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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue