Pakistan must stand by Asia Bibi, voices of zealots must be smothered



By Faryal Leghari

This article was first published in Gulf News 

A momentous decision was reached last week by Pakistan’s Supreme Court which acquitted an alleged blasphemer, Asia Bibi, on death ro, awaiting a decision on her plea.

It was a moment of triumph for Pakistan, a victory for the nation over the bigoted, hate mongering zealots who have used the blasphemy tool mercilessly over the years. But the developments that ensued proved that despite the commendable judicial stand, there is much that needs to be done to rein in the resurgence of religious extremism at home.  

Not only have countless non-Muslim citizens paid with their lives over blasphemy charges, but those who dared contest these on behalf of an accused individual or who expressed any support in such cases have had to face death threats or were forced into exile.

Their attackers, the self-proclaimed defenders of prophethood, were too often hailed as the true warriors of Islam, declared shaheeds (martyrs) if/when executed, their graves turned into shrines. A case in point, Mumtaz Qadri, former Punjab governor Salman Taseer’s bodyguard, who killed him in broad daylight in Islamabad for supporting Assia Bibi’s cause.

Such was the fear of the wrath unleashed by the blasphemy brigade that the PPP government refrained from executing Qadri for killing Taseer. That task fell to Nawaz Sharif’s government, which uncharacteristically, ordered the execution. Qadri’s subsequent sainthood as decreed by organisations such as the Tehrik –e-Labaik-Pakistan was a disturbing development. Yet, it was tactfully ignored.

After all what can one do, in power or without, when rogue organisations and Islamist groups rise together to challenge anyone questioning their behavior when it comes loaded under the guise of defending the sanctity of Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) prophethood. This entails any point on the finality of prophethood or any blasphemous words or actions, decided usually by a local cleric and buoyed by witnesses who often have a grudge against the alleged blasphemer.

The growth in numbers of self-righteous zealots who are encouraged to take the law in their hands and resort to violence if the law decides in favour of an alleged blasphemer is even more disturbing.  What is more alarming is the inevitable impact of such a narrative on the younger generation for whom lynching in the name of righteous Islam would become a norm.

In the wake of Asia’s acquittal was the recent circulation of a video clip on social media in which a group of small children are seen hanging a doll named Assia and chanting slogans in the name of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). That for any one should sound alarm bells louder than TLP leader Khadim Rizvi’s foul mouthed tirades, inciting people to take to the streets.  

But frankly this article is not so much about Pakistan’s dreaded blasphemy law whose legal and political implications actually deserve a whole thesis.  It is about surrender to extremism, and, not realising that the Faustian deal one makes for the future of one’s political wellbeing by going with the flow is likely to have a far worse impact on the country’s stability, both political and economic than any threat from outside.

Call it appeasement or strategic retreat, but it is surrender, especially when each backward step only strengthens the extremists in an environment where fear reigns supreme. This is not progress nor political wisdom. Have we not learnt a lasting lesson from allowing Mullah Fazlullah the space to take over Swat and establishing his writ there? 

Weakness of government, lack of political will and procrastination based on fear of reprisals on the political standing of notables from the area actually emboldened the Fazlullah faction to rapidly gain traction.  

As a result, at a very heavy financial cost and that of irredeemable human lives, it had to take whole regiments to wrest Swat back from his grip and to rid the area of the Taliban threat.

Are we not repeating the same mistake with the TLP? It could actually be a far graver one as this very organisation is now a political force, the fifth largest party in the country. It has gained political legitimacy but resorts to lawlessness and violence as and when it deems fit. When it almost brought the PMLN government to its knees over a lapse in providing legal protection to the finality of prophethood last year, it was being inadvertently supported by the PTI.

And now it is the same PTI, after being on the receiving end of the sordid fury of the TLP, succumbed to its demands by signing a pathetic agreement, which technically leaves the main protagonist, Assia in the lurch.

The TLP is clearly baying for blood and have demanded that the government put her on the exit control list. Even if the PTI tries to wriggle out of this one by putting the onus on the judiciary for the conditions set in the agreement it faces a bigger dilemma. To stand by the truth and do what is morally right or bear the brunt of the religious right whose crippling powers have been nurtured and abetted by the establishment in one way or another.  Please note that the TLP’s tirade had also been directed at the army chief. This implies a very brazen threat to the military ranks.

For us as a nation, it was a collective moment of pride when Imran Khan delivered his address on the eve of the acquittal, vowing that he would not allow anyone to paralyse the state or disrupt the government. Even those in the opposition could not have faulted Khan’s impassioned and firm stand against the TLP. At long last, there was one politician who had dared stand ground against the rabid zealots.

Even if it did seem strange that the premier chose not to mention the resignation demand for the PTI government by the TLP issued in the same breath as the targeting of the judiciary and the army chief. There is no doubt Khan is the blue-eyed boy of the establishment and has successfully avoided the judiciary’s hammer so far.

Hence, his show of loyalty should not surprise. But what then? For despite Khan’s brave avowals his government was left to eat its words after he jetted off to China and his party was left scrambling to defuse the crisis.

No other legislation has had such a devastating impact for thousands that fell prey to its misuse ever since it was conceived.  And it is expected that it would continue to exercise the same insidious leverage for countless others unless the wind is taken out of its sails. The million-dollar question is how that would ever happen in a country where even the most powerful civilian government is sent into a state of paralysis every time a few thousands stick wielding religious zealots take to the streets over the blasphemy clause.

But for now, the PTI must show the moral courage to stand by the Supreme Court’s decision and provide the judiciary the highest security. It must also lend Assia the respect and security she deserves, especially after suffering slander and imprisonment for the past many years. Moreover, it must have a well strategised plan to deal with the aftermath in case Asia is granted asylum by another country and the PTI decides to arrange a secret exit for her and her family.

With all due respect, it is the least Pakistan can do for the poor woman.

The opinions in this article are of the writer only and do not represent the views of The Weekly Pakistan.

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