This past couple of weeks, the news has been immersed in the controversial case of Asia Bibi, who has been on trial for her life under the blasphemy laws in Pakistan. The origin cause seems to have been a petty squabble with neighbors involving use of a local well and the utensils used to draw water, with several Muslim women claiming that the Catholic Asia had made them unusable due to her religion. The incident intensified with harsh words exchanged, and the women went on to charge with the crime of blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad, resulting in her being incarcerated for 8 years to be put on trial for her life. If she were to be found guilty by the courts, it would be a hanging offense.
Over the course of her trial, feelings have run high on both sides, sometimes spiraling into violence. For example, two high-profile Muslims were assassinated for coming to her defense and decrying the blasphemy laws as “black laws.” The latest news on the case was the high court’s decision to have Asia released and allow her to leave the country. However, this created a massive backlash from those insistent that the law should be followed to the letter and the death penalty should be carried out. The protests soon devolved into mobs that sprang up in pockets across the country and resulted in the death of two people and the destruction of over 50 shops in or around the capital of Islamabad.
As a result of this, the government has negotiated to continue to hold Asia Bibi in custody and allow the prosecution to make further appeals against her. Meanwhile, her lawyer has fled the country after receiving death-threats and various high-ranking officials involved in the movement to release her have also received threats of violence against them or their families. The situation seems to have reached a sort of stalemate, with various western powers continuing to call for her release, yet with the Pakistani government too pressured to do so for fear of the reaction of their own citizens. Some believe the stalling tactic is merely a ploy, yet others fear for Asia’s life as the opportunity to reintroduce capital punishment is offered.
As a Catholic woman myself, I natural view the case with particular concern as to how the execution of the blasphemy laws could and are negatively affecting my fellow Christians in countries that ascribe to them. I have Muslim friends myself in various parts of the world, who I believe to be people of good intent, and their opinions on the blasphemy laws and this case in particular are diverse and sometimes divergent. Some see the laws as integral to the Islamic nature and moral integrity of the country, something which sets them apart from the secular west and which serves as a tangible link to the revelation of God. Others take a more liberal view, seeing the laws as outdated and twisted from the original intent of Muhammad for the Muslim world, preventing the country of Pakistan from moving forward in the modern world.
But more than a few of them go down the middle road, admitting that, even if they believe in the laws theoretically, there are various bugs in the system at least worth addressing. There is always a risk of them being all too easily abused by those with malicious intent if the burden of proof is not high enough and due process is not fair enough. Personal grudges and vendettas can easily wreak havoc with them and justice, even according to the intent of the laws in place, is thwarted. Random bullies can use them to target members of minority groups, including Christians, Hindus, Shias, Sufis, and the Ahmidiya Muslims. And it’s not just an issue of minority rights either. People of all backgrounds, including Sunni Islam (the majority position) who get into a neighborhood feud or a workplace squabble may also find themselves at a severe disadvantage with little recourse should they be accused.
These are things that affect all citizens of Pakistan. They are not going to be magically transformed by finger snapping, nor should they really, since there are many complex causes and effects connected with them. But there should at least be gradual movements towards bettering the system. I believe the execution of these laws might be reformed in three ways: 1. heighten the burden of proof extensively; 2. make sure that the due process and recourse of the defense is assured; and 3. lighten the penalty from the death penalty down to jail time and fines. For those concerned over public blasphemy and maintaining the Islamic integrity of the country while reforming the system enough to prevent grave misuse. These measures won’t instantly make things perfect, but they will steps in the right direction. And I know Muslims, even those with actual degrees in Islamic Jurisprudence, who would agree to them.
Furthermore, non-Muslims should not be held to the same standards as Muslims in these matters since they do not even believe the same thing theologically. While I can understand the desire that no one should publically spew vitriol against the main figure within the country’s established religion (one could find similar laws sketched out all the way back to the Old Testament, not to mention throughout Christian European history before secularizing), this can be spun to such an extent that the mere appearance of a public cross in some Muslim villages has been deemed as “blasphemous”. This morphs into blatant intolerance, something with the foundation of Pakistan is supposed to be against and feeds into the conditions that led to the dispute over water rights at the start of Asia’s case.
While we’ve certainly had our ups and downs as spiritual cousins with differing theological constructs, I still firmly believe that Muslims and Christians can live together harmoniously. It seems apparent that Muhammad himself believed the same thing, as it testified to in the way he treated Christians and Jews in the city of Medina. Furthermore, one of the most important documents Muhammad left in writing was his treaties with the Christians of his time, uniformly state that Muslims were not to attack or harass peaceful Christian communities, but defend them “until the End of the World.” Since they were authored by Muhammad himself, they are even seen by some as representing a third foundational pillar for Islam outside of Qur’an and hadith.
Perhaps, with the prophet of Islam’s name playing such an important part of all of this, we might hope the spirit of his law might be taken seriously. Needless to say, the message of Jesus, to love God through loving one’s neighbor, might also provide a keen slice of guidance in times such as these. With this in mind, let us all pray for Asia Bibi, all those involved in her case, both in defense and prosecution, and the Pakistani people, that justice may be served and the truth be revealed to the hearts of all.