Last weekend's arrest and imprisonment of Rimsha Masih, an 11-year old Christian girl, by Pakistani authorities in the nation's capital, Islamabad, on charges of blasphemy, is deeply alarming. The girl, whose mental stability is doubtful, will certainly face death sentence according to the Pakistani law if she is found guilty of disrespecting or burning Islamic text. While the poor terrified girl awaits appearance before a court by the end of this month, President Asif Ali Zardari has ordered an immediate inquiry into this perturbing episode. The president's intervention is not likely to serve as a breakthrough nor is it going to lead to the swift release of the girl.
Sentiments among devout Pakistani Muslims in the wake of the alleged burning of the religious text are so charged that the poor girl urgently needs official protection from Muslim hooligans. Based on the past experiences, one can foresee that extremists will kill the girl if they are provided access to her.
On July 4, 2012, an enraged mob of several thousand people forcefully pulled out a man from a police lock-up in the largest province of Punjab and burnt him alive on the road because he had allegedly disrespected the Muslim holy book, the Quran.
The situation is not very different in Ms. Masih's case.
According to the Associated Press, a group of 500 to 600 people had surrounded her house in Islamabad seeking action against the alleged blasphemer. "They were very emotional, angry," AP quoted a local police officer saying, "and they might have harmed her if we had not quickly reacted." It is unfortunate that the Pakistani law and officials have also turned against Ms. Masih by imprisoning her instead of protecting her from extremists. The little girl, who barely understands the dirty politics of religion and communalism, must be undergoing immeasurable distress and trauma.
Media reports say hundreds of Christian families who lived in Ms. Masih's town have also fled their homes fearing assaults by Muslim mobs. They have not agreed to return since they left some days ago as they still feel insecure. Even President Zardari cannot do much against the country's infamous blasphemy law.
In 1980s, a former military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, enacted the blasphemy law to prolong his dictatorial regime. Ul-Haq defended the notorious law by describing it as a milestone in Pakistan's journey toward the restoration of 'real Islam.' The law endorses death sentence for anyone who disrespects the Quran, Prophet Mohammad and the religion of Islam.
Many orthodox Pakistanis are now convinced that the law introduced by Ul-Haq is a divine decree and it is un-Islamic to question its rationale or endeavor to modify it. Repealing the law is currently an out-of-question option for the president or the parliament given the expanded influence of militant Islam in today's Pakistan.
When President Zardari's governor in the Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer, spoke against the blasphemy law, he was shot dead by his own security guard in January 2011. Two months later, Pakistan's sole Christian cabinet minister Shahbaz Bhatti was also gunned down for speaking out in favor of the religious minorities who were being punished under the blasphemy doctrine.
Despite such frequent unpleasant events, Pakistan has made almost no progress in reforming its deeply flawed and discriminatory law involving blasphemy. Such laws, on the one hand, discriminate against religious minorities and, on the other hand, further deepen religious intolerance and fanaticism in Pakistani society. They provide the murderers a license to kill people and easily get away with such heinous crimes in the name of religion.
In Ms. Masih's case, the larger debate has not focused on the actual issue of how to repeal the blasphemy law but the discussion revolves around relatively insignificant questions such as the age and the religion of the little girl who is caught up in this controversy. Suppose the Christian girl is pardoned under growing international pressure or on the basis of a medical report which confirms that Ms. Masih's mental health is abnormal, should then the actual debate on this dark law end? No, we should not accept death sentence in the 21st century in the name of any religion.
President Zardari's spokesman, Farhatullah Babar absurdly says that "blasphemy by anyone cannot be condoned" but also assures, "no one will be allowed to misuse the blasphemy law for settling personal scores." So, who defines "blasphemy" and is there also a "right use" of the law? Does that mean we should endorse the killing of people under the blasphemy law if the killer's motivation is not to "settle personal scores"?
In the midst of the outcry in the wake of Ms. Masih's case, the Amnesty International's appeal to the Pakistani government to "urgently reform its blasphemy laws" is encouraging but it does not remedy the country's growing problem of religious intolerance. The French government's stance on this issue, nonetheless, is more pragmatic and timely for the Pakistani authorities.
"The very existence of a crime of blasphemy is in breach of fundamental liberties, the freedom of religion or of conviction as well as the freedom of speech," said a spokesman of the French government, who rightly called on Pakistan "to respect its international commitments in this respect."
Ms. Masih's case should not be treated as a lone incident. It must trigger a serious policy debate among Pakistan policymakers, civil society and the media in order to realistically analyze the benefits, if there are any, and the drawbacks of such rustic laws which keep the country's religious minorities in a constant state of insecurity and prepares Muslim extremists to assault non-Muslims and their homes in the name of Islam.