Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old mother of five, is the first woman to have been convicted under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy law. But numerous Christians like her and others have been victims of it, either because they have made a comment which has been construed as critical of the prophet of Islam or as a way of settling property and business disputes. Now she has become the first person to be sentenced to death under it.
Did she blaspheme Muhammad? It seems more likely that she angered her tormentors in a theological discussion about the relative merits of Christianity and Islam. Such debates take place all the time among adherents of different faiths. Whichever it may have been, the law has created intolerable injustice for often powerless people and quite unacceptable restrictions on freedom of speech to which the state of Pakistan is committed.In undivided India, the British had laws which were meant to prevent incitement to religious hatred (yes, that is where this approach was first tried). The penalties, however, were generally moderate and proportional to the offences. Increasing Islamisation in Pakistan has made these laws more and more draconian. Thus there is now a mandatory life sentence for desecrating the Qur’an and a mandatory death sentence for blaspheming the prophet.
We need to know urgently from our Muslim friends whether these laws are really Islamic. The different formal schools of medieval sharia were unanimous that anyone who insults the prophet is to be put to death and differ only about the method of execution. It is this unanimity which has led the federal shariat court to rule that the death penalty is mandatory and left the judges with little discretion in particular cases.
Against this, the Qur’an only threatens those who insult God or the prophet with a curse and a humiliating punishment in this life and the next. It is claimed sometimes that the execution of poets, such as Ka’ab ibn al-Ashraf, for insulting the prophet is a precedent for executing blasphemers. On the other hand, it is said that they were put to death not for blaspheming but for sedition. The Hadith also tells us that while some were punished, others were freely pardoned by Muhammad himself. The question is, which of these attitudes is to prevail in Muslim nations and communities today?
It may be that a country like Pakistan needs laws to prevent religiously aggravated hatred discrimination. Such laws would be very different from the present ones and would protect religious minorities equally with Muslims.
How can Asia Bibi and others be saved from the gallows? The blasphemy law is a bad law enacted under pressure from extremists who threaten violence if the government does anything to lessen its impact or to ameliorate the lot of those who have fallen victim to it. A bad law will always come back to haunt us and that is why our ultimate aim must be its repeal.
Pakistan is a signatory to international agreements which prohibit cruel and degrading punishment. It is time for it to honour its commitments and to stand up to extremist purveyors of hate, if it is to have a respected place in the family of nations. The international community, the UN, the Commonwealth and the EU must do everything they can to make sure this vulnerable woman does not suffer the extreme penalty and that others, like her, are not subjected to months and even years of harassment, imprisonment and anxiety as they await a final verdict on their cases.
l’articolo è tratto da The Guardian del 13 novembre 2010, l’autore è Michael Nazir Ali