The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, has denounced the activities of hardline Islamist protesters who have taken to the streets following the acquittal of Christian mother Asia Bibi on a charge of blasphemy. In a televised address to the nation, Khan argued hardliners were “inciting [people] for their own political gain”, and were “doing no service to Islam.”

The radical Muslim political party “Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan” (TLP) mobilized supporters across several major cities in Pakistan Wednesday, and chants of “Friends of Blasphemers Deserve Death” could be heard ringing out among the blood-thirsty crowd. But their threats have not stopped Pakistan’s most senior politician from bravely condemning such hateful actions.

Prior to the landmark ruling, radicals had promised that the judges on Pakistan’s Supreme Court would meet a “horrible end” if they let Bibi go free. Following the ruling, TLP’s leader Muhammad Afzal Qadri openly stated that all three Supreme Court judges “deserve to be killed.”

This sort of language, Prime Minister Khan said, has no place in today’s Pakistan and is a disgrace to the religion of Islam. 

“Which government can function like this, blackmailed by protests?” Khan declared in his bold address, as reported by the BBC. “And who suffers due to this? Our Pakistanis. The common people, the poor. You block the roads, you rob people’s livelihood…”

“This is not the service of Islam,” he added, “this is enmity with the country. Only anti-state elements talk like this, that kill the judges, start a revolt in army… They are only trying to beef up their vote bank.”

Many Pakistanis reacted with joy at Khan’s stunning statement. Remember, this is a country where those who speak down to the religious fanatics can find themselves summarily executed in broad daylight.

In 2011, shortly after Bibi’s conviction, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was brutally murdered for speaking out in support of the wrongly convicted Christian woman. Shot dead on the streets of Islamabad, his own bodyguard was found guilty of the heinous crime and, though sentenced to death himself, he has since become a cult hero with a large shrine in his honor erected on the outskirts of the capital city.

Just two months later, Christian politician and outspoken critic of the blasphemy laws, Shahbaz Bhatti, was also assassinated — shot dead by the Pakistani Taliban as he traveled to work.

Shortly before his death, and while subject to imminent threats to his life, he released a powerful statement:

“I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his own life for us, and I am ready to die for a cause,” he said. “I’m living for my community … and I will die to defend their rights.” 

But a seemingly fearless Khan, whose centrist political party “Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf” is attempting to root out the corrosive culture of religious discrimination, did not bow to the Islamist radicals in his recent statement — in fact, he did quite the opposite. The responses of gratitude poured in online.

“Timely speech by our own Prime Minister,” one person responded on Twitter. “Gentle, bold and meaningful words by the most wise leader.”

“Prime Minister @ImranKhanPTI Massive Respect for you,” added another.

Of course, Khan would like to see a more progressive Pakistani society in which these gross miscarriages of justice do not take place. Indeed, as Kunwar Khuldune Shahid highlighted at the Guardian, “the long-term solution is of course to reform – if not repeal – the blasphemy law.”

“Any law that seeks to punish a victimless thought crime is a direct breach of freedom of religion and conscience in a civilized society,” he said. “While Pakistan might be a long way from embracing free speech that encompasses critiques of Islam, the verdict in Bibi’s favour has edged it closer to the removal of capital punishment in such cases.”

A total repeal of the blasphemy laws might be a fair way off, but the unflinching words of Prime Minister Khan is certainly propelling the nation in that direction. 

Asia Bibi, a 44-year-old Christian mother, was initially arrested after supposedly entering into an argument with a group of women about a source of drinking water. The Muslim women accused Bibi of drinking from the same tap as them, to which Bibi allegedly responded, “Jesus Christ died for my sins. What did the prophet Muhammad do for you?” a remark which they believed offended their revered religious figure.

However, in the Supreme Court’s final judgment, it declared that the two sisters who accused Bibi “had no regard for the truth,” before adding that “the said semi-literate young sisters had a reason to level allegations against the appellant which could be untrue.”

The landmark judgment also noted that the prosecution’s presented evidence in the case “was nothing short of concoction incarnate.” Due to obvious security concerns for the personal welfare of the judges, paramilitary security forces have deployed across the capital in a bid to protect the court’s officials, as well as to secure the diplomatic zone. In addition, roughly 300 police have been stationed to guard the supreme court, where protests have already erupted.

In Pakistan’s second-largest city of Lahore, hundreds of protesters gathered together and chanted “Hang infidel Asia.” Sickeningly, the hashtag #HangAsiaDefend295C was trending among the religious extremists on Twitter, with the 295c referring to “295-C” of Pakistan’s penal code which makes it a criminal offense to blaspheme against the Prophet Muhammad.

According to the Penal Code itself, 295-B refers to the prohibiting of “Defiling, etc., of Holy Qur’an,” and 295-C is in reference to the “use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet.” Other non-Islamic-specific violations contained in Pakistan’s criminal laws include “trespassing on burial places” and “disturbing religious assembly.”

Do continue to pray for Asia Bibi, her family and supporters as their figure out a way to escape the clutches of those who would seek to bring them harm.

Date published: 3/11/2018
Written by: Will Maule
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