The eyes of the free world are riveted on the crisis in Pakistan as the high stakes drama unfolds of the persecuted Christian mother Asia Bibi and the brave Muslim father Salman Taseer, both Pakistani, now inextricably linked to the future outcome of Pakistan. One victim is dead for defending the life of the other victim of political maneuvers and probable greed with tremendously divisive religious implications.
The vulnerable young woman, Asia Bibi, remains under threat of death by unjust judicial means or by yet another assassination in Pakistan, since an Imam has put a bounty on her head for purportedly making a blasphemous remark, which she denies. The world community is shocked and outraged by the immoral death sentence pronounced on Asia Bibi, under the country's blasphemy statute, and the hideous murder this week of Salman Taseer for defending her and supporting the repeal of this inhumane decree.
This controversial law undermines religious freedom, the core principle on which Pakistan was founded in 1947, and now threatens the future of Pakistan and world security. Asia Bibi has been in prison for more than 16 months. She was accused of blasphemy by co-workers who refused to drink from the same water that a non-Muslim drank (and who apparently stand to gain by her family's land being taken with her demise) causing a gross miscarriage of justice against her and leading to murder and mayhem in Pakistan, a relatively new country in grave turmoil with nuclear bomb capabilities and a key partner to America's foreign policy and military endeavors in the "war on terror."
President Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) does not have the votes in Parliament to repeal these dysfunctional statutes. Just this past month another outrageous incident took place in Hyderabad, Pakistan, resulting in a doctor, Naushad Walyani, being arrested, jailed and threatened with the death sentence. The physician simply threw away a business card from a pharmaceutical salesman whose name on the card happened to be "Muhammad" thereby he is accused of blasphemy under the archaic law. It is despicable that Nawaz Sharif, head of the second-largest political party, refuses to join with Zardari to change the law and release prisoners being oppressed and murdered by this means.
Worldwide media and government leaders reacted strongly this week to this immense travesty of justice when a government bodyguard murdered Asia Bibi's courageous Muslim defender Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, in cold blood. His trusted bodyguard shot 29 bullets into him. This heroic man was gunned down while 11 others of his security team stood by and did absolutely nothing to help him. The conspired assassination of this righteous Pakistani was an assault on all Pakistanis and humanity. It is meant to destabilize an already fragile coalition government for political purposes that have far reaching potential consequences for the rest of the world.
This monstrous event was repugnantly celebrated on a Facebook site that promoted support for this crime and disturbingly attracted within minutes of its creation more than 1,600 people who agreed with the murder of Salman Taseer because he defended the basic human rights of Asia Bibi. There was even a photo of Salman Taseer displayed with a "red X" marked on it along side a photo of Pakistan's "pro-America" President Zadari, denoting he may be next. These criminal bully tactics, like drug cartel or mafia gangsters, are undertaken to provoke fear and terror so that good people do nothing to fight evil acts and vicious laws. Adding to the mayhem in Pakistan, 500 Muslim clerics signed a document opposing the repeal of these barbaric blasphemy laws acting against the Constitution of Pakistan and Holy Qur'an teachings.
During my visits throughout Pakistan I have come to know the Pakistani people and the positive potential of this country for business opportunities if it was permitted to become a pluralistic democratic state as envisioned by its founding father, Quaid-i-Azam (great leader in Urdu) Mahomed Ali Jinnah. Pakistanis of all political parties need only to read their 1956 Constitution encompassing the vision set forth by the secular statesman Jinnah, to recognize that the blasphemy laws are totally antithetical to the purpose of Pakistan being established as a democratic nation.
The Preamble begins with "In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, and the Merciful." The first Pakistanis could have chosen any other of the 99 monikers attributed to Allah in Islam but they notably chose "Beneficent and Merciful." It continues, "Whereas the principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice as enunciated by Islam, should be fully observed; Whereas adequate provision should be made for the minorities to profess and practise their religion and develop their culture."
Furthermore, the Qur'an states "there is no compulsion in religion." Anecdotal to note that Jinnah "Father of the Nation" of Pakistan was born on Christmas Day 1876 which is celebrated dually in Pakistan with the birth of Jesus. Interesting that Jinnah died on September 11, 1948. Jinnah not only respected the rights of freedom of religion and equality for all citizens of Pakistan, but it was the central motivation for breaking away from India and forming a secular government with Islamic principles and minority protection guaranteed.
President Zardari, the only pro-America, pro-Democracy leader in Pakistan since his assassinated wife Benazir Bhutto was Prime Minister, has courageously expressed the need to repeal these discriminatory laws. Zadari faces a daunting challenge from political interests that are beholding to the minority of Islamist activists who have their own political agenda affecting Pakistan's future as a democratic nation and ultimately world security.
Minutes before Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in Rawalpindi in December 2007 she completed the last edits to her book, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West where she stated that Pakistan was the epicenter for the world's future. She noted that it was the only place where there are nukes and Islamic extremism and Bhutto proclaimed that righteous people of all religions must stand together to fight evil intentions in her country for world security. The U.S. government and other governments should support President Zadari and those in Pakistan who are willing to risk their lives and their political capital to repeal these dangerous laws, lest Pakistan be taken over again by those who oppose even basic human rights including freedom of religion. Before the United States Congress provides any further funding to Pakistan, the State Department should require that these rights be ensured for all of Pakistan's citizens according to their own Constitution.
The blasphemy statute, forced upon Pakistan by the military dictator Zia ul Haq, was one of the first examples in Pakistan of manipulation and exploitation of Islam for political gain. Zia's protégé Nawaz Sharif, heading the anti-American Pakistan Muslim League PML(N), continues the politicization of Islam. Pervez Musharraf, another military dictator, defended the outrageous Hadood ordinances requiring female rape victims to produce four witnesses to rape or face arrest for adultery. Yet it took only two witnesses, who were reported to not even be at the purported incident, to cause this unjust death sentence to be imposed on Asia Bibi.
The death sentence against Asia Bibi for blasphemy is not only directed against her, but against all of Pakistan, a nation striving to improve its international reputation. The blasphemy laws are woefully contrary to the protection of minorities guaranteed in the Pakistan Constitution. A study by the National Commission for Justice and Peace reports that 964 Muslims, Ahmedis, Christians, Hindus and other have been charged under this ordinance. Vigilantes have murdered thirty-two people charged with blasphemy.
Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court said, "The treatment meted out to the woman was an insult to humanity." Bibi's Muslim neighbor, Sunni, sympathetically agrees, "This poor woman has done nothing wrong except that she happens to own some agricultural land and Punjabi Muslim men want it and the easiest way to get it is to accuse blasphemy. With our neighbor Iran sentencing women to death every day, the judge wants to prove he is as good a Muslim as the Iranians. Poor Pakistan." Sadly, a Peshawar Imam offered 500,000 rupees ($5,700) to anyone who murders this mother of five children including a disabled child, which forced Bibi's family to flee their home while she remains imprisoned.
The politicization of Islam, whether by terrorists or jihadist fanatics, is a perversion of the Qur'an. Islam respects Jesus as a "holy Prophet, a righteous man of charity and mercy" and teaches reverence of His mother, the "Virgin Mary." Islam accepts Jews and Christians as fellow descendents of Abraham and "people of the Book." Arguably there are contradictions in the Qur'an and The Hadiths regarding treatment toward non-Muslims but the embrace by Islam of some sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity guarantees physical safety for monotheistic believers. "Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews and the Christian, whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve." These words, believed by Muslims to be Divine Revelation from Allah, are inconsistent with the blasphemy laws of Pakistan and the resulting heinous charges levied on Asia Bibi.
Salman Taseer took a bold stand for religious freedom and justice, heroically giving of his own life for the future of his country. He should not have died in vain. President Zadari should not stand-alone in the effort to make Pakistan a true democracy, as was the vision of its founders. Contact your political and religious leaders and tell them to support Zardari in this fight for justice with the immediate release and safe passage of Asia Bibi and her family. The case of Asia Bibi is a defining moment in Pakistan's future in the community of nations. It is time for all who believe in good to stand together for freedom and respect of human life and reject all acts of terror and discrimination and for all Muslims to speak out against the political exploitation of Islam and illustrate the Islam of mercy and love as Salman Taseer did; thereby saving the world from the historical result of indifference, death and destruction. The Talmud sums it up best, "He who saves a life, saves the world" and Jesus Christ taught how, "Love your neighbor, as you love yourself."
Noel Irwin Hentschel specializes in World Religions and Global Ethics at the Franciscan School of Theology and is CEO of American Tours International and The Noel Foundation in Los Angeles.