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.
Photo: Justin Tallis/Getty Images
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What does our latest poll mean for the Labour leadership race?

Jeremy Corbyn is ahead among councillors - and looks ever more certain to become Labour's next leader. 

This morning the Labour History Research Unit at Anglia Ruskin University released its last set of polling data of Labour councillors in marginal constituencies’ prior to the election of the new leader.

It’s certainly a limited enough snapshot but in broad terms the data suggests four things. Firstly, that Jeremy Corbyn will win the leadership. Perhaps no great shock there at this point. But Corbyn’s slight lead in our poll of only two points or under above Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham masks the fact that he has picked up over 11 per cent of councillors since June - whilst all other candidates have lost support here. Given his reputation as a centraliser, it is remarkable that Corbyn is also neck and neck with Andy Burnham as the candidate councillors believe ‘would be best for local government.’ If he’s just about won over this tough crowd it may indeed be game over.

Secondly, the £3 registered supporter experiment is viewed as a damaging one by many within the party. With almost six in ten councillors thinking it should be ‘scrapped ahead of any future contest’ compared to just over one in four seeing it as a positive, there may well be clamour to reform this model going forward. Whether Corbyn will want to challenge the legitimacy of a reasonable proportion of his backers is one thing, but he would likely have some support in doing so if others were to press the issue.

Thirdly, on whatever mandate Corbyn is elected the good news for him is that key councillors clearly back Corbynomics. His plan to create a regulated and publicly-run service to deliver energy supplies is backed by 78 per cent of councillors who either “strongly agree” or “agree” with the policy, while 77 per cent support nationalising the railway network as soon as practicable. Introducing a 50p top rate of income tax is backed by 79 per cent of councillors, while 73 per cent agree with a “mansion tax” on homes worth over £2million. Most of those individually poll well amongst the electorate, though the 75 per cent of councillors who think scrapping tuition fees would aid the Labour vote in their constituency are out of kilter with the only one in six members of the general public who support that measure.

But lastly, perhaps most crucially, the rub is that less than two in ten councillors surveyed think Jeremy Corbyn will win the 2020 General Election. Even amongst councillors pledging to vote for Corbyn that figure tops out at six in ten.

Our data aside, Corbyn’s medium term challenge will clearly be enormous, as they would be for any new leader. For one, Labour’s current core vote just doesn’t turnout in enough numbers – not only in terms of voting for Labour, but at all. In 2010 and 2015 Labour’s most successful demographics were the semi-/low skilled working class (40 per cent to 31 per cent over the Tories in 2010, 41 per cent to 27 per cent in 2015) and ethnic minorities (60 per cent to 16 per cent in 2010, 65 per cent to 23 per cent in 2015). Turnout for both these groups is at least one in ten less than the national average, and barely bobs over one voter in two generally.  

Instead, in 2015 the most likely people to vote were men over the age of 55 (79 per cent), the middle class (75 per cent), or property owners (77 per cent). And so Jon Cruddas’ reviews’ conclusion that Labour has fallen behind on the average Prospector vote – those who ‘vote pragmatically for whichever party they think will improve their financial circumstances’ – has much resonance. The grey middle class might not be the sexiest of demographics, but they often decide elections. Miliband may have gained 12 per cent more 18-24 year olds (turnout 43 per cent) in 2015 than five years earlier, but the fact that he managed to do 8 per cent worse than Gordon Brown’s 2010 performance with the crucial over 65s (turnout 78 per cent) put the final chisel in the Edstone.

Perhaps if you give young voters a “radical alternative” they really will turn out – though worth recording that turnout amongst under 25s at the ‘real choice’ election of 1979 was the lowest either side of the majority Labour governments of 1966 and 1997 – but there are no guarantees. All this is a challenge for Labour per se however, not just Corbyn.

For the bookies’ favourite himself there are some specific complications. Big ticket policies like People’s Quantitative Easing have been queried by fellow leadership candidates (to declare an interest, while I am a Kendallite, I wrote a report arguing for a much truncated, one-off form of People’s QE in 2012), though it is just about backed by councillors in our survey. Corbyn’s foreign policy choices of threatening to leave NATO (rejected by two thirds of councillors) and scrapping Trident (rejected by a third) are also likely to be controversial. And the sum total of a left leaning agenda – as Ed Miliband discovered – is often less than its constituent parts. If Jeremy Corbyn is going to become the first opposition leader since 1906 to gain a full parliamentary majority whilst pledging to raise the top rate of income tax, he’s got a lot of work to do.

But our survey suggests that he’ll get the time to do it. If our data suggests Corbyn is at present unlikely to be Prime Minister, for all the talk of an early coup against him, he looks in a strong position to at least contest that election. And that remains an astonishing rise.

Richard Carr is a Lecturer in History at the Labour History Research Unit (LHRU), Anglia Ruskin University. The LHRU has today released new polling data on the Labour leadership. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the LHRU, the kind councillors of all parties who took time to answer the survey, or Anglia Ruskin University.

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