On October 23, 2014, Aasia Bibi -- the most prominent blasphemy case death-sentence prisoner in the history of one of Pakistan's most controversial laws -- had her appeal for retraction of her punishment met with rejection at the Lahore High Court. Her lawyers will move the appeal to the Supreme Court, which seems like an exercise in futility since the Court's backlog of cases will not allow the hearing of this controversial (read: unimportant) case until 2017. And Aasia Bibi, languishing in jail on a case full of holes, will go on suffering one endless day at a time, dying inwardly, while waiting, silently, without hope, for that final moment when she would become the first woman in the history of Pakistan to be hanged for "desecration" of the faith Pakistan was created to "safeguard." Ostensibly.
Human rights organizations in Pakistan and globally have erupted in outrage vis-à-vis the upholding of Aasia Bibi's death sentence. A case that had Pope Benedict XVI appeal to then Pakistan government for clemency has unleashed the Pandora's box of how one law in a Muslim state has been misused not just to persecute its dangerously dwindled minorities, but also many from its main religion: Islam. The word "minorities" is abhorrent to me, but I'm forced to use it for purposes of simplification for all who are unfortunate to be citizens of a country that has convoluted into such a bigoted, fanatic "fortress" of the faith of its almost 96% population that many of those who are not Muslim wish they were anywhere but here. I read the reports of international groups and activists who expressing anger and dismay at Aasia Bibi's appeal-rejection intend to put pressure on Pakistan government to overturn the sentence. I also read statements of many Christian groups in Pakistan whose years' long fights to have Aasia Bibi's unjust sentence revoked in a court of law remain fruitless. I, as a practicing Muslim, hear these very brave, very resilient voices echo in a well, cyclically, in the asphyxiating, verging-on-blind bigotry of the confines of that hallowed institution called the court of law in a Muslim country called Pakistan.
What is the real issue here? The alleged desecration of the religion of the majority? Or the blatant desecration of the religion of the "minorities"? Since Allah decrees clearly in the Quran, "There is no compulsion in religion" (2:256), what is it that the adherents of one of Allah's religions are attempting to establish here? The obeisance to faith by the blade of a sword is neither sanctioned nor viable in the world that reverberates of many beliefs and multiple narratives. Acceptance and respect come from within, from the soul, and no amount of forced declarations would prove to be sufficient to establish the superiority of one faith over the other. The divides are becoming wider with the lines delineated in blood, and the blood congealing in distorted shapes only to await more persecuted bodies thrown in the circle without any armor of protection.
Blasphemy law, created in 1927 by the British in then united Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, was a penal code for "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religious belief." The law emphasized that there would no discrimination in religions, and it would be applicable to all. After General Ziaul Haq, the military dictator who ruled Pakistan from 1977 to 1988, made multiple additions to the blasphemy law, which included life imprisonment for the defiling or desecrating of the Holy Quran. In 1986, the death penalty was the harshest addition to the law for anyone found guilty of desecration or defaming of Islam.
Since then, although no death sentence has been carried out in a blasphemy case, there have been more than 4,000 cases (since 1927), and many lives have been ruined. Without even elaborating the importance of tenets of forgiveness and mercy of a religion of whose holy book has 113 of its 114 surahs begin with "In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful, the legality of a penal code is a discussion that merits its own space. Settling of scores, elimination of personal rivals, persecution of weaker individuals and groups, terrorizing the population... name it, and you would find the application of blasphemy law to camouflage a nefarious motive. That is the most blatant distortion of a law created to safeguard religious sensibilities that does not find much credence or even mention anywhere in a highly fragile balance of what goes for personal, legal and religious domains of lives in Pakistan today.
The story of Aasia Bibi is not about disrespect of Islam. The story of Aasia Bibi is that of the persecution of a Christian woman by the allegation of that one thing that is unbearable to Muslims: desecration of their Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). To me, and all Muslims, there is no person more important, more sacred than our Prophet (PBUH). And to me, any disrespect shown to him is a matter of great personal distress. The acceptance and respect of all prophets mentioned in the Quran, and even the non-Abrahamic religions is ingrained in my consciousness, and the plurality of faiths is something I acknowledge as a part of my mortal existence. And in my entire life -- except for myriad, very unpleasant, experiences on Twitter, I have never encountered a single instance of disrespect to my faith, its tenets, and most importantly, to its Messenger from any person who does not share my faith. I grew up with Christians as my neighbors and friends; I studied with many, and I interacted with countless. And to date, I am unable to think of a singular derogatory word from anyone of those around me about Islam and its icons. Any Muslim that I ask -- of any age, belief and background -- has the same testimonial about the people of other faiths they have interacted with, personally and otherwise. Therefore, the idea of a poor, Christian woman rotting in jail for years is a matter of great concern to me. To me it is very simple because I believe justice is not just delayed in her case, but is blind due to fear of bigoted backlash.
As per Aasia Bibi's lawyers, most of her fellow villagers, and some well-known political and feudal names -- people unrelated to the case -- who hail from Nankana (her hometown), the story is about a fight between a poor woman and some people who had a problem with the mere existence of people of her faith. The fight was turned into a non-discussable issue once the word "blasphemy" was thrown in. The hearsay became words etched in stone. Testimonies of unreliable so-called witnesses became irrefutable facts. Altered statements of the prosecuting side become the last word in reliable evidence. And the system of appeal becomes convoluted before the request was even read. This is a case where the accused was declared guilty before the trial even reached a court, and the trial in court merely ended up becoming a repetition of the trial outside the court.
I don't write to have my outrage quoted in some international publication. I don't write to have my article Favorited/Retweeted by those who live in other countries or practice other faiths. I don't write to be praised for my "bravery" to speak up about a "taboo" subject. The SOLE reason why I write about Aasia Bibi is because to me she is that one more person who has been jailed for being: a) poor b) a woman c) Christian, and d) a poor, Christian, woman who dared to fight with those who claim to have the copyright to morality -- ethical and religious: Muslims. As Aasia Bibi spends most of her time in solitary confinement (since June 2009), her children and husband, forced to move five times, hiding their identities in fear of persecution, the big questions remain unanswered. As expected.
How did the Blasphemy Law, which as per many leading Islamic scholars including Dr Javed Ghamidi, has no basis in the Quran, and which came into existence because of the "divide-and-rule" wiles of the imperialistic British in the Subcontinent, have become a "forbidden" topic in Pakistan? How has the Blasphemy Law become that one subject whose very mention makes you a pariah in society, in media? How has a man-made law been exploited to enforce respect of a divine religion and its icons? How has the law been used to settle scores, persecute the "undesirables" of all faiths (including Islam) without any fear of reprisal? How did the flaky testimony of two Muslim women who started the fight, insulted Aasia Bibi's faith (blasphemous as per Section 295-A & 298 of the Blasphemy Law), and called her "untouchable," made Aasia Bibi worthy of a death sentence while those two "pious" women remained free of any reprimand? How did the demeaning of one of Allah's most revered prophets, Jesus-Isa (PBUH) become so inconsequential that no one even mentioned it? And how in the world, a case based on hearsay, on words -- NOT anything that involved blasphemous acts insulting Islam or spreading hatred against it -- uttered in a personal fight -- became a legal -- forget about religious and ethical grounds here -- justification for sentencing a poor, Christian woman to death?