Friday, November 9, 2018
By Shamil Shams
Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy, has been released from prison. But the fact that she must leave Pakistan lest she be killed shows the state is being controlled by Islamists, says DW's Shamil Shams.
The Pakistani state took nearly 10 years away from Asia Bibi. Born in 1971, she has spent the prime of her life in jail. Bibi, an impoverished mother of five, was incarcerated for insulting Islam in 2009, and sentenced to death in 2010.
In Pakistan, it only takes a mere accusation, a slight assertion, to put someone behind bars on blasphemy charges. At last, after a long and arduous legal battle lasting nearly a decade, Pakistan's top court acquitted Bibi on October 31. The verdict was hailed by liberals and rights activists all over the world.
The logical outcome of the Supreme Court's decision would have been Bibi's immediate freedom. But authorities were forced to keep her in prison for over a week. Hard-line Islamist groups are demanding her death, and they have taken to the streets in protest of the court's ruling.
No blasphemer has the right to live, they chant, while setting cars and shops on fire in many cities. The Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) group says the judges who acquitted Bibi must be killed.
They're also urging army officials who are loyal to the Islamist narrative to revolt against the incumbent army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
In spite of this serious challenge to its authority, Pakistan's government has not met the Islamist protesters with an iron fist. Prime Minister Imran Khan's government caved in to extremists and agreed to take legal measures barring Bibi from traveling abroad.
Pakistani authorities justified their agreement with the TLP, arguing they wanted to avoid more violence on the streets. It's possible they were only buying more time to deal with the situation. On Wednesday evening, news broke that Bibi had finally been released from prison and could potentially soon be taken out of the country to safety.
A failure of law
Bibi's heart-wrenching ordeal has proven that blasphemy remains a sensitive issue in Pakistan and, more importantly, the blasphemy laws in place since the 1980s cannot be challenged.
Opposing these laws, or demanding amendments to them, would be considered sacrilegious in Pakistan. Two prominent politicians were killed in 2011 for supporting Bibi and calling for the blasphemy laws to be reviewed.
While Bibi's acquittal by the Supreme Court was a positive step, the legal foundation on which the judges issued their verdict is problematic. They ruled that Bibi was released due to lack of evidence. The ruling doesn't set a strong legal precedence, as we know how easy it can be to fabricate evidence in countries like Pakistan.
Right now Pakistani lawmakers need to sit together and review the country's controversial Islamic-rooted legal system. I don't expect the state – of which the military is the most powerful component – to change its overall Islamic narrative that breeds extremism in the country. It obviously serves the country's ruling classes to perpetuate animosity towards India, while the Pakistani military gets the lion's share of the country's budget.
But recent events should be a wake-up call for Pakistani politicians, generals and the judiciary that legal change – if not a total overhaul of the state – is necessary. If the Pakistani government and judiciary won't undertake these measures, the state could lose its authority in the coming years, and Pakistan would be run by religious extremists from the streets.
The state can't protect itself
However, it looks like the Pakistani state has already lost most of its authority. The fact that Bibi, after being proven innocent by the highest court in the country, could not leave jail lest she be murdered by hard-liners, shows Pakistan is on the way to becoming a failed state.
Currently, there is speculation that Bibi will soon be taken out of the country, or has already been flown out. But why can't Bibi stay in Pakistan as a free citizen? Why can't she move freely inside her own country? Why is it necessary that she escape to the West? Can Pakistan function like a normal state? I think it is high time that Pakistani authorities, both civilian and military, change the dangerous course they have taken since the 1980s.
The obsession to carve "strategic depth" in Afghanistan to counter regional rival India has emaciated the Pakistani state to an extent that even the country's powerful military establishment has to bow down to jihadist proxies.
By KATHY GANNON
The uproar surrounding Aasia Bibi — a Pakistani Christian woman who was acquitted of blasphemy charges and released from death row but remains at a secret location for her protection — has drawn attention to the plight of the country's Christians.The minority, among Pakistan's poorest, has faced an increasingly intolerant atmosphere in this Muslim-majority nation where radical religious and sectarian groups have become more prominent in recent years.
Here is a look at some of the issues involved. ———
WHY HER RELEASE IGNITED AN UPROAR
Bibi's Oct. 31 acquittal by Pakistan's supreme court triggered large-scale protests, with religious extremists demanding the 54-year-old mother of five be publicly executed — and that the three judges who set her free also be put to death.
Her ordeal started in 2009 after two fellow women farmworkers refused to drink from the same container as a Christian, and later said Bibi had insulted the Prophet Muhammad. The claim led to her arrest and 2010 death sentence on blasphemy charges. In Pakistan, a mere accusation of blasphemy has caused riots, even lynching.Rights groups have said Pakistan's blasphemy law is often used as an excuse to settle scores, or as a weapon against religious minorities, including Shiite Muslims who are at times targeted by Sunni Muslim militants as heretics.Bibi has been in hiding in Islamabad since her release earlier this week. Her family says she will leave Pakistan as soon as possible because of death threats against her.
WHO THE PAKISTANI CHRISTIANS ARE
There are about 1.3 million Christians in Pakistan, a predominantly Sunni Muslim country of 204 million people. The Christians are the second-largest minority, after Hindus, and are almost evenly divided between Catholic and Protestant denominations. The Christian population grew at the time of Pakistan's creation in 1947, when the Indian subcontinent was divided into two nations. At the time, many lower caste Hindus, living in what would become Pakistan, converted to Christianity. They were among the region's poorest and held jobs many others didn't want.Although some Christians have risen to senior positions, including A.R. Cornelius who served as Pakistan's chief justice, many live in impoverished communities commonly referred to as "sweeper colonies" because residents are employed as domestic and sanitation workers.
HOW PAKISTAN'S GOVERNMENTS HAVE TREATED CHRISTIANS
The rise of Islamic radicalism in Pakistan has left the country's minority religions vulnerable. The blasphemy law, which carries the death penalty for anyone convicted of insulting Islam, has been used at times as a tool against minorities. Christian churches and homes have been attacked by crowds invoking the law. Prime Minister Imran Khan, elected in July, in part on an Islamic agenda, has vacillated between criticizing religious parties for using religion to enhance their influence, and bowing to their demands, including firing minorities from government-appointed positions.
In Bibi's case, Khan seemingly caved to the Islamists' demand to have her acquittal reviewed in an appeal — though some suspected he was trying to buy time to disperse the protesters.Analysts say mixed signals from the government only embolden extremists. Minority religious leaders also say the poverty of the Christian minority sharply reduces their political clout.
HOW CHRISTIANS ARE FARING IN OTHER MUSLIM-MAJORITY COUNTRIES
Egypt's Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the country's 100 million Muslim-majority population, have long complained of discrimination and under-representation in government. Sectarian violence occasionally erupts in rural communities where Christian churches have been torched. Overwhelmingly, attacks on Egyptian Copts have been carried out by Islamist extremists, mainly the Islamic State group, which has killed scores of Christians in recent years.
Lebanon's Christian community is the second-largest in the Middle East, after Egypt's, but has gone from being a majority to ranging between 30 and 35 percent of the population. Despite their dwindling numbers, Lebanese Christians still retain relative political power with multiple political parties and a president, who must be a Christian Maronite, according to an unwritten national pact.Across the Holy Land, Christians now make up an estimated 1 to 2 percent of the population, a marked decline over the decades. Reasons include a relatively low birth rate and increased emigration by Palestinian Christians, driven by the fallout from the long-running conflict with Israel. In the Gaza Strip, the number of Christians has dropped from 3,000 to 1,000 over the past decade of rule by the Islamic militant group Hamas — a period that has been marked by armed conflict with Israel, border closures and soaring unemployment.
Iraq has been seeing a dramatic exodus of its Christians since dictator Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003. Muslim extremists, mostly from the al-Qaida terror network and later the Islamic State group, have bombed churches and shrines in Baghdad and the city of Mosul, and assassinated high-level bishops and priests. There were thought to be over 1 million Christians living in Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion of 2003; today only a fraction remains.