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Asia Bibi case shows the danger of courting religious extremists

Has Asia Bibi left Pakistan or not? The rumor mill is working overtime because peace in Pakistan depends on ...

Posted: Nov 13, 2018 10:28 PM
Updated: Nov 13, 2018 10:28 PM

Has Asia Bibi left Pakistan or not? The rumor mill is working overtime because peace in Pakistan depends on the whereabouts of the Christian woman, acquitted of blasphemy charges after nine years in prison.

News of her acquittal on October 31 was met with the shutdown of major roads in cities such as Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, where cars were burnt and smashed by mobs organized by the Tehreek e Labbaik party (TLP), an extremist religious party.

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Even the news of her release from prison was greeted by a baying mob of thousands of men who waved banners demanding that she be hanged -- a terrifying and visceral picture of the patriarchy in action.

Despite being declared innocent by the courts, it is Asia who is on the run like a criminal and needs to leave the country before the mobs track her down.

Even her lawyer, Saiful Malook, had to uproot his life and family and seek asylum in the Netherlands. Other less well-known members of her legal team like Muhammad Aman Ullah, who has stayed behind in Pakistan, is fearful for his life.

How did this happen in a so-called democracy like Pakistan? Ever since the military dictator Zia ul Haq began the Islamisation process of Pakistan in the 1980s, religious leaders have acquired unprecedented power. Saiful Malook, who I interviewed in late 2017 while he was preparing Asia's case, lays the blame firmly on Zia ul Haq.

"He made them ministers, gave them cars, built them bungalows, got them involved in government. Before that the religious leaders were quite weak, now they are stakeholders in government and in corruption."

It was Zia ul Haq who revived the dormant British law on blasphemy by increasing the maximum penalty from 10 years to death. Yet the irony is that to date no one has been executed by the state on the charge of blasphemy, but many have been killed by the mob -- one estimate is 75.

It is also this mob rule that prevents the quick dispatch of blasphemy cases in the lower courts, even when the evidence provided is as flimsy as a flight of fantasy.

The political strategy of the extremists has been to pack out the courts at every blasphemy hearing so that judges are reduced to nervous wrecks and refuse to take on cases, pleading ill health.

If they do hear the cases, they simply do not acquit defendants. Lower-court judges are typically less educated and more sympathetic to the religious lobby.

Saiful Malook recounts the story of the judge who sentenced Asia Bibi to death, who has preserved the pen which he used to sign off her judgment as a source of pride.

The higher up you go in the Pakistani legal system, the more likely you are to get justice because judges further up the hierarchy are paid well and have security provided by the state.

Of course, even this security can turn out to be illusory as Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, was to discover when he was killed by his own guard in 2011 for visiting Asia in prison and calling for her to be released.

The few lawyers who take on these life-threatening cases command huge fees. Many of the blasphemy victims, like Asia, are just too poor to go all the way up to the Supreme Court and languish for years in prison.

But Asia caught the public imagination and donations poured into her campaign from all over the world. Rights organizations like Amnesty International also stepped in to help fund some of the legal fees.

Although the leadership of subsequent governments after Zia has been drawn from the liberal elites whose personal lives have eschewed religion to a greater or lesser degree, all of them, except General Pervez Musharraf, have relied on religious parties for their power. It was a strategy of appeasement and vote garnering.

Benazir Bhutto was the great feminist hope when she succeeded Zia but failed to overturn his Hudood ordinances, which, for example, required women to produce four witnesses to prove rape to avoid charges of adultery. Nawaz Sharif condemned religious violence against minorities but did very little to reverse the sharification of Pakistan.

Musharraf cultivated an image of Enlightened moderation, introduced some women-friendly laws and pushed back against religious forces.

However, Afiya Zia, a Pakistani activist and academic, in her new book "Faith and Feminism in Pakistan" says his policies were "more symbolic than transformative" while the backlash of radical conservatism against women went unchecked.

Imran Khan, elected to power recently, and yet to shake off his image as playboy of the Western world, plays a similarly duplicitous game.

He has valorized the Pakistani Taliban for standing against US imperialism, has aligned with religious-right parties like Jamaat-e-Islami at provincial level, has expressed his support for blasphemy laws, publicly supports the acquittal of Asia Bibi and then behind the scenes, does a deal with TLP accepting its demand for a review petition of the Supreme Court judgment and to keep Asia Bibi in the country.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom produces an annual report surveying the state of religious freedoms across the world. Pakistan has appeared regularly as a "Country of Particular Concern" and is the only country to be put on a special watch list in its 2018 annual report.

The religious right has so far not managed to win power at the ballot box, but its ability to rouse a rabble and paralyze the country has given it a disproportionate and vicious grip on what's left of democracy in Pakistan. Trump, take note: if you court religious extremists, you are in danger of letting mobs weaken democracy.

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