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.

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.

Activists of the National Christian Party shout slogans in support of Rimsha Masih. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era