Power on the streets of Pak­istan

The blas­phemy case of Aa­sia Bibi shows re­li­gious hard­lin­ers know how to get their way, writes Omar Waraich

The Northern Advocate - - World -

Aa­sia Bibi’s life is still in dan­ger. De­spite be­ing ac­quit­ted on Oc­to­ber 31 by Pak­istan’s Supreme Court, which lifted her death sen­tence on blas­phemy charges, the Chris­tian farm­worker is un­able to leave the coun­try.

Af­ter the ver­dict, vi­o­lent mobs un­leashed anger, threats and de­struc­tion. They laid siege to ma­jor cities. They blocked mo­tor­ways. They torched cars, buses and build­ings. They even threat­ened the lives of the Prime Min­is­ter, the chief jus­tice and the army chief. And yet, in­stead of mak­ing clear that this vi­o­lence won’t have a bear­ing on the Bibi case, the au­thor­i­ties bowed to the pres­sure.

On Wed­nes­day night, there were re­ports that she might have fi­nally left the coun­try. Se­nior Eu­ro­pean Union of­fi­cials and her lawyer, who has had to seek tem­po­rary asy­lum in the Nether­lands, said she was on a flight out of Pak­istan.

Later the Gov­ern­ment an­nounced that she had been moved from a jail where it couldn’t guar­an­tee her safety to a se­cure lo­ca­tion in Is­lam­abad.

And the com­mo­tion ex­cited by her pos­si­ble de­par­ture has only made the re­li­gious hard­lin­ers more de­ter­mined.

For Khadim Hus­sain Rizvi, the leader of Tehreek-eLab­baik (the Move­ment of Devo­tion to the Prophet), noth­ing short of her ex­e­cu­tion will do.

The cri­sis has re­vealed, once again, a deep­en­ing fault line that runs through the coun­try: For re­li­gious hard­lin­ers, the law only mat­ters as long as it con­forms to their brand of Is­lam. When the two di­verge, hard­lin­ers such as Rizvi can bring pres­sure to bear by cast­ing them­selves as Is­lam’s true rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

There is noth­ing that stirs more out­rage in Pak­istan than the charge of blas­phemy. A mere ac­cu­sa­tion is enough to en­dan­ger some­one’s life. In Bibi’s case, for ex­am­ple, there is no ev­i­dence that she ever made the state­ment of which she is ac­cused. Judges are ter­ri­fied of ac­quit­ting any­one, lest they be­come the next tar­get. De­fence lawyers have been killed in court. Wit­nesses and fam­i­lies have to go into hid­ing.

The au­thor­i­ties, in­stead of stand­ing firm in de­fend­ing hu­man rights, meekly give ground to those us­ing vi­o­lence to sup­press those rights.

For Rizvi and his sup­port­ers, there is no higher call­ing than to avenge an al­leged in­sult to the Prophet Muham­mad. In a coun­try where all but 3 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion is Mus­lim, he has man­aged to pro­mote a nar­ra­tive that in­sists Is­lam is per­pet­u­ally im­per­iled.

He calls on his fol­low­ers to take mat­ters into their own hands (which can in­clude claim­ing the lives of oth­ers). To main­tain this vi­o­lent hys­te­ria, his sup­port­ers al­ways in­sist an of­fence was com­mit­ted and that pun­ish­ment must fol­low.

They are never re­lieved to learn that the al­le­ga­tion was false, that the ev­i­dence doesn’t ex­ist, and that the ac­cused is in­no­cent. The pas­siv­ity of the Pak­istani au­thor­i­ties stands in stark con­trast with its re­ac­tion to the rise of the non­vi­o­lent Pash­tun Pro­tec­tion Move­ment, which has been de­mand­ing an end to ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings and forced dis­ap­pear­ances. The au­thor­i­ties have ca­su­ally spurned the group’s de­mands, sup­pressed me­dia cov­er­age of its ef­forts, banned its peace­ful demon­stra­tions and de­tained its lead­ers.

But when it came to Rizvi and his fol­low­ers’ use of vi­o­lence, they can seem­ingly get a free pass.

The real threat to the coun­try’s se­cu­rity was con­sid­ered to be the aus­tere and lit­er­al­ist-minded Tal­iban, who had seized vast swathes of ter­ri­tory, mounted dev­as­tat­ing bomb­ings in ma­jor cities and killed thou­sands of Pak­istani troops. Lit­tle did any­one sus­pect that Rizvi’s branch of the Barelvi tra­di­tion, to which the ma­jor­ity of Pak­ista­nis be­long and which has long been re­garded as a quiet and mys­ti­cal branch of the faith, would also turn on the state, and in a more in­sid­i­ous man­ner.

Rizvi’s fol­low­ers are not lim­ited to the hills of the tribal ar­eas but have the po­ten­tial to sway peo­ple in the coun­try’s heart­lands.

For Prime Min­is­ter Im­ran Khan, the cri­sis rep­re­sents a ma­jor chal­lenge. Each time he has raised hopes with bold com­mit­ments, they have been swiftly re­versed — whether it was the pledge to give Ben­gali and Afghan refugees ci­ti­zen­ship, to ap­point a mem­ber of the Ah­madi sect to his eco­nomic ad­vi­sory coun­cil, or to up­hold the Supreme Court ver­dict and con­front Rizvi’s mobs when they threat­ened vi­o­lence.

Last year, Khan and his party were happy to sup­port Rizvi’s vi­o­lent rhetoric and prac­tices, ac­cus­ing the pre­vi­ous Gov­ern­ment of be­ing part of an “in­ter­na­tional con­spir­acy” to weaken Is­lam, and suc­cess­fully se­cur­ing the res­ig­na­tion of the then-Law Min­is­ter.

In the last elec­tion, Rizvi formed a party that gath­ered more than 2 mil­lion votes in a sus­pi­ciously well-funded cam­paign.

But it isn’t elected of­fice that Rizvi cov­ets. He has re­alised that true power can be com­manded on the streets. You don’t need the high­est num­ber of votes, you just need the high­est num­ber of vi­o­lent sup­port­ers.

It’s the con­se­quence of a ru­inous his­tory of in­dulging or back­ing armed groups for cyn­i­cal, short-term gains. And it back­fires ev­ery time.

It is not clear what will hap­pen to Bibi. It is for­bid­ding to think of the or­deal that awaits her if she in­deed has not left the coun­try, hav­ing al­ready en­dured eight years on death row for a crime she didn’t com­mit and that shouldn’t ex­ist in the first place.

What is clear, how­ever, is that the Gov­ern­ment — far from pro­tect­ing the weak and marginalised who need it the most and chal­leng­ing the pow­er­ful forces of big­otry who can defy it — has aban­doned its own com­mit­ments to hu­man rights.

Aa­sia Bibi

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