Sentenced to hang

The blasphemy provisions are used more often as a means to settle petty disputes.

Editorial November 13, 2010
Sentenced to hang

Asiya Bibi had, in 2009, been asked to fetch water while working in the fields near Nankana Sahib, a town some 75 kilometres from Lahore. For this, it seems, she could end up at the gallows. A district court has sentenced the Christian mother of five to death for blasphemy, under the controversial section 295-C of Pakistan’s Penal Code. She becomes the first woman to be convicted on the charge.

The whole matter exposes the absurdity of the provisions. From what we know of the story, some Muslim women labourers had objected to Asiya touching the water bowl on the grounds of her belief. It is, of course, a fact that their objection has no roots in Islam, a religion which makes no distinction on the basis of caste or creed. Unfortunately, clerics in the area to whom the women went a few days later, accusing Asiya of committing blasphemy, did not bother to point this out. The women have latched on to the allegations that the unfortunate woman had used derogatory language against the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) and acted to bring her before a court. We should ask what our religious leaders are doing to correct the many misperceptions that seem to have crept into the minds of people about Islam and its principles. We would expect for instance that, as men committed to a faith based on tolerance, peace and equality for all humans, they would now step forward to state that there should be no space for bigotry of the kind seen at Nankana Sahib or for the raising of objections over fetching water which seem to have led to more serious charges.

It is unclear why Asiya should have chosen to commit blasphemy. The whole matter, like many of the cases of the same kind, seems to hinge entirely around blind bias and a desire to ‘punish’ minority communities. This is one reason why rights activists have sought changes in the blasphemy law for years, to ensure they cannot be used as a means to seek vengeance. A further complication is frequently created by the fact that extremist groups and clerics rally to create an environment which makes it difficult to look at matters fairly whenever a charge of blasphemy is brought. It is this environment which has played a part in encouraging actions that have led to persons accused of blasphemy being killed even before a final verdict can be delivered. Some have been murdered in jails; others outside courts. It is also true that a number of those who currently languish in jails after being held on charges of blasphemy suffer mental sickness and need treatment rather than imprisonment.

We need to find a way out of a situation that is growing worse by the year. The blasphemy provisions are used more often as a means to settle petty disputes. Asiya’s sentence will be appealed in the Lahore High Court. Her husband maintains there is nothing to the charges. But the case exposes just how much hatred now runs through our society. It will add also to the insecurity felt by all minority groups which have already been pushed to the very sidelines of society with laws, such as those on blasphemy, acting to facilitate those who choose to act against them.

The government needs to ensure that the procedural change that was initiated in the law’s operation is implemented. According to this, once a complaint has been received that an individual or individuals have committed blasphemy, a senior police official is tasked with first investigating to check whether the complaint has credibility. This is crucial because, more often than not, we have seen blasphemy charges levelled against people who are then convicted of them in the most dubious of circumstances, often by lower court judges who are afraid to give but a guilty verdict. In most such instances, the local Muslim population is often incited to act as a mob and during hearings the mere presence of so many charged people in and around the courtroom is enough to intimidate anyone. Perhaps the superior courts need to take notice of this case and order a retrial.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 14th, 2010.


Rémy | 13 years ago | Reply I would like to thank Seeking Truth for his very nice comment. Great work can be achieved for the whole of mankind if we forget about what has separated us in the past. Forgeting might not be the right word. Perhaps should I say "learn to do with it" or "forgive". Otherwise the law of the talion will always be stronger. Also, I would like to answer Saad Rizwan. Dear friend, I fully understand how much it hurts you that some Christians act in the way you describe. And you are right to describe it that way. However, the Pope, Benedict XVI is the head of the Roman Catholic Church (1 billion faithful), it has absolutely nothing to do with Pastor Terry Jones (50 followers) they have connection whatsoever, the only thing they have in common is that they talk about Jesus. In very different ways. And I am ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that the Vatican, this is to say the whole official organisation of the Catholic Church headed by Benedict XVI has VIGOROUSLY CONDEMNED the Qu'ran burning plans. As it should be. I would have been very mad if my Church didn't condemn this plan. With regards to the Muhammad caricatures, I think (but can't remember exactly) the Pope called for respect, but Denmark has its own Church and it is not the duty of the Pope to deal with it. Be assure that the Pope doesn't support any attack against the Muslims. Here are pieces of official Catholic texts that have the value of Catholic law. 3. The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,(5) who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting. Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom. You'll find the whole text here. Love to all of you. God bless you all.
Seeking Truth | 13 years ago | Reply Dear Fellow Humans, Of all the comments made on this article, my Christian friend Remy has stated the most appropriate reasons. There is nothing wrong with the religious aspect of the law, what needs to be worked on is the way it is enforced. It is human nature to misuse power. Any institution needs an intricate system of checks and balances to make sure it's powers aren't misused. Not that you wipe out the institution completely. The corrupt state of the Pakistani government is not hidden from anybody. All that is essentially needed to cure this widely prevailant situation in the Pakistani society is a transparent communication between all factions of the society, but before one can put across their ideas or emotions, they need education, both on their own values and morals, and those of their counterparts. Unfortunately, more ofthen that always, such efforts get painted politically and all probable benefits go down the drain. If the minorities in Pakistan are living in fear of being at the wrong end of this law, their worries are justified, because that is what every member of that society is going through at this point - be it the mothers that send their bread-winners to work and their children to school in the mornings, or the innocent shoppers and traders buying and selling at a market. Nobody is safe. There is no security - neither at the national level, nor at the personal level. (How many of us hurt our friends and neighbours with our words and actions everyday?) There is no justice. No real freedom. No choice. Its only when a matter gets exaggerated beyond proportion that it attracts the attention of the media and people start pointing fingers. A few days of hot commenting, and then the matter is totally forgotten. What we need is a long, long-term, dialogue-based, demonstrated-by-own-actions action plan, involving immense consideration for fellow factions, be they ethical, religious or cultural - as per the Qur'an and the example of the Last Messenger of Islam, Beloved Muhammad peace be upon him. Peace upon all who accepted the message of peace.
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