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Is this a turning point for Pakistan's blasphemy laws?

The case of Rimsha Masih could be a watershed moment in the struggle for religious toleration.

Activists of the National Christian Party shout slogans in support of Rimsha Masih. Photograph: Getty Images.

The case of Rimsha Masih, a 14-year-old Christian girl with Downs syndrome from the impoverished Mehrabadi district in Islamabad may yet have resolution. An iman, who planted pages of the Koran in the bag of paper she was carrying, and for which she was charged with blasphemy, was arrested on Sunday. He was brought into police custody when his deputy Maulvi Zubair and two others told the magistrate that he had tampered with the girl’s bag because this was a “way of getting rid of Christians”.

The attack on one of Pakistan’s frightened minorities has galvanised the liberal English-language media. There is expectation that the case may be a turning point.  “don't lose hope. Blasphemer Imam case has changed the course of discourse,” one Lahori tweeted this week. Paul Bhatti, the only Christian cabinet minister, whose brother Shahbaz Bhatti, then minister for minorities, was gunned down by extremists in March 2011, has spoken of the deputy iman’s speaking out as a  “good omen” and that it will be significant in future prevention of abuse of Pakistan’s strict laws on blasphemy. In Express Tribune, one of the country’s leading clerics, the chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council stated that the case of Rimsha should be a watershed for the country’s blasphemy laws.

However, behind the symbolism of an unreformed blasphemy law - brought in by the British in 1860, expanded in 1927 and given political Islamisation by the military and General Zia between 1980 and 1986 -  lie more complicated issues. The British decision to partition the subcontinent along lines of religion in 1947 brought violence, bloodshed and massacre. Jinnah intended Pakistan as a secular administrative state where religion would not be divisive and minorities would be free to practise their faith. Yet its existence was born of religious identity; the country’s over-hasty creation by lines on a map resulted in migration and violence on a scale still not fully assimilated.

From the 1950s, as the military and fledgling civilian democracy struggled for grasp of Pakistan’s future, religious issues refused to go away. Very early on the Ahmedi community was sidelined as not being properly Islamic. Those in the Christian community were assigned low-caste roles as sweepers, waste and sewerage disposers. Hindus, who numbered 16 per cent of Pakistan’s population in 1947, were kept tied to the land, bonded labour effectively, the only compensation being a deep feeling of belonging and identity with the lands they had worked for thousands of years. The minorities were not able, as they had been in the pre-1947 subcontinent, to live side by side and in peace with their neighbours. 

By the 1970s, the rise of the oil-rich Gulf and a complicated melange of geo-strategic players, which included Soviet Russia and the US, would see their position in Pakistan’s state further undermined. As Dr Mubashir Hassan, nuclear scientist and co-founder of the PPP with Zulfikar Bhutto in 1967, confirmed at the end of August talking on ZemTv, Bhutto declared Ahmedis non-Muslim in the 1970s as a political stunt under Saudi (Sunni) pressure.

When the Saudis openly backed and funded Zia’s military regime in the 1980s, things worsened. In 1984, the Ahmedi community was legally outlawed as Muslims and not allowed to call their places of worship mosques. Saudi Arabia and Washington matched each other dollar for dollar to fund the Sunni mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets. The Pakistan military played a double game and it spilled over into Pakistan in the backing of jihadist groups and militant clerics who acted, rather like the sixteenth century right-wing religious Spanish Inquisition (Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición), as an unofficial police service of state and psychological and actual terroriser. 

In the last ten years with Saudi Arabia still calling the tune with the Pakistan military and any civilian government unable to legislate effectively, persecution of the Shia, Ahmedi, Christian and Hindu minorities has increased. It is against a background of hatred, contempt and intolerance of non-Sunni Pakistanis which extends to the school curricula and is matched by the military’s Urdu television output. This isn’t new, it goes back decades.

But since 2010, when minorities were routinely discriminated against for aid during the floods, the military’s intolerance of minorities has accelerated. Salmaan Taseer, former governor of Punjab and Shahbaz Bhatti, the Christian minister for minorities were assassinated for standing up for a tolerant, pluralistic Pakistan in which the blasphemy law could not be misused. This year there have been massacres of Shia pilgrims in Balochistan and Gilgit and, after the attack on their Lahore places of worship in 2010, in which 94 members of the Ahmadiyya community were brutally gunned down, constant harassment of the Ahmedi and Christian communities.

In Sindh, the Hindu population have been under real pressure from Islamisation. Aleem Maqbool, the BBC’s Islamabad correspondent, tweeted in September 2011 “seeing many minority hindus affected by floods in pakistan living on roads scared of going to camps run by islamist parties”. Forced conversions and intimidation are forcing many Hindus to leave lands they have occupied for thousands of years as this article  in Lahore’s Friday Times detailed in March. “You cannot understand how much we love this land,” Ajeet Kumar said. “We have been living here for millennia and are among its indigenous people. This is our land and its people are our people. We are Sindhis and have never discriminated on the basis of religion. But due to the constant fear of abductions, we are leaving Pakistan and Sindh.” In south Punjab, too, as this report this week  shows, just weeks after the 65 year anniversary of Independence, Hindus are again making the journey over the border to India.

For the Christian community of Islamabad, Rimsha’s case may at least be a turning point. The blasphemy law is often misused to settle personal vendettas. The clerics were prepared to tell the truth about the iman. The judiciary may yet do its job properly on this issue. The media has a better record of holding the institutions of state to account. It will keep working on this and not let go.

In sixteenth century Spain, the Inquisition was funded directly by the monarchy to impose orthodoxy, terrorise minorities, collect information, seize property, enforce blasphemy laws, ban books and force conversions. Between 1560 and 1700, there were trials and imprisonments on an industrial scale, just short of 50,000. Torture is estimated to have taken place in just two per cent of cases but the fear it engendered effectively did its work for it in terrorising non-orthodox communities. What eventually did for the Inquisition was geopolitics - the decline of Spain as an aggressive power - and the eighteenth century European enlightenment, which is to say reason, scientific inquiry, political theory and arts.

Catriona Luke is a freelance writer and editor.