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November-26-2018 Asia Bibi incites Islamists

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Release of alleged blasphemer Asia Bibi incites Islamists

by Dr. Ida Lichter

24 November 2018

The acquittal of Asia Bibi, sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, exposes the perilous religio-political faultlines in Pakistan and potential for violent aftershocks. Her predicament challenges the UN and Western countries that flaunt their commitment to freedom of speech and religion, and minority rights.

In 2009, Bibi, a Catholic farmhand in the Punjab, was charged with blasphemy after drinking from a cup reserved for Muslims and an argument that followed.

The impoverished, illiterate mother of five was beaten almost unconscious by a mob before she was arrested and later sentenced to death by hanging. In her defence, she said she was falsely accused to settle a private dispute.

After Bibi’s eight years on death row, and several appeals and delays, three judges of the Suprem¬e Court overturned her conviction for lack of credible evidence.

Prior to the landmark decision, the Islamist group Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan threatened a nation¬wide lockdown if she were freed. In the riots that followed the verdict, mobs led by the TLP called for the dissolution of government and execution of the three judges who freed Bibi. A bounty was placed on her head.

Initially, Prime Minister Imran Khan defended the ruling but the government soon surrendered to Islamist groups that threatened crippling protests unless Bibi was barred from leaving Pakistan, all arrested rioters were released, and a petition to reverse her acquittal proceeded. Following death threats, Bibi’s lawyer, Saif ¬Mulook, fled to The Netherlands.

During 2011, two politicians were murdered for speaking in her defence and trying to change the blasphemy code. Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, and minister for minority affairs, was assassinated. Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, was shot dead by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, whose trial and execution sparked violent mass protests by extremists and spawned formation of the TLP.

Although no one has been executed for blasphemy in Pakistan, more than 65 alleged offenders have been murdered since 1990. Ahmadi Muslims, Hindu and Christian minorities are vulnerable.

Muslims are not immune. Last year, university student Mashal Khan was lynched by an irate mob for allegedly offending Islam.

Apart from Pakistan, capital punishment is imposed by Iran, Saudi Arabia and Mauritania, but charges of blasphemy also abound in Egypt, India, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Indonesia. In Bangladesh, the principal of a college was arrested because the school ¬library owned a copy of Shame, the story of a persecuted Hindu ¬family. Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen was forced to flee due to death threats.

Increased risk of Islamist extremism in Pakistan in the 1980s followed the Islamisation measures of president Zia ul Haq, and the radicalisation that took hold in the Soviet Afghanistan era. They were superimposed on long-standing ties between the Pakistan military and Islamist groups.

Blasphemy allegations and persecution of minorities intensified after 1987, when Article 295c, mandating capital punishment for blasphemy, was added to Pakistan’s penal code.

Aiming to embed international penalties for criticising Islam, Pakistan introduced non-binding “defamation of religions” resolutions to the UN Human Rights Council from 1999 onwards. They were sponsored by the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation — a large Muslim bloc in the UN.

Defamation of religions, however, was unacceptable to Western countries, which recognised defamation against a person but not against a concept.

A joint effort between the Obama administration and the OIC crafted a new resolution more palatable to the West. Resolution 16/18, introduced by Pakistan in 2011, represented defamation of religion in terms of incitement to religious hatred, and basically equated the two. Incitement was left open to a broad interpretation that effectively limited freedom of speech.

Few journalists questioned the resolutions, in particular 16/18, when Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, then secretary-general of the OIC, spoke at the National Press Club in Canberra in 2012.

Some of the notions of defamation have penetrated the West. The European Court of Human Rights found Austrian Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff guilty of offensive speech during her seminars on Islam.

Bibi’s case has received attention from the Pope and the EU, which has linked the future of Pakistan’s free-trade status with her fate.

Notably, the feminist movement has not campaigned in her defence. Italy, France and Spain have reportedly offered asylum to Bibi but Britain capitulated for fear of civil unrest and attacks on its embassies abroad.

There is no easy solution to Pakistan’s woes, and religio-political tremors in this politically volatile nuclear power and Western ally could threaten the region and international order.

Yet the UN and the West should defend Bibi, her lawyer, the three judges, and reformers such as Bhatti and Taseer. NGOs could stand with many in Pakistan who object to the blasphemy laws because they are archaic, barbaric, and often misused to settle scores.

Western values and freedoms are at risk unless leaders declare such laws anathema to UN human rights treaties, and are willing to expose the expansion of blasphemy laws.

Exoneration of Bibi presents an opportunity for urgent reform of the extremist ideology that decrees capital punishment for blasphemy, and promotes persecution of minorities, vigilante mob violence, and extra;judicial killing of reformers.


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