Blasphemy has been a contentious issue in Pakistan for a long time, and has been the source of numerous public rallies and public lynchings over the years. While many in the Muslim community itself have been a victim of this offence, it is the significant population of minorities in the country that have had to face the worst treatment, with entire villages being torched and their places of worship destroyed, all in the name of religion.
Even though blasphemy is strictly not tolerated in Islam, and has been a punishable offence in Pakistan as well, the laws associated with it have been subject to debate and controversy. This is primarily because under the rule of the dictator General Zia Ul Haq, who used Islam as a weapon to strengthen his illegitimate hold over the country, the laws governing blasphemy were changed in order to satiate the conservative Muslim organizations that formed the basis of Zia’s support.
Additionally, Zia also supported the politicization of the issue of blasphemy in order to keep people occupied with inconsequential issues so that his own disastrous rule would not face any criticisms or opposition from the general populace. This ploy has since been used by several other political and religious groups in the country, who use Islam as an excuse to flaunt the laws of the land, and engage in all kinds of unethical and dangerous acts of violence and sedition.
Recently, the topic of blasphemy, and the criticisms of the laws that govern it came in to the limelight once again, with the Supreme Court’s decision to acquit the long suffering Asia Bibi of all charges of blasphemy. While this decision was lauded by most of the level headed people in the country, certain religious groups decided that it was the perfect opportunity for them to exhibit their great influence by launching a country wide protest drive, that inevitably turned violent in certain areas. It was only when the Supreme Court agreed to officially review the original decision regarding Asia Bibi’s case that the rioters and the irrational segments of our society could be appeased.
The government got a lot of flak for what was considered a capitulation on their part, with many wondering why they did not put up more of a fight against such wanton acts of defiance. However, within a few days of this incident, leaders of several prominent religious parties behind the riots were quietly apprehended. This allowed the Supreme Court to last week announce that her acquittal was being upheld after a review, and that Asia Bibi was finally a free woman.
Amid all this, the religious parties once again decided to announce their presence by declaring another day of protesting and rioting, but this time the government was prepared. Over fifty party members from across the country were apprehended and taken into custody, leading the planned protests to die out. With prominent religious leaders and their followers behind bars or under house arrest, it slowly became clear to the rest of the rabble rousers in the country that their actions of the past would not be allowed to be repeated once again.
For Asia Bibi, her family and her lawyer, the ordeal isn’t exactly over just yet. While Asia and her family have been given asylum in Canada, getting her out of Pakistan is proving to be quite a hassle, as members of certain religious groups are still at large, going from house to house in order to hunt her down. Her lawyer, Saif-ul-Mulook, himself had to flee to the Netherlands a few months ago after getting death threats, and only returned to fight the final appeal against Asia’s case earlier this month. He too is looking for asylum, as it has become difficult for him to stay in a country where he might always have a target on his back for helping an alleged ‘blasphemer’ escape the clutches of the law.
Thankfully, Asia Bibi’s case is finally close to being resolved, and the political turmoil it caused across the country won’t repeat itself in the coming future. The PTI’s handling of the situation was laudable, as they avoided unnecessary bloodshed and infighting during the earlier protests, and only acted when the religious parties had put their guard down. Had this strategy been used during the earlier Khatme-Nabuwat protests, perhaps the influence and power enjoyed by the TLP may have been contained today.
Crucially, this whole episode has been an eye opener regarding the treatment of religious minorities in Pakistan, the spate of problems related to the blasphemy laws in place in the country, and the manner in which religious sentiments can be exploited by certain groups for political gain. Luckily for Asia Bibi, she did not become yet another victim of the convoluted justice system of Pakistan, and can finally join her family in Canada, where she can live in relative peace and anonymity.