The South Asia Channel

Irony in a plastic bag

A month ago today, Rimsha Masih was unknown to the world. A month later - probably the worst of her life - the 14-year-old Christian girl from a slum near the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, has stirred up a storm not only at home but the world over, putting Pakistan's notorious blasphemy laws in the spotlight like never before.

Born and raised in a family of ‘sweepers' - a term synonymous to Christians in mainstream discourse in Pakistan - Rimsha Masih was arrested in mid-August for allegedly burning pages from a religious instruction book containing verses from the Holy Quran, along with pages of the holy book itself - a serious act of blasphemy punishable by death under the Pakistan Penal Code. The prime witness: her Muslim landlord's 23-year-old nephew, Amad Malik, who, according to Pakistani media reports, ‘by chance' caught her carrying a polythene bag with the desecrated pages.

In close to no time, a furious mob of hundreds, led by the Imam of the local mosque, Hafiz Mohammad Khalid Chishti (commonly referred to as Hafiz Jadoon), surrounded the Masihs' one-room dwelling, demanding that the girl be handed over. The mob wanted to burn the Christian girl alive for committing the ‘heinous' crime of disrespecting the Quran. However, in a surprising turn of events, the same mob handed her over to the police for further prosecution.   

In the aftermath of Rimsha's arrest, almost all terrified Christian families of the area, including hers, fled to other already over-crowded Christian slums in and around the Pakistani capital, and the enraged mob temporarily dispersed.

But if Rimsha was to be granted bail and returned to Mehrabadi - a place she could no longer call home - "that could change," Jadoon was found saying on international TV. "Maybe they will leave her alone. Maybe they will kill her," he added. Rao Abdur Raheem, the prosecution lawyer in Rimsha's case reaffirmed by saying, "The girl is guilty. If the state overrides the court, then God will get a person to do the job." In any case, justice was to be done. Predictions appeared similar to the harrowing incident of mob justice a few months ago in July in Southern Punjab, where another infuriated mob mercilessly beat a deranged man accused of sacrilege and burnt him alive.

Strict laws - probably the harshest in the world - exist in Pakistan against those who commit blasphemy, ever since it was made a capital offence under military dictator General Zia ul Haq in 1986.

Introduced by British colonial rulers of the subcontinent in the late 1920s to maintain communal harmony in a multi-ethnic population, the law was retained by Pakistan as it gained independence in 1947 under its moderate founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

However, the lowest point in the devolution of the blasphemy law in Pakistan came under the military dictatorship of Zia ul Haq between late 1970s and early 1990s - a period that can easily be termed Pakistan's dark ages. Zia, a dictator remembered most for intensifying Islamic policies to radicalize the country and for manipulating Islam for the survival of his own regime, made several additions to the country's laws. This included the bill adopted by the Senate in 1992, where death penalty was made mandatory upon conviction on charges of blasphemy.

A harsh punishment considering an offence for which, to this day, no preliminary investigation is required before the filing of the First Information Report (FIR) by a local police officer. Even more disturbing is how the law is still framed to cover not only intentional but also unintentional blasphemy, completely undermining the principle that "a criminal act requires a criminal intention".

Consequently, under the Pakistan Penal Code today, all one needs is a testimony - genuine or otherwise - and the FIR is filed and the person arrested. Rimsha's testimony, however, vanished into thin air after her arrest. Amad Malik fled to "avoid unnecessary interrogation and questioning by the police and media," Jadoon was found saying on a Pakistani talk show.

Infamous for his fiery anti-Christian sermons at Friday Prayers week after week, 30-year-old Jadoon was appointed a lead cleric in the local mosque of the area 10 months prior to the incident. Very vocal about his dislike for Christians and their practices, Jadoon was often found contemplating ways to rid the area of them. Casting himself a holy man ‘incensed' at the desecration, Jadoon was heard saying that the Christians had committed blasphemy to "provoke Muslims, like they have with their noisy banging and singing from their churches," adding that he'd be pleased if the Christians didn't come back to Mehrabadi. And he pretty much made sure that doesn't happen, even if that meant desecrating the Quran himself. 

Two weeks into the case, in a rare show of courage - one that could have cost him his life - the prayer-caller at the same mosque, Hafiz Zubair, came forward as a witness to testify against Jadoon. According to Zubair, the prime witness Malik brought the plastic bag into the mosque and handed it over to Jadoon. After examining the contents of the bag, Jadoon tore up a few pages of the Quran and added them to the bag, to make sure the evidence against the Christian girl was not just blasphemous, but "blasphemous enough".  

Even though Rimsha has been released on bail and has, under heavy security, been moved to an unknown location via government helicopter to be reunited with her family, while Jadoon remains in custody awaiting prosecution, one can't help but feel mind-boggled at the turn of events.

In the 58 years between 1927 and 1985, only 10 blasphemy cases were reportedly heard in court. But since Zia's Islamic reforms in Pakistan, more than 4,000 have been handled. In the year 2000 alone, the National Commission for Justice and Peace recorded 16 blasphemy cases against Christians and Hindus and at least 36 against Muslims. Although no death sentences have been carried out in Pakistan to date - most of those handed down have been overturned during the appeal process - the spree of mob justice persists as religious leaders practice their own violent, eye-for-an-eyeversion of Islam.

The World Minority Rights Report 2011 ranked Pakistan the sixth worst country with respect to the safety and rights of minorities - non-Muslims, those the state has dubbed non-Muslim, and women.

For the Christians of Mehrabadi, memories of the Christian massacre in 2009 in neighboring city of Gojra are still fresh. Thousands of Muslim radicals burned down around 40 Christian houses, brutally killing eight, after a mere rumor that a page from the Holy Quran had been desecrated during a wedding. For the Hindus of Sindh, there appears to be no other way to prevent forced conversions to Islam and forced marriages - nearly 600 FIRs lodged last year across 40 districts of Pakistan, with the majority in Sindh - than to migrate to India.

For Ahmadis all over the country, facing persecution since the very creation of Pakistan, the nail on the coffin was being declared a non-Muslim minority in 1974 by then prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Considered a revolutionary of his time -- though probably not when it came to minorities -- Bhutto's decision kick-started the widespread societal discrimination and persecution of Ahmadis, including the violation of their places of worship, banning of burial in Muslim graveyards and denial of freedom of faith, speech, and assembly - all backed by the then sitting government of Zia ul Haq.

Today, the Ahmadi community is still recovering from an incident in 2010, in which extremist Islamist militants attacked two Ahmadi places of worship in the central Pakistani city of Lahore with guns, grenades, and suicide bombs, killing 94 people and injuring well over a 100. And if that wasn't terror enough, the injured from the incident were attacked yet again at the ICU of Lahore's Jinnah Hospital - a take-two which consumed at least a further 12 lives.

Whether it is the outraged mob of Mehrabadi, the security guard who shot the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, in January last year, the killers of Pakistan's only Christian federal minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, later in March, or the mullahs and maulvis like Hafiz Jadoon who "direct them towards the light," it is but one big rage-brigade. Why are we so angry, so violent, and so unforgiving?

Has violence become an integral part of the Islamic social discipline, or has it always been?

And if so, the question is, why? Is it, as many suggest, that Muslim countries are by and large economically imbalanced, undemocratic states with large swathes of unemployed, frustrated men who find release in religious expression? Or is it because of our fear of persecution at the hands of the West, demonstrated in both intellectual and popular discourse as well as policy - most clearly represented by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Palestinian occupation? Or is it simply because we are taught since childhood of an era gone by, when Islam was a uniquely powerful, progressive and just empire and which has now fallen on bad times.

While there are positives to be taken out of this repulsive episode - the bravery of the apprentice, the role of Pakistan's social, broadcast and print media, and the efforts of the authorities to keep Rimsha safe - the truth remains that the blasphemy laws in Pakistan continue to be as politically and socially toxic and as untouchable as they were before Rimsha began to matter.

With no government in Pakistan - past or present - willing to rid the country of these frail laws or raise a voice against those who exploit them in ways that are neither constitutional nor Islamic, there seems to be only one place left to turn to for hope: the upcoming general elections in November.

This year has witnessed a flood of educated young people coming forward in great numbers, willing to vote for political parties bearing promises to transform Pakistan from a religiously and socially intolerant nation to a progressive, more conforming democracy. For these political parties, a model exists in the form of a bill introduced last year by former minister for information and Pakistan Peoples' Party legislator, Sherry Rehman, to amend the controversial laws in Pakistan.

Rehman's private bill proposed the substitution of the death penalty with a 10-year sentence, and the substitution of life imprisonment with a five-year sentence. But the strongest directive of her bill was the castigation of anyone making false or frivolous accusations under any section of the law. Such a person was not only to be punished "in accordance with punishments prescribed in the section under which the false or frivolous accusation was made," but was also to be arrested "without a warrant" and tried in court.

Using the bill as a guide and Rimsha Masih's case as a stepping stone, there is no better time to amend the precarious weaknesses of the blasphemy laws that leave room for people like Hafiz Jadoon to use it as they please. Ideally, a party with this on their manifesto would come into power. However, with the majority of Pakistan's population - rural and uneducated - who shower men like Mumtaz Qadri with rose petals for killing a moderate politician who showed concern for a Christian blasphemy convict, hope fades.

But Rimsha Masih's case feels like a hint of light at the end of the tunnel. If Hafiz Jadoon is convicted and taken to task, one can be certain others will think twice if not more before pointing fingers. Maybe that's the first step. Maybe there will be more. 

-- Rabail Baig is a Pakistani journalist based in Boston.

FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/GettyImages