Thursday, March 7, 2013

Deepening divide leaves Pakistan staring into the abyss.

by Elizabeth Kendal

On Tuesday 19 February 2013, a senior police official confirmed to Agence France-Presse (AFP) that authorities had launched an investigation into blasphemy allegations against Pakistan's Ambassador to the USA, Shehrbano "Sherry" Rehman, on order from Pakistan's Supreme Court. 

See: Sherry Rehman, Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S., to be investigated for blasphemy.
By Hunter Stuart, The Huffington Post, 21 Feb 2013

The Supreme Court of Pakistan admitted the petition against Rehman on Thursday 17 January 2013. The petition was heard by a two-judge bench comprising Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali and Justice Ejaz Afzal who directed City Police Officer Multan Amir Zulfiqar to take action in accordance with the law.

Multan's senior police superintendent, Ghulam Shabbir Jafri, confirms that the case has been registered and evidence is being collected.

As Farhan Bokhari reports for CBS News (21 Feb 2013): "The case promises to unleash another clash between conservative Muslims who vehemently back the country's Islamic laws, and those who dare to challenge them as outdated and in need of reform. . .

"The case also puts President Asif Ali Zardari's already-embattled government in an awkward position, as it tries to balance its own liberal leanings with continued pressure from conservative Islamic parties and regional populations that want the Islamic laws enforced strictly. It is added pressure that the governing Pakistan People's Party -- to which Zardari and Rehman both belong -- does not need with parliamentary elections expected in May.

"'This case is a powerful reminder of the internal divisions in Pakistan that have already caused much harm to this country,' a Western diplomat told CBS News on Thursday [21 Feb]. 'Given how divided Pakistan remains, it's practically impossible for President Zardari's government to either defend or oppose this case.'"

In an opinion piece for Pakistan's Daily Times, writer and advocate Qasim Rashid commences by noting that Ambassador Sherry Rehman's twitter bio declares: "Will take a bullet for the motherland but hope our children don't have to." Rashid then asks: "But what is an ambassador to do when that bullet comes from Pakistan and strikes her in the back?

"Last week, Pakistan took the unprecedented step and charged their own ambassador with blasphemy — a crime that carries the consequence of fine, prison time, and even execution. As Rehman valiantly fights to improve her nation's image, implores the US that her country is moderate and tolerant, and courageously defends Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policy, the motherland — of all places — proves her wrong."

Rashid comments that the "state-sanctioned persecution of Rehman is not a surprise; it is an inevitability and just the latest in a long trend."

Rashid notes that Pakistan has a history of state complicity in the persecution of Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Ahmadis, as well as moderate reform-minded Muslims. He holds the Supreme Court responsible for the escalation in deadly violence, noting that in 1992, in the case of Zaheerudin v State, the Supreme Court ruled: "The [Ahmadis] who are non-Muslims want to pass off their faith as Islam? . . . [a] [Muslim] believer...will not tolerate a Government, which is not prepared to save him of such deceptions or forgeries. . ." Rashid asserts that with these words, the Supreme Court not merely champion the draconian blasphemy law, but it "figuratively shot its own constitution".

"And now," he asks, "as Pakistan shoots its own ambassador in the back, who will take a bullet for Sherry Rehman?"

Rashid pleads: "No other logical choice exists but to unite as one community against religious discrimination, oppression of conscience, and violence. As long as Pakistan's blasphemy law lives, those who stand up for freedom and tolerance will continue to fall at the hands of the Supreme Court-endorsed extremists."

But Pakistan's pro-freedom advocates need far more than "unity as one community". They also need massive and united international support. Ultimately, they need divine intervention. 

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BACKGROUND

The blasphemy petition against Ambassador Rehman has its roots in the Asia Bibi case.

On 8 November 2010, Christian woman Asia Bibi (45) was sentenced to death by hanging for allegedly blaspheming Islam's prophet, Muhammad. The sentence left Asia, her husband, Aashiq Fauji Masih (51), and their five children totally shattered.

See: Christian woman sentenced to death in Pakistan 'for blasphemy'
By Rob Crilly in Islamabad and Aoun Sahi in Lahore, The Telegraph, 9 Nov 2010

Member of the National Assembly (MNA) Shehrbano "Sherry" Rehman was one of three eminent Pakistani leaders -- along with Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti -- to rise in defence of Asia Bibi and challenge Pakistan's infamous blasphemy law.

After Asia Bibi's death sentence was handed down, Rehman submitted a bill to the National Assembly Secretariat seeking an end to the death penalty under the existing blasphemy law.

On 30 November 2010, she spoke publically against the death sentence, criticising the blasphemy law in an interview aired on a private television channel.

On 4 January 2011, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, was assassinated in Islamabad.   by one of his own security guards, the Islamist Mumtaz Qadri. Outside the court, the assassin Qadri was lionised and celebrated, not only by bearded Islamists, but by suit-clad lawyers

As threats mounted against Sherry Rehman, her own party, the Pakistan People's Party, pressured her to back down.  In February 2011, the then prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, categorically stated that the government had no intention of amending the blasphemy law, leaving Rehman with no option other than to drop her bill.

On 2 March 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs and the only Christian in the Cabinet, was assassinated in a supposedly secure area of Islamabad.  Islamic militant group Tehreek-e-Taliban proudly claimed responsibility. In pamphlets found near the assassination Tehreek-e-Taliban stated, "Anyone who criticizes the blasphemy law has no right to live."  Two years on -- after one attempt to whitewash the killing -- no one has been tried for Bhatti's murder.

On 23 November 2011, after months of death threats, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani appointed Sherry Rehman to the position of Ambassador to the United States where she should presumably be safe from Islamist retaliation.

Shahid Ghauri, leader and spokesman for the Tehreek-e-Taliban, lambasted the appointment claiming Rehman was unfit for such a post on the grounds that "she tried to abolish the country's blasphemy laws."

"We are not satisfied with Sherry Rehman appointment because she is not fair with Islam or the country," he said while accusing her of spying for the US and advancing Jewish agendas. 

That same day, Multan businessman Fahim Akhtar Gill filed a petition in the Multan Bench of the Lahore High Court against the appointment of Rehman as Pakistan's Ambassador to the US claiming that in the course of her November 2010 televised interview -- where she criticised Pakistan's blasphemy law -- Rehman herself made comments that were tantamount to blasphemy.

Western diplomats assured CBS news that the case should not put Rehman in any danger, as she is outside of Pakistan.

However, a guilty verdict would leave Sherry Rehman unable to return to her homeland. Furthermore, a guilty verdict could be as effective as a fatwa, leaving her unsafe anywhere in the world. Should this happen, Sherry Rehman would doubtless join the growing list of noble and courageous defenders of freedom being forced to live their lives under suffocating police protection. 

Meanwhile, supporters of assassin Mumtaz Qadri continue to call for his release, or at least that he be tried in the Federal Shariat Court instead of Islamabad High Court (IHC) so the matter can be decided "in the light of teachings of Quran and Sunnah". Clearly they are confident that Islam would legitimise the killing and acquit the assassin. If this is permitted -- if Qadri is tried in the Federal Shariat Court on the spurious grounds that the killing of blasphemers is a matter pertaining to Islam and therefore must be decided according to Sharia -- then the future survival of Pakistan's minorities would be very tenuous indeed.

And after nearly four years in jail, Asia Bibi still has no word on whether she will be able to appeal her death sentence.  (Voice of the Martyrs Petition)

The battle for Pakistan continues.

UPDATE

On Saturday 9 March, up to 7000 local Muslims looted and burnt more than 160 homes, 18 shops and two churches in Joseph Colony -- a Christian colony in Badami Bagh, Lahore, in response to a blasphemy allegation.

See: PAKISTAN: THE BITTER FRUITS OF A RADICALISED SOCIETY
Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 201 | Wed 13 Mar 2013
By Elizabeth Kendal

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Elizabeth Kendal is author of
Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today
(Deror Books, Dec 2012)