The country’s blasphemy law is overwhelmingly being used to persecute religious minorities and settle personal vendettas. As the case of 14-year-old Christian Rimsha Masih gains global attention, why have politicians failed to act?
By: Mohammed Hanif
Fourteen years ago, around the time young Rimsha Masih, now in jail under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, was born, a Roman Catholic bishop walked into a courthouse in Sahiwal, quite close to my hometown in Central Punjab. The Right Rev John Joseph was no ordinary clergyman; he was the first native bishop in Pakistan and the first ever Punjabi bishop anywhere in the world. He was also a brilliant and celebrated community organiser, the kind of man oppressed communities look up to as a role model. Joseph walked in alone, asking a junior priest to wait outside the courthouse. Inside the court, he took out a handgun and shot himself in the head. The bullet in his head was his protest against the court’s decision to sentence a fellow Christian, Ayub Masih, to death for committing blasphemy. Masih had been charged with arguing with a Muslim co-worker over religious matters. The exact content of the conversation cannot be repeated here because that would be blasphemous. The bishop had campaigned long and hard to get the blasphemy law repealed without any luck. He wrote prior to his death: “I shall count myself extremely fortunate if in this mission of breaking the barriers, our Lord accepts the sacrifice of my blood for the benefit of his people.”
Joseph had been pursuing another case, in which an 11-year-old, Salamat Masih, along with his father and uncle, was accused of scribbling something blasphemous on the wall of the mosque. We don’t really know what he wrote, because reproducing it, here or in court, would constitute blasphemy.
The boy’s uncle, Manzoor Masih, was shot dead during the trial. The Masih case went to the high court, where a judge, Arif Bhatti, applied common sense and released him. A year later the judge was murdered in his own chambers, and his killers claimed that the judge had committed blasphemy by freeing those accused in the blasphemy case.
Frustrated and in a fit of rage, the bishop meditated and reached the conclusion that he should kill himself publicly to make his point.
You could argue that Joseph should have organised candlelight vigils, gone on a hunger strike, hired better lawyers. But he had tried everything and realised that a bullet in the head in the middle of a court was his only way to draw attention to this colossal absurdity called blasphemy law.
He was wrong. The law stayed. Many more Christians were killed.
There are situations though, where confronted with the prospect of a 14-year-old being sentenced to death, as a celebrated community leader you can’t do anything but take a gun to your head.
And hope for the best.
How to commit blasphemy in Pakistan
A young girl carrying trash in a plastic bag in a slum in the capital of Pakistan is not likely to arouse much curiosity. Not unless the girl is a Christian. Not unless there is a Muslim boy who wants to inspect the contents of her bag. Then this certain young man, Hammad, takes the trash bag to the local mosque to show it to the imam, Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti (also known as Maulana Jadoon), who decides that the contents of the bag are, indeed, blasphemous but wonders if they are blasphemous enough. So he inserts some pages of the Qur’an in the trash bag. What the girl was carrying was a book of alphabets, taught to children, may or may not have had a verse from the Qur’an in it. Reproducing an image of the contents of this trash bag would be blasphemous, so we are never likely to know. We discover the imam’s role in sexing up the blasphemous contents two weeks later when one of the imam’s deputies cracks up. By then Rimsha has been arrested, refused bail, sent to jail and a medical board constituted to ascertain her age and mental health. We are still not sure if she is 11 or 14, we don’t know if she has Down’s Syndrome as was originally claimed. In the initial days of the case, human-rights workers pinned their hopes on Rimsha’s mental condition. As if those who demanded her arrest, those who arrested her, those who denied her bail and put her in jail were all mentally “normal”. Her family has gone into hiding; another 300 Christian families have been forced to leave their homes and are struggling to find shelter in one of the Islamabad forests.
So what can constitute blasphemy under the blasphemy law, which has killed dozens in the past decade, made thousands homeless and millions live in permanent fear about what might be found in their trashcan. It’s up to the lawyers to argue over how to avoid: “Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles …” but here are some of the everyday situations that can turn you into a blasphemer:
1. Transporting ashes in a plastic bag to a rubbish dump, as has happened in Masih’s case.
2. Discussing conjugal rights according to Islam with fellow Muslims if you disagree with them. You might think you are with a fellow Muslim, around a water pump and relatively safe. That is what a schoolteacher in Chakwal thought. And got into an argument. He has been in jail for the past 10 months. His 14-year-old daughter told the daily newspaper Dawn last week that kids won’t talk to her because her father is a blasphemer.
3. Not minding your spellings. Last year a teacher checking exam papers called in the police after he found blasphemous material in an answer sheet. The police wouldn’t reveal the exact material because that, you know, would be blasphemous. Later it transpired that it was a case of bad spelling.
4. Writing a novel called Blasphemy. Last year there were calls to put an author on trial because she had been disrespectful to religious scholars and spiritual saints. Last I heard she was fine but not writing any more novels with any other name.
5. Writing a children’s poem with a lion as its central character. Pakistan’s most famous social activist, Akhtar Hameed Khan, who spent his life helping people in Asia’s largest slum, tried his hand at a poem like that and spent his last years in courts facing blasphemy charges.
6. Refusing someone a drink of water. Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, who among other blasphemous things (which can’t be repeated for reasons by now obvious to the readers of this article) refused her co-workers a drink of water. The local imam accused her of blasphemy. The then governor, Salman Taseer, came out in her support, talked about changing the law, and was killed by his own police bodyguard. The policeman’s picture adorns many shops and businesses in Pakistan. Taseer’s name has become synonymous with “going too far”. And nobody, really nobody, wants to mention Bibi’s name in a discussion about blasphemy law.
7. Throwing away a visiting card. A doctor in Hyderabad did that to a pestering pharmaceutical salesman and found himself in serious trouble. The salesman had Muhammad as part of his name.
Blasphemy: a children’s story
An academic subject called Islamic Studies was made compulsory for all students in the early 80s. As a student you were taught a story about the prophet Muhammad’s life. It was part of Muslim folklore, repeated over and over again in Friday sermons, and told to little kids as a bedtime story. When the prophet started preaching in Mecca, there was a lot of hostility towards him. People pelted him with stones, made fun of him and his new upstart God and his teachings. There was one woman in his Mecca neighbourhood who was particularly nasty to him. As he left his house every day, she would be waiting for him with a basket of garbage that she would empty over him. It happened day after day but he never rebuked the woman, nor changed his path. Then one day he walked the street and no garbage was thrown at him. He turned back and went looking for his tormentor and discovered that the woman was ill and bedridden. He inquired about her health and told her that since she hadn’t come out to insult him like she did every day, he was worried about her. The woman, impressed by his generosity, converted to Islam.
There is another story that kids are taught these days. This story has almost become the new folklore, repeated endlessly on social networking sites and narrated in graphic detail by the supporters of the blasphemy law. According to this story when prophet Muhammad conquered Mecca he announced a general amnesty except for those who had committed blasphemy against his person. He ordered them to be beheaded. One blasphemer was killed even when he tried to take shelter in the Khana Qaba in Mecca, the most sacred place for Muslims, where it is strictly forbidden to kill anyone.
A common Muslim might be puzzled over how both these stories could be true? But before puzzlement starts to border on blasphemy, one must seek the guidance of Pakistani Islamic scholars, who tell us that Islam is the most humane of religions, that there is nothing wrong with the blasphemy law, that it is the implementation which is problematic. Before the current law came into existence, in 60 years there were six reported cases of blasphemy. Since the current law was constituted there have been more than four thousand. But the law has such power that even pleading the statistics is considered blasphemous. When Governor Taseer challenged it, they killed him, and then many of the same Islamic scholars refused to say his funeral prayers.
The fear of Allah v the fear of mullah
Not too long ago, the role of the clergy in a neighbourhood was confined to birth and deaths, funeral and special religious occasions. You went to the mosque to offer your prayers, you prayed for better crops, for the rains to start or stop; travellers could expect to find shelter for the night. A mosque is no more just that. Equipped with a powerful public-address system and controlled by sectarian religious groups, it’s become a little battle headquarter for the neighbourhood. The continuous Shia massacres across Pakistan are not hatched in some far-off land, by enemies of Pakistan or enemies of Islam as Pakistan’s maulanas pretend; they are preached, planned and executed from local mosques.
People listen to religious scholars.
“If she is innocent, she should be released,” thundered a dozen maulanas on TV screens after Rimsha was arrested. “And if she is guilty, the law must take its course.” They completely ignored the fact that an illiterate child is not likely to even know what constitutes blasphemy. And the law they want to be implemented has led to a situation that even when the accused is found innocent, they are condemned for life.
All you need to do to condemn someone for life is to switch on a mosque loudspeaker and make the allegation. Before Chishti was caught in his own trap in the Rimsha case, no accuser had ever been arrested or tried. The laws against hate speech are weak, and almost never implemented. And how can it be considered hate speech when all they are doing is expressing their faith that might include demanding death for all Shias and Ahmedis, and an occasional Christian who may or may not have crossed the line.
There are enough sectarian organisations in Pakistan to wage perpetual war. There are enough factions within these organisations that will shoot down every argument, every appeal to rationality. You can’t reason with Allah, so you mustn’t reason with a mullah, because that too might be blasphemous.
A few days before it was found that Chishti had planted evidence against Rimsha, he was interviewed on TV. He was asked if he had been campaigning to expel Christians from his neighbourhood. He seemed puzzled for a moment, then rebuked: “This is a Muslim country, Allah has given it to us. If these Christians make noise at the time of our prayers, then they should be asked to leave.” I am certain that even when Chishti was stuffing pages from the Qur’an in the poor girl’s trash bag, he believed he was doing Allah’s work.
The Christian work
There is a well-off Christian businessman in Karachi who fusses over the trash basket in his office, handles his work file carefully, because, you never know, a stray scrap of paper can ruin you, your family, your business.
Christians make up less than 2% of Pakistanis, the majority of them very poor. Many of them are converts from low caste Hindus, who embraced Christianity in the hope of better status, but most end up sweeping the streets and cleaning clogged up gutters. Because of rampant unemployment the sanitary profession is not exclusive to Christians any more – there are thousands of Muslims, mostly migrants from rural areas, who sweep the streets and haul the trash but because of old prejudices, it’s still considered a profession beneath Muslims. The Christian businessman in Karachi was hiring a cleaning person for his office and inquired about his background. The candidate told him: my family comes from farming but because of bad times we are forced to do this Christian work.
My father, the blasphemer
My father was as devout and zealous a Muslim as I have ever seen. Never missed a prayer, built a huge mosque in his village and always preferred the stricter, literalist version of religion. He also had a mysterious stomach ailment and the only cure was a verse from the Qur’an recited by the only Christian gentleman in the neighbourhood. This accidental healer was also the neighbourhood sweeper. When I think of these two old men huddled in a room, reciting verses from the Qur’an to cure a minor ailment, I wonder if they were committing blasphemy?
For the first time since the Right Rev John Joseph shot himself, there is some public support for a blasphemy victim. Some religious scholars have come out in Rimsha’s support, an odd politician or two have talked about this case becoming a tipping point in the blasphemy debate. But let’s not have any illusions: no political party has the courage to rewrite a single word in the law let alone repeal it. The 11-year-old Salamat Masih who Joseph had fought for was sentenced to death. A higher court later overturned the decision but it was obvious the boy would never be safe in the country. A Christian charity helped him find asylum in Europe.
Rimsha (if found not guilty) has been offered sanctuary by one of the country’s largest seminaries, Jamia Banuria, in Karachi. Banuria is also a staunch supporter of the blasphemy law. Rimsha probably doesn’t know that she might end up spending the rest of her life in a Muslim seminary or be left at the mercy of a Christian charity.
In Joseph’s hometown in Faisalabad, in a Muslim seminary called Jamia Rehmania, they made a monument to his sacrifice. Jamia Rehmania also supports the blasphemy law. The memorial, called Bishop John Joseph Memorial Hall is the only monument in Pakistan dedicated to a blasphemer.