The Game of Religious Bigotry
A law misused and abused?
Rimsha Masih’s is the latest incident that is making headlines for Pakistan internationally. A resident of Mehrabad in Islamabad’s G12 sector, the teenage Christian girl was arrested on August 17 on the charge of burning some pages of the Quran. Rimsha Masih suffers from Down Syndrome. Reports vary about her age as between 11 and 16. However, a medical report puts her mental age much below her true age, which means that even at 16, her mental age is like that of an 11 year old.
What Rimsha is alleged to have done was burn some pages of the “Noorani Qaeda,” she found in the garbage. The Qaeda is a primer used to familiarize children with the Arabic alphabet and words used in the Quran. But it is not Quran. As the event unfolds, a man reported the incident to the Imam of the nearest mosque who eagerly took charge of the case. As was expected, a hue and cry arose and the police was informed. Without further ado, a blasphemy case was registered. Rimsha was arrested and approximately 2000-3000 Christians reportedly fled from the area due to threats from zealots to burn down their homes.
The incident triggered worldwide reproach. Prominent western newspapers reported every turn of events in the case, such as Rimsha’s attorney being initially refused permission to meet her. When the heat increased, the interior minister ordered an investigation into the affair. However, given the attention her case attracted, the girl’s life is at such stake from prowling wolves in human form that she had to be transported by helicopter from the Adiala prison to an undeclared secret destination under heavy police guard after being freed on bail.
Meanwhile, the case took an unexpectedly positive turn when an eyewitness, Hafiz Zubair testified that the imam of the mosque, Khalid Jadoon had added pages of the Quran to the pile of burnt pages of the Noorani Qaeda and planted them into Rimsha Masih’s bag to clinch the case of blas- phemy against the girl.
At the same time Allama Tahir Ashrafi, Chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, said if Rimsha were found to be innocent of the charge of burning papers containing verses from the Quran, then those who have accused her should face justice. He also denounced the protesters who demonstrated to demand punishment for Rimsha saying, “It is just like the law of the jungle that 500 people approached a police station and got a report forcibly lodged with the police.”
But there has not been a squeak from religious or political leaders; Altaf Hussain of the MQM being the only exception. The silence of Jamaate-Islami and JUI may be understandable. But there can be no defense for the PPP, ANP and the many Muslim League factions for failing to speak out, except that having sown the seeds of bigotry and fanaticism, they dare not raise their voice against it now to stem the tide.
Section 295-B of the Penal Code which deals with the crime of “defiling, etc. of copy of Holy Quran” lays down that “Whoever willfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Quran or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable for imprisonment for life.” But there is no proof that it was a “copy of the Holy Quran” that Rimsha had “willfully” defiled
However, Rimsha’s is not the first case. There have been many of her kind before. Only last year Aasiya Bibi, a mother of five, was charged for reviling the Prophet and sentenced to death. She is now awaiting answer to her mercy petition from the President. Fanaticism is at such a high pitch that last year, Governor Salman Taseer was gunned down by his guard because he had met with Aasiya in jail. Adding to this, some lawyers, supposedly very educated and enlightened people, showered his assassin with rose petals.
Ironically, the blasphemy law has not only been used to harass and evict Christians from their homes and their lands. This lethal weapon has been used against Muslims, too. Akhtar Hameed Khan, a reputed social worker was also its victim once, when someone out of sheer enmity, accused him of blasphemy. Though ultimately cleared he had to suffer a great deal, being dragged to court in his old age.
Rimsha’s case has kicked off an unprecedented reaction particularly due to her illness and her young age. In Aasiya’s case there was an alleged altercation between her and some Muslims when she was alleged to have made some derogatory remark against the Prophet in anger. But this poor girl had no earthly reason to defile the Quran “willfully.” She had no quarrel with any Muslim. She did not even know what Noorani Qaeda was. And even her accuser did not say he saw her burning the pages.
The many examples of the misuse of this law and the worldwide opposition it has earned for Pakistan demand a serious reflection from all sections of the society. There are blasphemy laws even in some Western countries. But they do not make as narrow an interpretation of it as in Pakistan.
Besides, Pakistan is already on international radar as the fountainhead of terrorism. It has earned the sobriquet of the most dangerous place on earth even without the contribution of the fanatics who massacre Shias, kill Ahmadis and defile their place of worship, and force Hindu girls to embrace Islam. In the circumstances, Christianbaiting through the blasphemy law is the last straw on the rickety camel’s back.
Need is, therefore, to redraft the law so as to prevent its misuse and at the same time bring it in line with the spirit of Islam, which preaches forgiveness. An effective deterrent could be to prescribe the same penalty for the accuser if the allegation is proven false as for the accused if the charge is proved.