Colleague Zimran Samuel writes for The Times newspaper today on the case of Asia Bibi, and whether it represents any true progress for the rights of minority communities in Pakistan.
The case of Asia Bibi has become symbolic of the plight of Pakistan’s minorities. She spent eight years on death row, mostly in solitary confinement, after she drank from a Muslim neighbour’s cup, leading to an argument in which she was accused of blasphemy.
The recent decision of Pakistan’s Supreme Court to acquit her reflected the evidence (or lack of it). The detailed and carefully worded judgment of Chief Justice Saqib Nisar required him to display courage rarely found when confronting allegations brought under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy law.
Violent protests across Pakistan have followed, with several people murdered, properties destroyed and hundreds having to flee their communities. The lawyer who represented Ms Bibi has had to leave Pakistan for his own safety. As a direct challenge to the Supreme Court’s judgment, the Islamic clerics leading the bigoted crowds have demanded that the chief justice be killed.
Imran Khan, Pakistan’s recently elected prime minister, called for calm and respect for the decision of the court. His stance took many by surprise. He was supported by Pakistan’s religious right to be elected, has vocalised his support for the blasphemy law and has spoken against Ahmadiyya Muslims.
Not long after Mr Khan’s call for protests to end, it was confirmed that that the government was reaching a deal with the hardline Islamists to stop Ms Bibi from leaving the country.
Ms Bibi’s husband subsequently pleaded with the UK for asylum and the situation continues to draw international alarm. Yet the case is by no means unique. Pakistan’s blasphemy law is routinely invoked, with those accused often lynched by mobs long before they reach a police station or court room.
A widespread climate of intimidation and vigilante violence has developed such that those involved in the issue of blasphemy in any way, including the legal professionals who defend and preside over such cases, are forced either to flee the country or to live in a permanent state of fear.
Pakistan’s blasphemy law should be repealed, although such a step is unlikely to be enough in itself. The intolerance towards religious minorities is rooted as deeply as the education system and embedded in elements of Pakistan’s culture and state bodies. Without a significant drive towards institutional re-education, the cycle of hatred is unlikely to end.
Any serious discussion of abolishing or reforming the blasphemy law is, of course, far from sight and would no doubt lead to the types of protests witnessed in the past few days. And yet, without such a discussion, religious intolerance will remain part of the Pakistan’s identity, serving as a vehicle of oppression for its ugliest face.
Mr Khan’s election promised steps towards a “New Pakistan”, but as his government holds hands with some of Pakistan’s most extreme elements, the early signs indicate that the new Pakistan mirrors much of the old one.