- Lives hanging in the balance
As I write these words, news is pouring in about Aasia Bibi’s flight from Pakistan to a foreign country. While her acquittal may prove to be a precedent in blasphemy cases, particularly for the minorities in Pakistan, it is also a poignant reminder of the sad situation of rising intolerance and extremism in the country, desperately awaiting a correction.
When the controversial verdict of her death sentence being overturned was announced last week, sentiments were fiery. In my previous column, I refrained from commenting on the status of Aasia and her verdict, though could not help discussing the plight of our country, as for nearly four days it burned. Vehicles were smashed, roads were blocked, life was brought to a standstill.
Today, while hoping that Aasia, her family and her advocate remain safe, I cannot hold back any more. The worthlessness of a living soul, increasing practice of incitations, strengthening of false beliefs, alarming rise in violent and angry expressions, apathy towards Islamic practice of humility, compassion and tolerance and growing fear against speaking truth, cannot be dismissed. The height of ignorance and exploitation can no longer be allowed to foster.
When havoc was being played in the country, the perpetrators were those who were being told that Aasia uttered blasphemous words nearly a decade ago. Carrying sticks and even swords, they were made to believe that Aasia, mother of two, does not deserve to live. They were convinced that her acquittal was anti-Islam, anti-Pakistan. What they didn’t know or rather didn’t want to learn, was that the blasphemy probably did not even occur. What they didn’t bother to find out, was the explanation given in her verdict, that there was no substantial evidence to the incident and no reliable testimony, not even by those who made the allegation, which was insufficient to prove the crime. What they either didn’t know or chose to forget, was that there are plenty of incidents already quoted from the Prophet’s (PBUH) life, which show his compassion and forgiveness for those who ridiculed and physically hurt him, instead of angry retaliations. What the perpetrators were unaware of, was the fact that when forcing self and others to believe that a blasphemy had occurred when chances were it hadn’t, they were making false allegations in the name of the Prophet (PBUH), not short of blasphemy itself!
What did happen, for sure, is the argument between Aasia and two other women from her village over a glass of water, ‘defiled’ by Aasia because she was a Christian. When the two other women went to the local cleric to complain about Aasia, the cleric did not consider his duty to rebuke the women over their feud over a glass of water. Instead, he investigated the matter despite that not being his job, and also did not bother to question Aasia and ask for her side of the story.
Last December, a 58-year-old man accused of blasphemy was also freed, only after spending over nine years in jail. His sentence to life imprisonment was overruled by Supreme Court of Pakistan
Many years later, it would be another glass of water which would take away the life of Sharoon Masih. Early this year, the 17 year old student of a government school in Burewala, Sharoon, the only Christian in his class, was killed by one of his Muslim classmates. According to his parents, Sharoon’s ‘crime’ was to drink water from the same glass his other classmates used – an act which some Muslims find unacceptable as they consider the non Muslims ‘impure’. His drinking of water – a basic human right – was such an issue, his mother claims, that since the day he joined school, Sharoon was not allowed to quench his thirst using the classroom’s water cooler only because of his faith and would remain thirsty in the hot and humid weather of Punjab, until he would reach back home. On that ill fated day, he must have convinced himself that using a glass of water could bring him no real harm. Little did he know that it would actually cost him his life.
At least 1,472 people were charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws between 1987 and 2016, according to statistics collected by the Center for Social Justice, a Lahore-based advocacy group. What remains disturbing is the fact that many cases which come to surface appear to stem from personal vengeance or misinterpretation rather than a blasphemous act.
Last year, Mashal Khan, a university student in Mardan, was lynched to death by an angry mob of fellow students over his progressive views on social media misjudged as blasphemous.
This very year, a college student of Charsadda gunned down his principal on the pretext of ‘blasphemy’. The principal had expressed anger over his absence from college for three days due to participation in Faizabad sit-in – a protest against changes in an electoral law involving the finality of prophethood.
Rimsha Masih, who was arrested in 2012, then an 11 year old child, and feared to face a death penalty for blasphemy for allegedly desecrating pages of the Quran by burning, was eventually acquitted of all charges when a local imam was arrested on suspicion of planting pages of religious texts in Rimsha’s bag. In mid 2013 after months of hiding, Rimsha and her family were able to escape to Canada.
Last December, a 58-year-old man accused of blasphemy was also freed, only after spending over nine years in jail. His sentence to life imprisonment was overruled by Supreme Court of Pakistan as the evidence used was not in accordance with the Evidence Act.
But Junaid Hafeez, a former Visiting Lecturer of English at Bahauddin Zakaria University of Multan, languishes in jail and awaits justice since the past five years. He has been accused of committing blasphemy on social media. His former lawyer Rashid Rehman, who had commented that it was like “walking into the jaws of death” to defend someone accused of blasphemy in Pakistan, was shot to death in his own office and had received death threats in front of a presiding Judge.
These are all cases of those ‘More sinned against than sinning’ the famous line from Shakespeare’s King Lear quoted at the end of Aasia Bibi’s verdict. Although in the document, the meaning of the name ‘Aasia’ has been written ‘sinful’, various other meanings include ‘to rise’, ‘hopeful’, and ‘one who tends to the weak and heals’. One hopes that the more promising meanings prevail and bring respite not only to the bearer of the name, but also to others suffering the same fate.