Don’t blame Pakistan’s judges for relying more on Quran than rule of law to acquit Asia Bibi of blasphemy charges.
It’s appalling that a 21st-century judgment acquitting Christian woman Asia Bibi of blasphemy charges should read like a religious text itself— but that’s exactly how the Supreme Court of Pakistan penned the verdict releasing her, after wrongly imprisoning her for nine and a half years.
The judgment began with “Qalma-e-Shahdat” and ended with the Hadith of the Prophet. To pre-empt criticism from religious groups, Justice Saqib Nisar, reading out the judgment, quoted one verse after another from the Quran praising Prophet Mohammad and agreed that those who dishonour the Prophet should be handed the death penalty.
However, he explained that in this case, several witnesses had contradicted each other and the prosecution case was weak. To reinforce the acquittal of Asia Bibi, he quoted from the Hadith: “Beware! Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I (Prophet) will complain against the person on the day of judgement”.
Nobody knows why the judges had to rely more on religious texts to protect an innocent Christian minority woman than on the basic tenets of internationally accepted rule of law. But don’t blame Pakistan’s judges for that.
The real blame lies with the rise of the religious Right and the support extended to it by successive governments— civilian or military. The first major success of religious extremists in Pakistan was the declaring of Ahmadis as non-Muslims in 1974, when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was at the helm of affairs. But the rot set in much earlier, when the Pakistan constituent assembly declared the country to be an Islamic Republic despite vehement opposition and boycott of proceedings by minority members in 1949.
The world has been repeatedly told for the last 70 years that Islam is Pakistan’s ideology.
The Asia Bibi case was a huge challenge for the government. On one hand, internationally, Christian groups had been critical for the alleged denial of justice to Asia Bibi. On the other, parties like the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) had vowed to wreak havoc if the judgment was unfavourable. And it did.
Amidst immediate street protests by the TLP after the judgment, the organisation called for bringing down the new Imran Khan government and death to all three judges. “They all three deserve to be killed. Either their security should kill them, their driver kill them, or their cook kill them,” a TLP member said during a protest in Lahore. The TLP also declared Pakistan army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa a non-Muslim worthy of being killed and called upon troops to mutiny against him.
In a televised speech Wednesday night, Prime Minister Imran Khan supported the Supreme Court’s decision and warned TLP not to create disturbances. But Imran Khan is naïve if he thinks that he can threaten these extremist groups into silence through a simple TV broadcast. These groups have tasted power, have access to weapons and have cohabited with the army for its regional ambitions.
The threat can’t just be brushed aside because the TLP has street and muscle power, which can paralyse the functioning of the government and throw normal life in Pakistan out of gear. The appetite of this organisation is only growing. It garnered over 21 lakh votes in the general elections held in 2018. Earlier, in November 2017, it demonstrated its strength and withdrew its sit-in near Islamabad only after law minister Zahid Hamid resigned. Later, its activist shot at interior minister Ahsan Iqbal and injured him.
The fear of reprisals by religious groups is so rampant that after the TLP’s threat to his life, the Chief Justice said on 1 November: “I and our all bench members are lovers of the Prophet and our faith is incomplete without our faith in our Prophet”.
“Many judges recite durood-e-shareef as they sit in their chambers,” Justice Nisar said.
Even Imran Khan had to first establish his religious credentials before warning the TLP in the address. This may not help. Only a secular narrative and approach to all issues of governance can help in controlling the monstrous religious groups in Pakistan today. Rather than succumbing to the demands of the TLP, as the government was compelled to do in November last year, it is time to call its bluff by enforcing rule of law to protect life and property of citizens and government.
The author is a former intelligence official who has served in the Indian High Commission in Islamabad and in Kashmir.