Mob rule: on Asia Bibi blasphemy case

Pakistan has empowered extremists by capitulating over Asia Bibi’s acquittal

November 05, 2018 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

The Pakistan Supreme Court’s judgment acquitting Asia Bibi, a Christian woman on death row for blasphemy, was an opportunity for the government to start debating the need to reform the regressive blasphemy laws. Instead, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s administration has capitulated to pressure from extremists, who blocked roads in Islamabad for three days, demanding a reversal of Wednesday’s verdict. On Friday, protesters led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a firebrand cleric and chairman of the Islamist party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik, decided to end the sit-ins after striking a deal with the government. According to the agreement, the government will not oppose the filing of a review petition in the Supreme Court against Ms. Bibi’s acquittal. It has also promised the protesters that Ms. Bibi would be prevented from leaving Pakistan . All protesters arrested since Wednesday are being released. This is the second time the Pakistani government is surrendering before the pressure protests by Mr. Rizvi and his co-Islamists. Last year, he led a weeks-long sit-in in the outskirts of Islamabad against a change in the electoral laws. Protesters claimed that the change in the wording of the oath taken by candidates amounted to blasphemy. After three weeks of protests, the previous government and the military struck a deal with the Islamists to end the crisis. The earlier version of the oath was restored and the Law Minister fired.

The question is, how long can the Pakistani government allow extremist mobs to dictate policies, and erode the state’s authority? In the case of Ms. Bibi, Pakistan has already seen much bloodshed. She was arrested in 2009 on charges that she insulted Islam and the Prophet Mohammed in an argument with her Muslim co-workers. In 2010, she was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death. The country has faced widespread international condemnation ever since about the blasphemy laws, which are perceived as being used to persecute religious minorities. Salman Taseer, the outspoken and secular Governor of Punjab who had campaigned for Ms. Bibi’s release, was shot dead in 2011 by his own bodyguard. Shahbaz Bhatti, then Minister for Minorities, was assassinated in the same year after he called for amendments to the law. By acquitting Ms. Bibi, the Supreme Court actually offered fresh energy to those who campaign against the controversial legislation. The government initially tried to rein in the protests. But by capitulating to the extremists as it did subsequently, the government has not only done her a disservice, but further emboldened extremist sections in Pakistan.


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