The arrest in Pakistan of a Christian girl for profanity against the Koran has raised fresh questions about the country’s controversial blasphemy laws, which are better known for their misuse than for ensuring Islam is respected.
The laws prescribe the death sentence for those found guilty of committing blasphemy against the Muslim prophet Mohammed or the Koran. They were introduced in the 1980s by the country’s former military dictator, Zai ul Haq, as he sought to gain the support of Islamists.
Over the years, however, they have often been used for personal vendettas. And every effort to repeal or reform them has been viciously opposed by religious extremists.
“There is no need for changing or repealing blasphemy law,” says Mufti Muneebur Rehman, a Muslim cleric.
“There is no discrimination against non-Muslims, including Christians, living in Pakistan, nor are they subjected to violence or intimidation.”
And yet, the August 16 arrest of Rimsha, a teenage girl who comes from a slum in Islamabad and is believed to be suffering from learning disabilities, has heightened tensions between the local Muslim and Christian communities.
Rimsha, who doctors say is about 14 years old, was accused by a local cleric of burning pages of the Koran. But the case took a shocking turn when a key witnesses said the imam who had invoked the blasphemy laws to urge her arrest was in turn incarcerated for allegedly planting false evidence.
This is just the latest case of the laws being manipulated or used to harm opponents. The liberal governor of the largest province of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was gunned down by one of his elite police guards in 2011 after he spoke out in favour of a Christian woman victim of blasphemy.
In 2009, Muslim mobsters torched the houses of Christians following allegations that they had desecrated the Koran. Seven people, among them women and children, died in the attack.
Blasphemy charges were then dropped when relatives of the victims promised not to pursue murder charges against their Muslim aggressors. In Rimsha's case, some commentators argue that the true aim was to evict Christian families and grab hundreds of acres of prime land in the suburbs of thecapital.
“To the best of my knowledge, it is not a blasphemy case but an attempt to grab land where Christian have build their homes,” says Allama Tahir Ashrafi, a respected cleric who is calling for a fair trial for the girl.
Peter Jacon, head of the National Commission for Justice and Peace, says that since 1986, when the laws were introduced, over 1,200 people have been implicated in blasphemy cases.
Of these, 50 per cent involved Muslims, 34 per cent Ahmadias, 14 per cent Christians and just over 1 per cent Hindus, Jacob says. Interestingly, few have been punished under the laws, since most of the convictions are overturned on appeal.
And yet, even defendants who turn out to be innocent cannot consider themselves safe — 37 of the accused went on to be killed by extremists, Jacob says.
Akram Gill, Christian junior minister for Interfaith Harmony, says the government has no plans to change the blasphemy law at the moment. The issue is not the law, but how to promote tolerance, the minister argues.
He nevertheless concedes that the laws have been used to harm the followers of faiths other than Islam. “Religious minorities, including Christians, feel threatened over the rampant misuse of blasphemy law and the prevailing atmosphere of terror should end,” Gill told dpa.
Rimsha’s arrest has renewed the debate, and even some religious leaders are now asking for a review of the law’s implementation.
“The enforcement of these laws is flawed and it should be improved,” says Ashrafi.
Gill also calls for Muslims clerics and scholars to step in and help law-enforcers contain a handful of people trying to make trouble in the name of religion.
“I appreciate the role of Muslim clerics in the Rimsha blasphemy case who came to the defence of an innocent Christian girl. You must not forget that Hafiz Zubair, a Muslim cleric living in Rimsha’s neighbourhood, provided vital clues to her innocence,” Gil notes.