Pakistan: Down with Blasphemy

Little Rimsha Masih. Does she even know what is her crime?

Kiran Nazish Islamabad 

An 11-year-old Christian girl named Rimsha Masih was recently arrested on blasphemy charges at Islamabad in Pakistan. Accused of burning 10 pages of the holy Quran, Rimsha is reportedly suffering from Down’s Syndrome and is the youngest girl in the country to be charged with blasphemy. Her medical reports officially confirming her mental illness are still awaited even as President Asif Ali Zardari has taken note of the issue.

Blasphemy in Pakistan is punishable by death. ‘Christians of Pakistan’, an online forum of the Christian community who first reported the incident on August 18, 2012, complained about the issue not being picked up by the mainstream media for many days. The incident did not make it to the headlines for at least 24 hours. After the news made rounds on the internet, via Twitter and Facebook, with outraged readers expressing their views, a local paper, the Express Tribune, highlighted the ‘Christians for Pakistan’ report on its online news section.

Why was the issue ignored, instead of being covered objectively? Explained a staff member at the Express Tribune: "We usually cover such stories closely but everyone was busy with Eid holidays. No one was available to go to the slum where the incident happened and investigate. Hence, we did not take it up immediately."

According to an AFP report, "Police said the girl, Rimsha, was arrested in a Christian slum of the capital and remanded in custody for 14 days after a furious Muslim mob demanded she be punished." She was arrested under FIR no. 303/12 at 6:45 pm on August 17, 2012, by the women’s police station, on a complaint registered by ‘a neighbour’ Al Syed Muhammad Ummad. Police calls him a religious cleric but his identity is clouded in mystery.

The Christian community says they have received threats by neighbours and religious clerics: that their living quarters will be burnt down. About 300 people have left their homes because of these threats.

Eid, that comes after the holy month of fasting, was boycotted by some activists: "Eid cannot be celebrated as Rimsha struggles with intolerance that does not even spare children, while 300 of her community have been rendered homeless," said Baela Raza Jamil of the Pakistan Coalition for Education and Child Rights Movement (CRM). She added, "We need a vigil by all movements and coalitions indicating the fundamental flaws inherent in the blasphemy laws that lead to violations of this kind. My call is to the Child Rights Movement (CRM), Women's Action Forum (WAF), Citizens for Democracy (CFD), human rights networks, we need a landmark legislation for protecting the rights of children, minorities, women and the vulnerable in Pakistan." 

According to the Citizens for Democracy (CFD), many government officials and parliamentarians are aware of the issue while the situation is being moderated by adviser to the prime minister, Dr Paul Bhatti, who is engaging the police and local religious clerics in a constant dialogue. The Islamic clerics have agreed not to take any negative action. Pakistan's Ambassador to the US, Sherry Rehman, said in a tweet that she is coordinating with the interior minister while the human rights cell of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has expressed its concern.

Asad Ahmed, of Harvard University, who has done extensive research on blasphemy cases in Pakistan, says, "The government’s involvement can make a difference." The government can provide leadership in setting agendas for democratic and legal procedures. The issue is more ingrained with societal roots, and is backed by misleading religious concepts that religious clerics have been manipulating to sideline religious minorities. Such incidents mostly take place in low income areas where illiteracy is prevalent. Explains Asad, "There are lobbies which are unwilling to listen to any form of reasoned debate; they must be effectively sidelined. Unfortunately, it is difficult to do this since they argue that their position is consistent with classical Islamic law and they have the capacity to mobilize in urban areas effectively. A genuine attempt to re-engage with Islamic law, where the end is justice rather than an unthinking application of laws, is required."

The Christian community says they have received threats by neighbours and religious clerics: that their living quarters will be burnt down.

Ahmadis — a small Muslim community branded as ‘non-Muslim’ by the State of Pakistan in official documents, including in their passports and in the Constitution — and Christians, have been frequently targeted by these laws. Lawyers and activists want to bring alterations in the stringent blasphemy laws that have been creating chaos for the minorities. Yet, the fact that many individuals who want to take a stand are usually unwilling to reveal their individual identity, reflects the sensitivity of the issue.

A parliamentarian, who too prefers anonymity, says, "The first time when we were anticipating alterations by the government, the process was interrupted by the murder of Governor Salman Taseer (who was advocating in support of a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, accused of blasphemy). It is clear that the government went quiet since it did not want to see retaliation from religious extremist groups."

Amnesty International has urged the Pakistani government to protect the young girl and reform its blasphemy laws. For now, Rimsha's fate lingers in her medical statement, which will decide if she can be absolved.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2012