yet another dark stain on the country’s image around the world. The Taliban and the extremist groups ravaging Pakistan can be explained as being a violent minority and do not and should not reflect on the nation as a whole as the majority of people in Pakistan are opposed to them and their views of Islam. But the blasphemy laws, for as long as they have stayed on the books in Pakistan and in the constitution, cannot and should not be excused in any shape or form. These laws need to be repealed and the constitution needs to be amended in an emergency manner so that Aasia Bibi and other religious minority citizens of Pakistan are not subjected to cruel and subjective laws that are almost exclusively used against minorities to settle scores, personal vendettas, and instill terror in less than 3 percent of the country that is not part of the religious majority of Sunni Muslims.
There needs to be international pressure placed on Pakistan from the United Nations, the United States, Europe and others to modify the constitution immediately and to pardon this 45 year old mother of five children. It is ironic that in a country where many people sympathize with Osama’s Al Qaeda and profess to hate the west with one hand, they decry with the other why not enough western aid has came to their country when it recently saw the worst flooding in its history. Can you blame the American citizens, the Europeans or citizens of any other Christian nation from hesitating to give aid to a country that not only plays a duplicitous game when it comes to terrorists and terror havens but also treats Christians and other religious minorities in the manner as in the case of Aasia Bibi?
The name Pakistan literally translates into “The Land of the Pure”. And as a child growing up I was told that the meaning of Pakistan’s flag is this: “The green is a traditional Islamic color and the crescent moon and star are also Islamic symbols. The white stripe represents the non-Muslim minority and religious groups of Pakistan and there place in the country.” In my view, as long as the nation sanctions and tolerates these utterly unjust and biased blasphemy laws, the religious minorities of Pakistan clearly have no place in this land of the ‘pure’.
-Manzer Munir, a proud Pakistani American and peace activist, is the founder of Pakistanis for Peace and blogs at www.PakistanisforPeace.com as well at other websites as a freelance journalist and writer.