- Asia Noreen became Asia bibi as she became the face of much that is wrong with the social and legal ethos of a country that often does huge injustice to the Islamic in its name: Pakistan.
- In Pakistan, no one was safe when religion became the tool to persecute and sentence.
She was just another forgotten person jailed on an allegation that ensured instant condemnation, a categorical judgement and a long punishment. Accused of blasphemy, her conviction in court merely followed the one awarded to her by the inhabitants of her village who decided one day to be the self-appointed protectors of religion.
A two-way fight over the right to drink water from a communal well, the person of a minority religion in a Muslim-majority village, the microcosm of a Muslim-majority Pakistan, became the ‘blasphemer’. In that village, as in most of Pakistan, the sanctity of Hazrat Isa- Prophet Jesus, one of Allah’s most special prophets, and one of the two most-mentioned messengers of Allah in the final compilation of His messages, the Holy Quran, is only a ‘Christian concern’. Insults thrown on a Christian woman, a Christian man, are drowned in chants of sanctimonious indignation: imagined insult to Islam and the last divine messenger and prophet of Allah, Hazrat Mohammad (SAW)-Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him).
Asia Noreen became Asia bibi as she became the face of much that is wrong with the social and legal ethos of a country that often does huge injustice to the Islamic in its name: Pakistan. Oblivious to the injunctions of Allah, sent through His last prophet, Mohammad (peace be upon him), Muslims of Pakistan, often in their over-inflated sense of the self-assumed guardianship of religion, forget that Allah, His divine message and His messenger do not require worldly protection.
Accused of blasphemy in June 2009 Asia was arrested. In November 2010, she was sentenced to death. Her story would have been just another forgotten, ‘untouchable’, ‘unspeakable’ case of blasphemy if it weren’t for one person who heard her plea: the then governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer. Asia Noreen would have remained in the terrifying loneliness of her solitary confinement–where she was incarcerated for many years nonetheless –if it weren’t for one person responding to her pleas for mercy.
Taseer has been a subject of a great deal of criticism over the years for his stance vis-à-vis the Asia bibi case. As per the norm, he was judged without being heard. Not many bothered to ascertain the veracity of the accusation against Taseer. While countless Pakistanis hold Taseer in high esteem for his fight for Asia bibi, many have cast aspersions on him without bothering to have any verification of what was ascribed to him. That is one of the worst downsides of the existence of the blasphemy law in Pakistan. Even talking about those who talk about its misuse and are killed for that is done without a due process: sift the truth from lies and propaganda.
In December 2010, having been requested by Asia bibi’s family to look into her case, Governor Taseer, accompanied by his wife and one of his daughters, met her in the Sheikupara District Jail. Looking at her papers he said to Asia: “This is your appeal to the president.”
Talking to media, Taseer said: “I begin with the name of Allah who is Rehman and Raheem [Both names are associated with Allah’s attribute of mercy]. I’ve come here to meet Asia bibi. She has been in jail for one and a half years. She has been awarded a punishment that I think is a very harsh and a cruel punishment. She has made an appeal to the president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, that she be granted a pardon. InshaAllah, the president, on humanitarian merits, will grant her a pardon.
“I wish to add that the Pakistan of Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah did not and could not have such a law, and such a cruel punishment. In our religion, there is protection of minorities. Pakistan’s founder, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah, added a white band to Pakistan’s flag to ensure protection and recognition of minorities. That is why the punishment awarded to her [Asia] is, I think, against humanity. This appeal has been given to me as [I am] the governor of Punjab and the constitutional head of the province. I’ll take the appeal to the president. And inshaAllah, her sentence will be pardoned.”
In a country where 99 percent (Note: the number is close to 97 percent) of people are Muslim, what cannot happen is the desecration of Rasool-e-Pak [the sacred prophet]. [Almost] everyone is Muslim here. I’m certain having studied her case that no incident [of blasphemy] took place. She is a helpless, poor Christian woman who had no legal defence, no resources to even get a legal defence. To entangle such a helpless, poor minority person in such a case is the mockery of the Constitution of Pakistan and Quaid-e-Azam’s ideology. She has made an appeal. It is the president’s prerogative under Section 45 [to grant her a presidential pardon]. He has the full [constitutional] authority to pardon anyone. I think looking at the punishment awarded to her the president would release her.”
Taseer called the British-made blasphemy law–which according to many noted Muslim scholars, including Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, has no Quranic endorsement –a “black law”.
On January 4, 2011, Governor Taseer was assassinated. In broad daylight, Mumtaz Qadri, one of the policemen in his official security detail, shot Taseer 27 times. Qadri proudly confessed that he killed the governor because he had called the blasphemy law a black law. With Governor Taseer’s assassination, Asia bibi’s case became an international headline. Nothing happened. Asia bibi remained in solitary confinement for eight more years.
Another very courageous and almost a lone voice of support for Asia bibi was the PPP’s Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs Clement Shahbaz Bhatti. He spoke up for Asia bibi. He was assassinated on March 2, 2011.
A tool for persecution
In Pakistan, no one was safe when religion became the tool to persecute and sentence. The tool did not recognise any legal code, any humanitarian rules. It unleashed mayhem where it could. The teachings of the religion of Islam that preaches, endorses and rewards inclusiveness, acceptance, compassion and forgiveness was being used to draw lines of hatred, bigotry and division, delineated in blood.
On February 29, 2016–a date that has an exquisite irony–Mumtaz Qadri was hanged. His funeral was enormous. His grave became a shrine.
On October 31, 2018, two months after the swearing-in of Imran Khan as the prime minister of Pakistan, a three-judge bench, headed by the then Chief Justice of Pakistan, Saqib Nisar, and Justice Asif Saeed Khosa (the current CJP) and Justice Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhel, gave the historic verdict of the acquittal of Asia bibi. Despite nationwide protests, headed by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, of hitherto little-known organisation Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah, the Supreme Court upheld its verdict in January 2019. In May 2019, ten years after her arrest and years of indescribably painful confinement, Asia bibi joined her family living in asylum in Canada.
Governor Salmaan Taseer and Minister Shahbaz Bhatti were finally vindicated.
The British-made blasphemy law for the Indian subcontinent–now Pakistan, India and Bangladesh–was given a new life during General Zia-ul-Haq’s decade-long authoritarian vigilantism of religion. Zia’s government added, through Section 295-C, death penalty to the anti-blasphemy law, inducting it into the Pakistan Penal Code. Pakistan’s moral centre shifted.
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According to various human rights groups, from 1987 to 2017, 1,549 blasphemy cases have been filed. The number of extrajudicial killings of blasphemy accused, without even reaching a court, is said to be more than 75 until 2017. Among the killed, 39 were Muslim, 23 Christian, 9 Ahmadi, 2 Hindus, and 2 unknown.
Kill in the name of religion, you are a hero. The shrine of Qadri is a rose-shrouded testament to that. Live forgotten in a dark cell for eight years, while the perpetrator of the false accusation of blasphemy against you lives piously ever after without any remorse, without any legal consequence. Set on fire an entire colony of Christians to punish without a trial an alleged blasphemer, burning homes and churches and desecrating religious relics, without for a moment thinking, amidst the blind shrieking blazes, that Islam forbids it all–the unleashing of violence in its name. Be lynched in front of your two small children by the villagers you lived amongst in harmony despite your different faiths, as you watch them, in mind-numbing terror, turn into unrecognisable killing machines. Watch a fellow student’s lynching on an allegation of blasphemy, and videotape the various stages of his torture and murder, becoming a silent abettor in a medieval ritual of dehumanising the ‘other’.
Then there are those who wait for justice. One Asia bibi rekindles the hope of compassion, of forgiveness, of freedom. It happened to Wajih-ul-Hassan. After 18 years of imprisonment, he was acquitted in September 2019. His story is a mirror to the blind. His story needs to be told.
And his story leads to the dark, forgotten cell of Junaid Hafeez...