As the world’s second-largest religion with more than 1.8 billion followers, Islam has spread to all corners of the globe. However, it has come under recurring attacks, more so since the events surrounding the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, in the United States. The religion of peace was wilfully maligned by those non-Muslims who had very little understanding of the true meaning of this Abrahamic faith, and soon the word ‘Islamophobia’ crept into our dictionaries — a term conveying a negative perception and suspicion of anything Islamic.
But while non-Muslims can be excused for their ignorance, what excuse do we hold for those claiming to be Muslims, and yet behaving in the very manner that makes the rest of the world leery of our religion. A recent example is the current widespread protests sweeping Pakistan — an Islamic republic. The cause of such an outburst was the country’s supreme court overturning a death penalty verdict for Asia Bibi, a Christian woman convicted under the country’s blasphemy laws. Under the law, Asia Bibi, a farm labourer, was charged and subsequently jailed back in 2010. She faced the death penalty after being accused of insulting Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) in the heat of an argument with her Muslim co-workers. Last week, Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned the verdicts passed by the lower and high courts and set Asia Bibi free. Alluding to the fact that the arguments involved insults on both sides, with Jesus Christ’s name thrown in, the court stated: “Blasphemy is a serious offence, but the insult of the appellant’s (Asia Bibi) religion and religious sensibilities by the complainant party and then mixing truth with falsehood in the name of the Holy Prophet [PBUH] was also not short of being blasphemous.”
The verdict did not sit well with many fundamentalists who took to the streets to vent their anger. From burning rickshaws, cars and lorries to bringing traffic — including ambulances on their way to hospitals — to a standstill, the protesters vented their rage and not just at the court. Posters of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan were burnt. Some even threw shoes at Imran’s pictures.
These religious fanatics, as I see them, are the worst examples of what Islam truly is. Far from respecting the verdict, they have become a law unto themselves and have set about creating mayhem and anarchy, something that Islam specifically does not condone. With very little understanding of the true meaning of Islam, these hordes are no different from those ignorant non-Muslims who deride or insult Islam. The actions of these Pakistanis are just as despicable.
It was during the military dictatorship of former Pakistan president General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s when blasphemy laws were radically introduced in the legislature, including punishment by death for those charged with defiling the sacred name of the Prophet (PBUH). It is unfortunate that this act has led to the formation of very extreme ideas in the minds of some Pakistani Muslims, a few of whom would eventually rise to authoritative ranks in successive governments or lead popular political parties with their firebrand version of Islam.
These crafty individuals seized upon the emotions of a religiously naive and generally uneducated segment of the population and exhorted them through a thunderous rhetoric to achieve their own personal gains. There has been nothing Islamic about their actions. Over the years, it became evident that the blasphemy law was used more and more for political gain, to settle land disputes or political rivalries than as an agent to maintain sanctity. The law became a way to challenge someone’s status and a powerful tool to intimidate anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim.
Most of these cases reveal personal vendetta or are often used by Islamic extremists as a cover to persecute religious minorities.
Asia Bibi was an ignorant rural farmworker who got into an argument on a hot day with another ignorant rural farmworker who happened to be Muslim. In the heat of the moment, words were exchanged and the incident should have remained just that. Instead, it was overblown into a mini sectarian conflict and brought the country’s blasphemy laws into play — laws that have proven over time to have been misused to settle personal scores.
Asia Bibi was found by the courts to be innocent of the charges filed against her. The decision should stand and she must remain free. Those opposing the decision should go back to re-educating themselves on what Islam is truly all about.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena.