Fighting blasphemy laws in Pakistan

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday, February 14th, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: fighting blasphemy laws in Pakistan.

After more than eight years on death row in a Pakistani prison, a Christian woman is about to enter a new chapter in her life. On January 29th, Pakistan’s Supreme Court dismissed an appeal filed in the case of Asia Bibi. She’s the woman who faced charges of blasphemy against Muhammad. The Supreme Court acquitted her late last year but had to reconsider its decision when Islamic hardliners challenged it.

REICHARD: Bibi is now free to leave the country but remains in a secret and secure location in Pakistan. Extremists continue to call for her execution, so leaving on a commercial flight is out of the question. Pakistani officials are waiting for the fervor around her case to die down.

EICHER: There’s much to celebrate in this milestone decision. But the continuing threats on Bibi’s life underscore how deep and wide these blasphemy cases are.

Here now to explain the implications is WORLD Radio correspondent Jill Nelson.

JILL NELSON, REPORTER: Shaan Taseer was exercising at a Pakistani gym in 20-11 when the devastating news flashed across a TV screen: His father, a Pakistani governor, had been shot to death. His own security guard carried out the assassination, firing 27 bullets into his chest.

TASEER: My initial reaction was one of shock and disbelief. No one realized that the hysteria and radicalization had spread quite so deep. Obviously over the next few days when we saw events play out across the country, we actually realized how deep-seated this issue is, and the importance of the stance that he had taken.

That stance was public support for a Christian peasant woman from a small village. In 2009, a group of Muslim women accused Asia Bibi of drinking from the same water jug. Then came accusations of blasphemy. Local courts sentenced her to death but the Supreme Court last year overruled that decision.

AUDIO: [Sound of riots]

Violent mobs filled the streets in protest and went door to door looking for Bibi. The government put her in protective custody. Radical groups also threatened to kill the judges presiding over the case. To help quell the violence and soothe extremists, the government agreed to an appeal process that kept Bibi in the country until the court could reconsider.

Taseer says Pakistan’s blasphemy laws inspire angry mobs: Any remarks spoken or written, directly or indirectly, against Muhammad are punishable by death. Blasphemy laws are often used for personal vendettas or to persecute minorities. And Taseer says the definition of blasphemy has expanded:

TASEER: So in the case of my father, for example, he was accused of blasphemy for criticizing the blasphemy law.

Those accusations led to the 2011 murders of both Taseer’s father and a Christian politician who publicly supported Bibi.

And safety concerns for Bibi and her supporters aren’t limited to Pakistan.

London rejected the family’s asylum request, citing costly and difficult security concerns. The British government spent more than a million dollars a year providing security for author Salman Rushdie. His 1988 book The Satanic Verses prompted a fatwa calling for his death. Extremists killed or injured two translators and a publisher connected to the book.

Many other countries have remained silent. Pakistan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Shah Mahmoud Qureshi, insisted that wasn’t a bad strategy. He told BBC Global last week:

QURESHI: If you want to help her person, then quiet diplomacy would be better.

But in November, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly broached the possibility of asylum.

TRUDEAU: We are in discussions with the Pakistani government. There is a delicate domestic context that we respect, which is why I don’t want to say any more about that. But I would remind people that Canada is a welcoming country.

Most of Bibi’s family relocated to Canada in December. Some media outlets have reported that Bibi is trapped in Pakistan, but Taseer says those rumors are false. He spoke with Bibi earlier this month and says she is comfortable and that this delay “is not unusual.” It’s simply the result of  heightened security concerns.

The quiet maneuvering underscores the extreme danger that still surrounds Bibi. Taseer says she wouldn’t survive one day alone in Pakistan. Even in the West, she’ll need comprehensive security.

TASEER: The threat to her life is not limited to the geographical boundary of Pakistan, because people have been encouraged, coached, cajoled, indoctrinated to take her life around the world.

A growing number of Pakistanis abroad, including Christians and Muslims, are publicly challenging their homeland to throw out blasphemy laws. Most of them, including Taseer, do so with some level of risk:

TASEER: I’ve received many death threats. I have a fatwa in my name issued by the same groups that have organized these protests against Asia Bibi. In other words they put a golden ticket on your forehead for any person so inclined to take your life and ensure his place in heaven.

AUDIO: [Sound of riots]

After Bibi’s October acquittal, security forces arrested thousands of protesters and the leader of the group calling for her execution. As a result, fewer rioters filled Pakistan’s streets after the second acquittal. But the anger over so-called blasphemers remains.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court has warned the state to be on guard against “preachers of hate and extremism.” But Taseer says it will take more than warnings and arrests to reform Pakistan’s draconian laws and protect the human rights of religious minorities like Asia Bibi.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Jill Nelson.

(AP Photo/B.K. Bangash) Pakistani religious students rally to condemn the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the acquittal of Aasia Bibi, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday, Feb. 1, 2019. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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