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Asia Bibi acquitted of blasphemy in Pakistan, freed from death row

Protesters rally in Peshawar, Pakistan, against a Supreme Court decision Oct. 31, 2018, that ordered the release of Asia Bibi, a Catholic mother of five who had been on death row since 2010. The landmark ruling by Pakistan's top court acquitting Bibi, who had been sentenced to death under the country's controversial blasphemy law, sparked protests by hard-line Islamists and raised fears of violence. (AP Photo/Muhammad Sajjad)

LAHORE, Pakistan (RNS) — Hard-line Islamic leaders were furious at the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s decision on Wednesday (Oct. 31) to acquit Asia Bibi, a Christian mother who has been on death row since 2010 after being accused of blaspheming against the Prophet Muhammad.

Addressing a protest in front of the provincial assembly in Lahore, firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, founder of the far-right Islamist political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik, and his associate, Afzal Qadri, said Muslims should rise against the military and the government of Pakistan for releasing a blasphemer.

“All soldiers of Pakistan army must rise against the army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, and the judges who gave the verdict in favor of Asia Bibi should be killed,” said Qadri.

Protesters in other major cities stormed the streets, carrying sticks and blocking roads with sit-ins.

In a short video message after Bibi’s acquittal, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan issued a clear warning to the religious groups.

“The state will not cow down to threats and we will fulfill our responsibility of protecting the life and property of people,” he said. “I am telling you, do not take on the state. The state will exercise its power if you so as much as even decide to incite any kind of violence at a time when the whole country is trying to rise together. Don’t force us into taking action.”

The appeal to rebellion and government threat of a crackdown came after the country’s top court released a 56-page verdict finding Bibi innocent of blasphemy charges, which were leveled after she was accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad during an argument with her colleagues over drinking from a bucket meant for Muslims. The mother of two children and three stepchildren, she denied the allegations.

Blasphemy cases are increasingly common in Pakistan. Adopted under British rule, they carried a maximum sentence of two years. But in the 1980s, the country’s military leaders made the punishments harsher, with sentences of life imprisonment and death, to garner support among Islamic conservatives.

“Pakistan is an Islamic state. Here, people should abide by our laws. If Christians or Ahmadis have issues living here, they can leave and go to Israel,” said Mohammad Zahir, 29, a Tehreek-e-Labbaik supporter in Lahore. “Here, people will live how the Quran tells them.”

Pakistan Christians distribute sweets to celebrate the acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Catholic mother of five who has been on death row since 2010 accused of blasphemy, in Multan, Pakistan, on Oct. 31, 2018. Pakistan’s top court on Wednesday acquitted Bibi, who was sentenced to death under the country’s controversial blasphemy law, a landmark ruling that sparked protests by hard-line Islamists and raised fears of violence. (AP Photo/Irum Asim)

A total of 633 Muslims, 494 Ahmadi Muslims, 187 Christians and 21 Hindus have been charged under the blasphemy rules since 1987, the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a Catholic group, said earlier this year. Those numbers do not include vigilante killings and lynchings that occur in remote areas where the central government has little authority.

Prosecutors decided to seek the maximum penalty – death – for Bibi. If they had been successful, her death would have been the first time the government executed someone for defiling the prophet.

The court ordered Bibi, 51, released from prison, declaring that she is innocent because prosecutors failed to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.

“She appears to be a person, in the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear, ‘more sinned against than sinning,'” said the judges’ verdict, which also quoted the Quran and Islamic scholars.

Bibi’s 18-year-old daughter, Eisham Ashiq, described the verdict as an answer to her family’s prayers. “This is the most wonderful moment. I can’t wait to hug my mother and then celebrate with my family. I am grateful to God for listening to our prayers,” said Ashiq.

Facing routine extremist religious persecution, Pakistan’s Christian community saw the ruling as a vindication of their human rights. The second-largest religious minority in Pakistan, Christians make up around 2 percent of the country’s population of 210 million.

“Today is like the dawn of new hope for oppressed minorities,” said Neville Kyrke-Smith, national director of Aid to the Church in Need, a group that advocates for Christians around the world. “It is important that justice is not just seen but is done.”

Those who spoke in support of Bibi over the years faced violence.

Punjab Gov. Salmaan Taseer, who lobbied for a presidential pardon for Bibi, was gunned down by his own security officer in 2011. A month later, Pakistani Minister of Religious Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, a vocal critic of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, was also shot dead.

The government on Wednesday dispatched troops to Christian neighborhoods in case of Muslim reprisals.

“I am extremely happy for Asia. She is one of us and her story tells how tomorrow it could be any one of us who will be imprisoned for being a minority,” said Emanuel Khan, 24, a shopkeeper in Lahore. “Honestly, looking at the situation unfold, I am scared too for my family. Our neighborhood of Youhanabad, which is the biggest Christian locale in the city, is surrounded by paramilitary forces ever since the court verdict came in. It is tense here.”

Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, said the reaction to the verdict and Bibi’s suffering – she was in solitary confinement for most of her time in prison – were indications of the intolerance toward minorities in Pakistan.

“Asia Bibi has endured almost 10 years of brutal incarceration in isolation. The world has watched her suffer. Her freedom can hardly be called justice, and nothing will ever compensate her for her lost years,” said Chowdhry.

Her family told AFP earlier this month that the blasphemy case could force the family to leave the country.

“Living in Pakistan for us is very difficult,” her husband, Ashiq Mesih, said. “We don’t go out of our home and if we go, we come out very carefully.”

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Naila Inayat

22 Comments

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  • This is great news! Let’s hope that Asia Bibi and her family can leave Pakistan and go to some other place where they will be safer.

  • Check out the report above. Unfortunately, Asia Bibi and her family would not be safe to remain in Pakistan.

  • I believe the Prime Minister would have said, “The state will not kowtow…” rather than “will not cow down…” It’s an expression, from a Chinese term of bowing so low that one touches the head against the ground.

  • There, here, or anywhere, laws should be based as much as possible on the increasing body of fact and knowledge supported by science. Fables supported by credulous faith lead to diminished human well-being. Blasphemy laws are just one example of the anti-morality of religious laws.

  • And Muslims wonder why the West is concerned about their presence in democratic societies when an individual can be put to death for alleged blasphemy against their prophet, converting to another religion, or in someway perceived as insulting Islam in nations that are under Muslim law and cultural norms. Most Muslims are not so extreme, but still a minority have a tight control over some countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc.

  • Some Muslims can. But most Muslim nations cannot and have such liberals in anything but danger. Freedom of religion is only freedom from religion, a thing not understood in Muslim-majority places. Amazing this all persists in the 21st Century, but it does.

  • Focusing for a moment on the eighth paragraph, what NINCOMPOOPS associated with “British rule” approved of any kind of blasphemy laws?

  • This is related to the answer you gave me above: “Some Muslims can. But most Muslim nations cannot …”

    There is a kind of chicken-and-egg problem here.

    Chicken: Left-wing intellectuals in all countries think that only some Muslims can handle liberal thinking.

    Egg: Large masses of Muslims (including countries with a large Muslim minority) do fail to develop a liberal intelligentsia.

  • Interestingly Pakistan has a secular government. But it uses Islamicism as a way to recruit partisans against India in disputed territories and to drive out pro-democracy support.

  • All Muslims and most everyone else can handle liberal thinking (if taught any)—-until someone tells them they must adhere to ancient holy writings instead. But I gotta tell ya, we just went through about 17 years when both George W. Bush and Barack Obama thought a similar thing after 9/11 and then the Arab Spring. They (and all of us who celebrated the purple-finger voters) thought that parts of the Muslim world would move right into secular democracy if only we helped clean out terrorists and dictators. It didn’t really happen anywhere. Bummer.

  • Both George W Bush and Barack Obama missed the following: a liberal debating culture must be established among Muslims before any attempt to depose terrorists and dictators.

    There is a subtlety here: the notion of white privilege [Ref 1] has to stop as well. The two phenomena are connected: the “privilege” in “white privilege” comes from the idea that white people are secure enough to handle the visceral reactions that come from a liberal debating culture, whereas Muslim people are not.

    Ref 1
    https://religionnews.com/2018/10/26/amy-julia-becker-reflects-on-the-burden-of-white-privilege/

  • You would have to tell me HOW to establish a liberal debating culture among Muslims “before any attempt to depose terrorists and dictators.” Bush started his attempt as a response to America attacked by hijacked jetliners on 9/11. Obama inherited that in progress and was in office for events such as Egypt’s election in 2011. Both Bush and Obama are gone. We now (unfortunately) have Trump as America’s thought master and mouthpiece regarding our relations with Muslim nations. We are where we are, and not someplace else, no?

    I have already read the piece you referenced and commented on it, but am not sure why you believe it relates to this. The debate about the value (or not) of the sayings of Muhammad is not a matter of racism. It is a matter of whether liberal debating can overcome a culture of fundamental Islam.

  • Trump George W Bush, KKK, Neo-Nazis go to school and college. So let’s look at the social science curricula that are available in US (or, more broadly, Western) schools and colleges.

    From a very young age, students get to learn the “etic” or “outsider” point of view. That is to say, students get to learn the following:

    a. The Vatican had something termed an indulgence; this was evidence of broken system that needed to be fixed
    b. The Protestant Reformation was intended to fix that broken system.
    c. The Age of Enlightenment contributed even more fixes
    d. Abolition, the Civil War and Civil Rights movement were still further fixes

    I used the words “fix” and “fixes” in bullet points b, c and d–those words are etic of outsider point of view. Western social sciences are big on the etic or outsider point of view. They leave the emic or insider point of view to divinity colleges.

    These etic social sciences percolate to the general public via op-ed articles and movie scripts. This is why a large part of the media are perceived as liberal.

    It must be painful for white people to come across the etic or outsider point of view. After all they are reading about their own ancestors, their own blood. They cannot but will visceral reactions. But the expectation is that they should “man up” and handle the visceral reactions. Even Trump, George W Bush, KKK, Neo-Nazis go through this. This is what, I suggest, has stopped the West from having dictators.

  • Somehow, your latest comments strike me as far afield from the subject of this article. With respect to Pakistan and blasphemy laws, the sayings of Muhammad either do or do not legitimately supersede everything else in human thought. People in such places as Pakistan either can or cannot safely have the liberal debating culture of which you spoke. People either are or are not permitted by their majorities to question Islamic supremacy in matters of faith, life and civics. If, in other countries where the predominant religion is Christian instead of Islam, the same principle applies. People there either are or are not permitted by their majorities to keep religion out of government and to debate all issues on a secular plane.

    Countries which do not have dictators are countries where the liberal debating culture is alive and healthy (and vice versa). You are probably aware that the United States is toying with a slide into a Trumpian dictatorship at this time, and is struggling to determine how secular it will remain. We’re still debating, however, and our freedoms to do so are no where nearly as thwarted as in places such as Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or Iran or Afghanistan.

  • Let us go to the statement “If, in other countries where the predominant religion is Christian instead of Islam, the same principle applies.”

    England, France, Germany, Norway—these were countries where the predominant religion was Christianity. In that era, Christian priests had influence over the judicial and police system. They could issue something similar to what Muslims term fatwa. Every illiberal characteristic that is ascribed to a Muslim country today could be ascribed to the England, the France, the Germany, and the Norway of that era.

    All this changed with the Protestant Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment. And the role of the social sciences is to preserve that.

  • If you have time, please take a look at Ref 2. It is a professor describing a course he taught. Here is an important excerpt:

    “…show ordinary people turning against the values of the Church in favor of a more common-sense idea of personal morality.”

    Students who took that course must have got trained to turn against the values of the Church; such students would also reject dictatorship.

    Ref 2

    http://www.electrostani.com/2016/12/teaching-notes-religion-and-literature.html

  • I turned against some of the “values” of conservative church about 35 years ago when I noticed it did not seem very truthful about economic or environmental matters. Today, of course, that problem is only worse. But turning cool on some of the claims of Conservative Christianity does not cause me to opine that “moderate” (whatever that might be) Islam is sort of okay instead or alongside. I don’t think Islamic theory works at its root: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet” is (for me) a factually untrue statement of faith. Period. This is why no Muslims are going to like me and why I am not going to play around with ideas in my mind that they might get more sensible, if, if, if, if, if,..

    We are called to be kind to every Muslim. We are not called to pretend that the root of Islam belongs in 21st Century debate about any real issue. We need to be moving to secular human rights and earth concerns. These religions are not helping us do it anymore.

  • I have no argument with preserving and appreciating the Protestant Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment (especially)but would offer a couple of observations about that:

    1) We have some Protestants today who are at least as crazy as what Luther protested against the Catholic Church 500 years ago. This is why America fell into our Trumpism of the moment. “Reform” is a change, but not necessarily a fix. We have an “Every Word of This Bible is True” segment today in Protestantism that is completely off the rails.

    2) Islam, as far as I can tell, does not permit itself to downplay some of the worse sayings of Muhammad in favor of some of the better ones to even have anything like a “reformation” at all. Luther, at least, found some things to stand on. Islamic reformers don’t—–or—-are not permitted to in Sunni-majority places or in Shia-majority places. Almost any new thinking can be construed by SOMEONE as an insult to the Prophet or to something the Prophet said (which, in turn, is an insult to the Prophet.) Modernizing all this stuff to accommodate liberal human rights seems impossible without rejecting some of it outright—–which is not allowed.

  • Pakistan was created for Muslims so it is hard to believe they were ever truly a secular government. Muslim and Hindu relations in the Indian subcontinent have a very checkered history of religious oppression and tolerance from the Persian/Mogul invasions and rule to the British Raj. When I visited India, I could see the splendor of Muslim rule and the destruction by Muslims of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist temples from past centuries..

  • They had largely nationalist / military leadership for most of its history, including its founder Jinnah. Islamicism primarily used as a tool for increasing regional influence and driving out moderate/democratic opposition.

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