Several Western countries are considering giving asylum to Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian mother-of-five who has been acquitted of blasphemy charges but continues to face death threats from extremist groups in Pakistan. Canada, the UK, France, Italy and the US are among the Christian-majority countries to have expressed a willingness to grant Bibi and her family asylum because her life is in danger in a Muslim-majority country that does not seem to be able to protect its minority Christian population.
However, they all seem to now be backing off from their offers for fear of stirring trouble at home and for the safety of their diplomatic staff and countrymen in Pakistan. I think it should be another Muslim-majority country that is home to a vibrant minority Christian community that should offer a safe haven to Bibi. That would send a strong message that Christians can live safely and worship freely in a Muslim country, as they have done for centuries.
Bibi, 53, was acquitted and released from prison on Oct. 31 by Pakistan’s Supreme Court after facing the death sentence for blasphemy — she was the first woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan — and spending eight years in solitary confinement. The ruling ignited countrywide protests from extremist groups, who blocked highways, burned tires and pelted police with stones in major cities including Islamabad and Karachi. The angry mobs threatened to kill the three Supreme Court judges if they did not uphold Bibi’s death sentence.
Falsely accusing someone of committing a crime or an offense of any kind is against religion and the law.
It would not have been the first time an official was murdered for siding with Bibi or calling for reforms to the blasphemy laws. In January 2011, the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was gunned down by one of his own security guards, Mumtaz Qadri, who later, during his trial, was hailed as a hero by extremist groups for “defending Islam,” but nevertheless was executed for the crime. Two months later, the minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, was murdered by Taliban gunmen for backing reform of the country’s blasphemy laws.
Pakistan inherited the laws concerning offenses to religion when it gained independence from British rule. During the 1980s, the blasphemy laws were expanded, with punishments ranging from three years’ imprisonment to life or even the death sentence.
The whole Bibi controversy sounds like a witch hunt, straight out of the play “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller. A group of women accused Bibi of insulting Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) when they were involved in an altercation over water and the entire village went into a frenzy, egged on by the local imam and village elders. Many critics believe that, like all the other blasphemy cases in Pakistan, it was not about blasphemy but simple caste prejudice, a land and resource dispute, or the settling of a personal score, because many of the victims of the blasphemy law are themselves Muslim.
Usually the judges simply find there is no evidence to support the case but, even after acquittal, the accused do not feel safe to return to their homes. Although the state has never executed anyone for the offense, vigilante mobs have killed at least 65 people since 1990, according to the Center for Research and Security Studies.
The authorities have removed Bibi from jail and placed her in protective custody in an undisclosed location while seeking to get her out of the country as quickly and quietly as possible. The extremist groups have threatened to escalate protests in Pakistan if Bibi is allowed to leave. Under pressure after three days of demonstrations that crippled the country, the government indicated that it would bar her from traveling abroad and agreed to allow a petition against the court’s decision.
Using and abusing religion in this way is outrageous to say the least. Falsely accusing someone of committing a crime or an offense of any kind is against religion and the law. More importantly, there is nothing in Islam — in the Qur’an or the authentic teachings of Prophet Muhammad — about punishing someone for blasphemy. In fact, Islam is all about tolerance and forgiveness.
We keep complaining about Islamophobia in the West and protesting against the defamation of religion, but acts and reactions like these concerning “blasphemy” do more damage to Islam than any offensive cartoon contests. Such vile blood-hounding rallies only justify the fear of Muslims. Furthermore, threatening the welfare of a whole country and causing anxiety in other countries if the demands of a minority extremist party are not met is a form of terrorism in my book.
It is the duty of respected Muslim scholars and institutions in Pakistan and in the Muslim world to advise these extremist religious groups against their violent acts and guide them toward the true interpretations of religious texts. Using religion for power and political gain is destructive.
Whenever religion and politics are mixed, the outcome usually tarnishes religion and undermines politics. Examples such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah are stark cases of how religion has been used for political gains in a very detrimental way — and with disastrous consequences.
More needs to be done to correct many of the misconceptions, misunderstandings and misinterpretations of Islamic religious texts in our Muslim countries, especially in rural areas, before we can start talking about correcting the negative image of Islam and Muslims in the West.