Friday, December 7, 2018

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Understanding Asia Bibi’s Trial And Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws

A contextual analysis of the history of Pakistan's blasphemy laws, Asia's case and what it means for Pakistan's minorities moving forward.

Pakistan’s treatment of minorities has long been the subject of international scrutiny. The evolution of the Pakistani constitution has an ingrained precedence of religious discrimination. The name itself, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, is an accurate description of who the laws are formulated to protect and favor. A microcosm of this discrimination was unveiled in front of the world with the case of a Christian woman, Asia Noreen. Her case is a manifestation of a broader problem with historical roots. Tracing the situational context is the only way to fully come to terms with the underlying systemic problems facing countless Asia’s among Pakistan’s minorities. 
The Asia Case
On June 14th, 2009, Asia Noreen, also known as Asia Bibi, embroiled in a scuffle with her neighbors. Asia, a Christian mother of five, took water from a water bucket after a long day of harvesting fruit to quench her thirst. Her Muslim neighbors considered this unacceptable due to her different religious beliefs and refused to drink from the bucket. They considered her impure due to her Christian faith and hence saw the water as contaminated. Subsequently, a heated argument broke out and she was accused of blasphemy for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Asia accused her neighbors of scheming against her and cited the case as a matter of people who didn’t like her “taking revenge”. In November 2010, she was convicted of blasphemy at a trial court in Sheikhupura and sentenced to death under Section 295-C of Pakistan’s penal code. Asia Bibi became the first woman to fall prey to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. The decision was upheld by the Lahore High Court in October 2014, but an appeal was accepted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 2015. The Human Rights WatchAmnesty International and a host of other human rights organizations have singled out Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws for their discriminatory and unjust usage and nature.
On October 31st 2018, eight years after being convicted, Asia Bibi was acquitted of blasphemy charges by the Supreme Court. A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Mian Saqib Nisar, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and Justice Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhel made the landmark decision. Never before had the Supreme Court overseen a case under this section of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. The Chief Justice elaborated on the decision: “keeping in mind the evidence produced by the prosecution against the alleged blasphemy committed by the appellant, the prosecution has categorically failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt.” 
The Aftermath Of The Case
The Supreme Court’s decision triggered a massive series of protests throughout Pakistan calling for the execution of Asia Bibi. Supporters of the Islamist hardline party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) took to the streets in major cities such as Islamabad and Lahore. They blocked roads and destroyed property worth an estimated 260 Billion Rupees (4.7 Billion CAD) in the Punjab province alone. On November 3rd, after three days of protests, the Government came to an agreement with the protesters; it included guarantees from the Government for a review of the Supreme Court’s decision, Asia Bibi being prevented from leaving the country and immediate release of the apprehended party workers and protesters. A day after the agreement, Minister of State for Interior, Shehryar Afridi, stated a Government crackdown was underway to arrest identified “miscreants” responsible for crimes and vandalism during the protests. In an apparent show of appeasement, Afridi later added that the Government would engage with the TLP in dialogue and alleged rival party activists caused much of the chaos.
The TLP registered over 2 million votes in the 2018 general election. With protests such as those following Asia’s acquittal, these radical Islamist elements have a set method of operation. Their strategy involves large scale supporter mobilization and reducing metropolitans to a standstill. The administrative concern for the government will be the precedent of one-sided negotiations. This was set by the previous administration of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) when demonstrations against a wording change regarding the finality of the Prophet Muhammad were met with sweeping concessions. The aftermath of Asia’s trial under the new Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) government does little to stunt that momentum.
Nonetheless, Prime Minister Imran Khan pledged to stand by the Supreme Court’s decision and stated that the authority of the state would not be challenged or undermined. Asia Bibi was released from prison on November 7th but her future remains uncertain. Her lawyer claims an application for asylum in the Netherlands was submitted for Asia, her husband and two daughters. The Canadian government is also in talks with the Pakistani government over her asylum. It is difficult to fully comprehend the Asia case and its ongoing situation without understanding the nature and history of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws.
History of Blasphemy Laws
These laws are not relics of a fundamentalist regime. They originate from the age of the British Raj in India and were first codified in 1860. The laws began in Christian Europe as a means to prevent dissent and enforce the church’s authority. It became a useful instrument for colonial Britain to maintain order in religiously diverse parts of the globe as they expanded their empire. Once Pakistan gained independence from British rule and separated from India, it inherited the colonial law. It criminalized numerous offences such as disturbing a religious assembly, insulting religious beliefs, and intentionally destroying or defiling a place or an object of worship.
Blasphemy laws remained in effect until 1980, when the military dictator, Zia Ul Haq, expanded them. This is when the laws took a distinct change in tone from equal protection of all faiths to a clear focus on defending only Islam. Five sections were added between 1980 and 1986; the most important of which is Section 295-C, the section Asia Bibi was initially convicted under. Section 295-C relates to a specific set of offenses: “Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet”. The section poses a unique dilemma in that it is the only blasphemy provision with a mandatory death penalty.
One of the sections explicitly targets the Ahmadiyya community, a maligned and persecuted Muslim minority. Section 298-C stipulates “Person of Quadiani group, etc., calling himself a Muslim or preaching or propagating his faith” as a punishable offence. The point of contention is that Pakistan’s Sunni and Shia Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet from God whereas the Ahmadi Muslims do not. This disagreement has lead to most Shia and Sunni Muslims to consider the Ahmadiyya as outside the bounds of Islam.
Zia Ul Haq also formed a separate judicial branch, the Federal Shariat Court, to review and amend laws deemed contrary to the teachings of Islam. These measures were an integral part of his strategy of Islamisation to reform the country based on Islamic law during his dictatorship from the mid-1970s to the 1980s. From this era, the scope of the blasphemy problem in Pakistan intensified. Only ten blasphemy cases were heard in court from 1927 to 1985. From 1987-2012, the National Commission for Justice and Peace says 1,058 cases of blasphemy were registered. Of the accused, 456 were Ahmadis, 449 were Muslims, 132 were Christians and 21 were Hindus. A concerning 57% of those accused of blasphemy hail from the 4% of Pakistan’s religious minorities.
To date, no one has been executed under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, although at least 65 have been lynched or murdered since 1990. In April 2017, a student, Mashal Khan, was dragged out of his university housing by a mob of hundreds of students. He was beaten, shot and his body subsequently mutilated. Mashal was accused of harboring “anti-Islamic” views, although a police investigation after his murder found no evidence of such a case. ICJ’s 2015 study on the implementation of blasphemy laws in Pakistan stated over 80% of convictions are overturned on appeal due to evidence fabrication and lack of proof. The religious discrepancy and the acquittance rate lend credence to those who argue that the laws are tools for oppression and personal vendettas.
Reform and Resistance
Opposition to the blasphemy laws and calls for reform over the years have invoked mass public outrage and political violence from the conservative Muslim base and its radical extremist fringe. A Pew Research Center poll from November 2011 showed that 75% of Pakistani Muslims say blasphemy laws are necessary to protect Islam in their country, while only 6% say blasphemy laws unfairly target minority communities. This highlights that public support is a limiting reagent for law reform. International pressure for reform of the laws has been met with widespread public disapproval. Calls for the repeal of the law from the Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI in 2011 lead to mass demonstrations in support of the law. For this reason, all political parties are hesitant of antagonizing the conservative Muslim base and fringe religious elements such as TLP. For instance, in 2011, Sherry Rehman, an MP at the time and a vocal advocate for blasphemy law reform, dropped her efforts after accusing her party, the leftist Pakistan People’s Party, of giving into extremist pressure. The fundamentalist and Islamist elements sprouting from the country’s overwhelming 96% Muslim majority leaves little room for political traction to protect the country’s minorities. 
Some prominent voices that rose up through the canyons of silence included those of Salman Taseer, former Governor Punjab and former Minorities Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti. Both men were part of the Government during the Pakistan Peoples Party’s tenure from 2008 to 2013, around the time of the Asia Bibi case. Both opposed the blasphemy laws, decried their misuse and publicly showed support for Asia. In March 2011, Bhatti, the only Christian member of Cabinet at the time, was shot dead by gunmen who ambushed his car in the capital. In January of the same year, Salman Taseer was murdered in the same city by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri. Qadri was hanged in 2016 and his funeral was attended by thousands honoring him as a hero for his actions. The hanging took place on February 29th so the leap year would disrupt potential future annual demonstrations. TLP itself was formed by founding Chairman Khadim Hussain Rizvi to call for the release of Qadri before his hanging.
The Future
The reigning PTI party had called for a review of blasphemy laws in 2013 when they sat in the opposition. For their successful 2018 election campaign, however, PTI restructured their message to gain a foothold in the conservative strongholds of the PML-N in Punjab. Khan subsequently defended the blasphemy laws during the campaign. It is unclear where positive reform can sprout from given a lack of public support and a lack of political appetite to resolve such a sensitive issue. The global outrage and condemnation of the laws by human rights organizations are simply screams into an empty echo chamber with no escape in sight. It remains clear however, that until these draconian laws are repealed or reshaped that Asia Bibi’s case will remain a drop in an ocean of religious intolerance and constitutionally supported discrimination. 

Malala honoured for promoting girls’ education

Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai was honoured Thursday by Harvard University for promoting girls’ education. The 21-year-old received the 2018 Gleitsman Award from the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School for her global movement to equip girls with 12 years of free, quality, and safe education.
The award was presented to Malala at a public ceremony at Harvard Kennedy School.
In 2014, Malala became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her efforts for children’s rights. On October 2012, Malala was shot in the head at point-blank range by Taliban gunmen as she was returning from her school in Swat valley. Now 21, Malala is a student at Oxford University in England.
The Gleitsman Award provides $125,000 for activism that has improved quality of life around the world.
Earlier, David Gergen, professor of public service at Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Center for Public Leadership said, “Malala speaks powerfully to the strength and perseverance of women and girls who are oppressed.” He added, “Her remarkable story has inspired girls – and boys as well – to follow in her footsteps and has activated a generation of practitioners and legislators who are fighting for equality in their own communities.”
Gergen continued, “Alan Gleitsman, whose philanthropy made this award possible, believed in individuals whose vision inspired others to confront injustice.”
“He was an ardent supporter of Harvard Kennedy School’s efforts to cultivate the world’s youngest change makers and would be so pleased by today’s announcement,” the professor added.

What Trump’s USA must remember about terrorism when negotiating with Taliban & Pakistan

While trying to persuade Taliban and Pakistan to deliver peace, the US cannot afford to ignore the concerns of the Afghan govt.
President Donald Trump’s letter to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, reportedly seeking Islamabad’s assistance in bringing Afghanistan’s Taliban to the negotiating table, is reminiscent of a similar letter by President Obama to then President Asif Ali Zardari in 2009.
Veteran diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad is also in the region trying to reprise the role Richard Holbrooke played in finding a negotiated settlement for the quagmire in Afghanistan, of which Pakistan remains a major part.
If the Trump-Khalilzad effort is to be more successful than the Obama-Holbrooke exertions, it is important to understand what went wrong earlier.
Whenever the Taliban and Pakistan’s military-intelligence leadership sense that the US is eager to withdraw from Afghanistan, they express willingness to talk.
As I have argued in my article for Foreign Policy, the Taliban prefers to ‘fight and talk’, while Pakistan often advocates a ceasefire. Highly visible attacks following peace overtures, such as the assassination in October of Kandahar police chief, General Abdul Raziq, in an attack that narrowly missed the top US commander in Afghanistan, serve two purposes.
They reinforce the narrative that Afghanistan cannot be won militarily, while also convincing fellow Jihadis that the American eagerness to negotiate is the result of weakness.
For Pakistan, the US focus on withdrawal from Afghanistan offers an opportunity to engage with Washington and to possibly secure US economic and military assistance.
The US war effort in Afghanistan since 2001 has never involved deployment of maximum force and there has never been sufficient action to shut down cross-border support for the Taliban from Pakistani territory.
Corruption and venal politics in Afghanistan have contributed to the general unwillingness among Americans to endlessly expend blood and treasure in a distant land, with no end in sight.
American fatalities in Afghanistan have been relatively low in recent years. In 2015, ten American troops lost their lives; nine were killed in 2016; and eleven in 2017. In 2018, so far, 12 American soldiers have died in combat in Afghanistan along with four other coalition soldiers, according to a New York Times article. Meanwhile, 28,529 Afghan security personnel have been killed in the fighting since 2015.
The Trump administration and its special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad believe that the time is ripe for a negotiated settlement notwithstanding past difficulties in securing a deal.
Zalmay Khalilzad is an able and experienced diplomat, uniquely qualified to navigate the treacherous politics of Afghanistan where he was born and served as US ambassador during the George W. Bush administration.
President Trump has tapped the right person for a tough job, but even Khalilzad might not be able to overcome the gap in the thinking of the Taliban and the American outlook.
Pakistan’s economy is in a tailspin and the country’s need for an IMF bailout gives the US some useful leverage. But any transaction that gives Pakistan its bailout first might not lead to a satisfactory Pakistani role in helping the Americans. On the other hand, there is also the possibility that both sides could over-estimate their respective leverage – the US over the economy and Pakistan over an Afghan settlement – making a deal more difficult.
Realising the limitations imposed on the Holbrooke effort of over-dependence on Pakistan, Khalilzad is talking directly with the Taliban. He also recognises that Pakistan might support the insurgent leaders but does not completely control their insurgency.
But even after talking to Taliban leaders directly, things might not turn out to be as different from the past as some people in Washington would like to believe. On the eve of Khalilzad’s trip, Pakistan’s minister for human rights tweeted: “This time perhaps you [should] bring a less arrogant and hostile mindset when you visit Islamabad!”
The minister, Shireen Mazari, is well-known for her inflexible views about India, Israel and the United States and is considered a mouthpiece for hardliners in Pakistan’s military and intelligence service.
Her tweet was a reminder that not only is the Taliban a difficult enemy to reconcile with; some Pakistanis also have regional ambitions that are incompatible with American objectives.
While diplomats, like Khalilzad, are busy exploring peaceful outcomes for Afghanistan, these hardliners might be rooting for a Taliban victory following an American withdrawal.
Much of the discussion about Afghanistan in Washington since 2009 has focused on how America’s longest war can be brought to an early end. It is easily forgotten that just as defeating the Taliban militarily has proved difficult, negotiating with them has not been particularly easy either.
The Taliban has been playing the long game, hoping to wait the Americans out before defeating the inadequately trained Afghan forces. Their engagement with Khalilzad’s efforts comes amidst awareness that Americans are less focused right now on the need to deny safe havens to terrorists than they were in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
While negotiating with the Taliban, Americans must remember that international terrorism is not over and precipitating US withdrawal from terrorist-infested regions like Afghanistan would only recreate ungoverned spaces that could again serve as operational bases for global terrorists.
Assurances by the Taliban and Pakistan about clearing out international terrorists have been given several times since 1996 and have often turned out to be inadequate or outright false. If there is to be a settlement this time, it would have to involve verifiable guarantees that Afghan and Pakistani soil will not be used to harbour or train terrorists responsible for attacks around the world.
Furthermore, efforts for a settlement should not end up giving a fillip to the narrative of global jihad. Al-Qaeda was born out of the storyline that Jihadi ideology forced the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan and led to the collapse of one superpower, the Soviet Union.
If Americans are seen to abandon Afghanistan in a hurry, the Jihadis will tell future recruits how the combination of their real religious zeal and terrorism overcame the military prowess of two superpowers.
The ‘triumph of Jihad’ narrative would increase the flow of recruits to terrorist groups and might result in increasing the frequency of terrorist attacks around the world.
Equally important are the apprehensions of Afghans other than the Taliban. Since 2001, Americans have helped Afghanistan implement a democratic constitution, provide access to education for women and encouraged the desire among Afghans to engage with the rest of the world – developments that are anathema to the Taliban. Even while pretending to talk, they seldom express willingness to allow Afghanistan’s progress to continue.
President Ashraf Ghani recently outlined the Afghan government’s roadmap for achieving peace, which emphasised “a peace agreement in which the Afghan Taliban would be included in a democratic and inclusive society” and “no armed groups with ties to transnational terrorist networks or transnational criminal organizations, or with ties to state/non-state actors, seeking influence in Afghanistan will be allowed to join the political process”.
While trying to persuade the Taliban and Pakistan to deliver peace, the Americans cannot afford to ignore the concerns of the Afghan government.

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