Qanta A. Ahmed

Pakistan and blasphemy

Eleven-year-old Rimsha Masih, a Christian Pakistani girl with Down’s Syndrome, remains incarcerated, due to an accusation of blasphemy filed against her by a mendacious cleric who is now on remand for framing the child with planted evidence. The child has been confirmed by physicians to be both a minor and mentally disadvantaged — despite Pakistan police’s initial dispute of both her age and her mental health. This is business as usual for the world’s first Muslim democracy.

While the Muslim world delights in berating Israel for its treatments of the disputed territories and their residents, often questioning Israel’s very right to exist, it is in fact that “democratic darling” of the Muslim world — Pakistan — that sets the bar for abuse of the voiceless, the vulnerable, and those without representation: abuses carried out by the hands of Muslims, usually (but not exclusively) on fellow Muslims.

At 65, the world’s first Muslim democracy remains neither democratic nor Islamic. Less than a week after Independence Day celebrations and days after Eid-ul-Fitr marked the end of Ramadan — a month when Muslims persevere in charity and forbearance — Pakistan has arrived at a new, God-awful low. It is time for Muslims to challenge Pakistan on its right to exist as a purported democracy when it clearly violates all principles of liberal democracies.

As a Jewish democracy, Israel safeguards the right to worship and freedom of belief, including within the disputed territories. Israel hosts not only centers of worship for all faiths, including important centers for both the Bahai faithful and the pacifist Ahmadi Muslims (both in Haifa) — the latter group is the most viciously persecuted minority in Pakistan — but also provides Muslim Sharia courts and rabbinical courts as well as secular courts to settle disputes for its residents.

Principles of democracy aside, the Quran, (purportedly the overarching source guiding Pakistan’s lawmakers) itself renounces any compulsion in faith:

“Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256) — a compulsion not specifically referring to Islam but the nature of any religious belief.

Pakistan’s Islamists patently defy this central creed, and instead legislate and prosecute others, acting as God’s alter ego when minorities dare exercise their own religious will.

There can be no question about enforcement of religious expression. Islam is very clear. Because Islam enshrines free will as the basis of sincere belief, Islam reserves even the choice for a Muslim to leave Islam between him and his maker. Apostasy is punishable (if at all) only by divine judgment — not by that of mortals. Unsurprisingly, therefore, no punishment is specified in the Quran for exercising one’s free will to abandon or change belief. By judging, prosecuting and, indeed, killing others for a fictional crime deemed to be blasphemy — a judgment Muslims know to be man-made — they have committed the gravest offense possible in Islam. Pakistan’s Islamists have equated themselves with God.

Even though her accusation has been shown to be patently false, Rimsha remains in police custody at Adiala Jail, outside Rawalpindi, remanded on Pakistan’s punitive Penal Code 295-B:

Whoever willfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Quran or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.

If found guilty, Rimsha remains punishable by death. Pakistan now enforces the harshest anti-blasphemy laws in the world, which it metes upon its minority population. Among Pakistan’s 180 million, the minorities are a sizeable proportion of the country – 18% Shia, 3% Ahmadi Muslim, 2% Christian, 2% Hindu, and 2% other including Bahai, Parsis, animists, Buddhist and others. Accusations of blasphemy are often manufactured on hearsay, as this appalling case demonstrates. Testimony of minorities, if even considered, is weighted less than that of a Muslim witness. The testimony of a male non-Muslim is half that of a male Muslim (of the officially sanctioned kind), while that of a female non-Muslim carries one fourth the weight. Minorities couldn’t be more vulnerable. Some “democracy.”

Mohammed Ali Jinnah founded Pakistan with democratic ideals for a government which protected all citizens — minorities included — as equal. He most eschewed sectarian violence which had defined the fate of Muslims in British India, his driving motive for sovereignty to protect the Muslim minority. On the eve of the formation of Pakistan, he underlined the lessons learned from the past, stating that neither creed nor caste would be the business of the state,” and deeming religion beyond the bounds of state provenance.

But Jinnah’s liberal democracy was soon to be dismembered by Pakistan’s legalized persecution of religion sanctioned by the blasphemy laws. Today’s Pakistan is a masterclass in Islamist lawfare – a veritable blue print for the abuse of law to effectuate subordination, conquest and control of less powerful groups.

A hybrid of Islamist Sharia engrafted upon and legitimized by a westernized legal matrix, the blasphemy laws are an evolution of the Islamism seeded first by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who, for reasons of political expediency, declared the pacifist Ahmadi Muslims minority as non-Muslim in 1974. Soon after, Pakistani President General Zia-ul-Haq launched the 1978 Islamization program, rooting hard-line Sunni Islamist policies firmly and permanently into Pakistan.

Currying favor with influential Islamists and their voting blocks, General Zia appointed Sharia benches, subjugating all parliamentary laws to their authority. In under a decade, the Federal Sharia Court dismantled portions of 55 federal laws and 212 provincial laws, all of which were found to be “contrary” to “Islamic law.” Abruptly, Islamist law-fare changed Pakistan’s constitution from a pluralistic, Westernized value system to enforced Islamist neo-orthodoxy. Minorities were immediately vulnerable, and have never recovered the equal status toward which Jinnah aspired on their behalf.

At presidential decree, the federal sharia courts legitimized criminal ordinances passed by Pakistan’s parliament. Five ordinances targeted religious minorities, laws which criminalized blasphemy. Today the blasphemy laws punish the defilement of the Quran; any insult to the family, companions or personage of the Prophet; and two laws expressly targeting Pakistan’s tiny pacifist Muslim community – the Ahmadi Muslims.

While Ahmadi Muslims have borne 40% of all attacks, Christians are also frequent targets of persecution. Over 100 Christians have been arrested for blasphemy since the laws were enacted. Some were forced to flee overseas for safety; others were found dead while in prison, or tortured and beaten while awaiting trial. Like these Christians, Rishma and her family are unlikely to ever be able to return to their home or village. Once charged with blasphemy (often on tenuous hearsay) ‘blasphemers’ are punishable by death. Even if released on clemency, the accused are likely to be lynched. Though no one has been executed by the state for blasphemy, dozens have been murdered by mob violence after accusation, proof that the laws incite vigilantism.

Valiant Pakistanis have tried to decapitate the blasphemy laws, most famous among them the late governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer. At a minimum, Taseer sought their repeal and the elimination of the death penalty as their punishment, coming to the very public defense of a Pakistani Christian woman, Assiya Noreen Bibi, who is still imprisoned today for purported blasphemy.

For his sense of justice, and unwavering belief in the spectral remnants of Pakistan’s mutilated democracy, Taseer, a powerful politician and newspaper magnate, was murdered. The international outcry was tepid and short-lived. Pakistani extremists justify his killing, stating Taseer died as a result of the “lawful” execution authorized by the Blasphemy Law, Section 295(c) of the Pakistani Penal Code. Pakistan valorized his assassin,  Mumtaz Qadri, as a “defender of the faith” who had responded to fatwas calling for his death.

Lawmakers feted a euphoric Qadri, garlanding him in pink roses. Ranks of lawyers rose to their feet in adulation, standing on the rose petals inside the very courtroom where he was arraigned. These are the lawmakers to whom Rishma must appeal for “justice.”

Face it: Pakistan is nothing but a pastiche passing for democracy, a grotesque collage of the harvested organs of a borrowed democracy engrafted within a lifeless cadaver. Shamed by the glare of the global spotlight, Pakistan’s All Ullema Council now calls for the release and protection of the mentally vulnerable minor. Pray tell: Where has it been these past 30 years as the atrocities piled up? Where was the outcry for others, equally powerless, equally voiceless?

Admittedly, memories of Jinnah and his ideals are fast fading. I last visited Jinnah’s final resting place in 2008, a Karachi memorial I had first seen when I was barely 4. This year, defying a 40-year family tradition, I didn’t bother going – there was no need. His Pakistan no longer exists. Instead, where once there was a nascent democracy, I find an  entire nation entombed, a mausoleum of Muslims lockstep in worship to a manmade, Islamist God. Unnoticed, Pakistan left the ranks of civilized society long ago. And like it or not, there can be no debate about that.

About the Author
Qanta Ahmed, MD, is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, a life member, Council on Foreign Relations and an Honorary Fellow at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. She is the author of 'In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom'