There has been much heated debate concerning the circumstances surrounding the arrest of a young Christian girl in Pakistan this week. These arguments, often concerned with her age, mental capacity and minute details of her actions, to name a few, have all very successfully distracted the public from the central issue: a young girl is being held captive against her will in the name of Islam.
As a Muslim, I am forced to wrestle with these occurrences on a basis all too regular. Having seen these injustices carried out in the name of my tradition for years during my work at the American Society for Muslim Advancement, the question arises again and again: Is it really true we share a faith with the individuals who commit such heinous acts?
What is so often forgotten is that it is not faith, but in fact ignorance, which drove the leader of a small, poor community in Islamabad to accuse a young, possibly handicapped girl of blasphemy and lock her away. It is ignorance that drives her captors to hold her without due trial and without lawyer visitation. It is ignorance that leads a community to believe the words of Allah are written on the pages of a book and not in the hearts of the faithful. It is ignorance, not Islam, that holds a thoroughly unjust law far above the suffering of the most helpless among us.
It is this lack of understanding that we -- both Muslim and non-Muslim -- must fight. To do so, I believe firmly we must begin with local imams and religious leaders. Employing cross-cultural imagery, to tend the flock, we must turn to the shepherd. Though the mistreatment of the young Christian girl highlights the massive injustice of the Pakistani blasphemy laws (the punishment of which, often mistakenly attributed to Islamic law, were implemented by militant dictator Gen. Zia), they also highlight the immense power the local imam holds over his community. This imam, acting on a misapplication of Islamic law, has been the impetus and driving force behind the accusation of the young girl and her punishment. He has acted as the fuel feeding the fiery rage of his community as they surround the family home of a vulnerable Christian minority, demanding the arrest of a young girl who, by most accounts, does not even have the mental capacity to understand why she is now imprisoned. She now sits captive, isolated by guards and concrete. I am forced to wonder if she has the ability to understand that this isolation may be permanent.
Though the current circumstances are dire, much can be done. The first action is of course the release of this small girl from custody, and to ensure her and her family's protection from potential community backlash. The second and much more involved motion is to eradicate ignorance from the leadership of local imams. At the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA) we have long recognized the influential weight imams hold as appointed religious leaders in their communities. In order to combat gender-based inequality in Afghanistan, ASMA, through the Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE), piloted the Imam Training Program to End Violence against Women (ITP) in 50 of the most conservative mosques in Kabul and Jalalabad. With this training, we were able to elevate the imam's discourse on gender topics, and allow them to see deeper and more fully apprehend the true message of their faith.
Through programs modeled after this one, we can increase real knowledge of Islam. We can mold leaders into the type who would understand the injustice of inequality, the essential nonviolence at the heart of Islam, or that, according to a true understanding of Islamic law, this young girl is in fact not guilty of blasphemy whatsoever. Had this imam been properly educated, he would know that "all actions are judged by their intention," and as this girl not only has Down syndrome but is also illiterate, clearly it was not her intention to blaspheme the Qurān. He would know that in the Hanafi school of law practiced in Pakistan, a minor cannot enter contracts or incur punishment. He would know that due process is integral to the Islamic system of law, and that in barring lawyer visitation, he, along with the local authorities, are standing in opposition to the Islamic faith and the teachings of the Prophet. He would know that Caliph Umar burned Qurāns (mus'haf), as it is an appropriate means of disposing of an old mus'haf. If he only knew the Qurān is not a book but rather, as the name means in Arabic, a recitation of that divine and exalted Word. We use a mus'haf to aid us in the recitation of this holy Word, but it is not the Word itself.
I maintain earnestly it is not Islam or Islamic law that led this imam and his community to mistreat a young, helpless girl the way they have. It is ignorance. Radical individuals uneducated in the tenets of Islamic law have consistently used Islam for completely non-Islamic ends. Every such occurrence is a blemish on the face of a faith that is fully based in compassion, non-violence, cultivation of knowledge, and equality in the eyes of Allah. A survey of history will reveal this is not exclusive to Islam, but in fact occurs in every religion, being a result not of a particular faith, but instead simply an extension of human flaw. I urge you to join us in the fight against this radical hijacking of a great world religion.