Last week, Asia Bibi was acquitted, by the Supreme Court, and escaped the death penalty in Pakistan. Bibi, a Pakistani Christian, still denies accusations of anti-Islamic blasphemy, for which she has spent eight years in solitary confinement. Her case was finally overturned because she had been prosecuted on “flimsy evidence” – due to pressure by radical Islamist groups to punish her – for speaking against the Prophet Muhammad.
Despite the fact that Bibi will no longer be sentenced to death, or a to life in prison – a huge triumph in Pakistan, where there are such drastic consequences for blasphemy – she still remains in custody. She and her family fear for her life, and her lawyer is seeking asylum in the Netherlands, as extremist Islamist groups protest the verdict. However, still, the Pakistani government are suggesting that, instead of help her leave a country in which she is not safe, they will not allow her to escape Pakistan.
Perhaps the government are afraid. Those who have spoken out in Bibi’s defence in the past, have suffered for it; politician Mumtaz Qadri publically defended her, whilst condemning Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. He was then assassinated, and he is not the only one who has suffered this fate. A government should not be ruling in a state of fear, and the constant interference, threats, protests, from radical Islamist groups in Pakistan mean that the autonomy of the government is dramatically reduced. Additionally, many ordinary Pakistani citizens are calling for her death, as punishment for her ‘severe’ crime.
This is why religion is able to have such an influence on state law, even with a Prime Minister from the deliberately named ‘Pakistan Movement for Justice’ party. A culture of fear. Extremist groups have been so used to having such power and control in Pakistan, that it is bound to take time for the nation to recover from a radically religious rule, but is this an excuse?
In 2018, how is it acceptable that religion can be so entangled in law that you can be sentenced to death for blasphemy– even, as with Bibi, where there is a serious lack of evidence? There was such controversy with Bibi’s case because there are so many people who back the blasphemy laws, and want the punishment for anti-Islamist blasphemy to be so severe, that they are willing to riot for it.
Though Pakistan is a majority Muslim country, there are still around 2.7 million Christians, 1.8 million Hindus – over 4 million individual people for whom there are laws that hinge upon things that they do not believe in. Is this fair? Laws should not align with religious belief, whether it is a historically religious country or not. An understanding of what is wrong and what is right, is very different from a belief in whether or not there is a god, or gods, and from whom a religion began. In particular, laws of blasphemy can be exceptionally exclusive. For an atheist, blasphemy is perhaps non-existent, so to punish someone for something that they do not believe to even be real, is, in itself, extremely problematic.