Pakistan: The Shame and the Promise

The world is shocked by the death sentence imposed in Pakistan on Asia Bibi, a young Christian mother of five, imprisoned under the country's controversial blasphemy statute. This inhumane act paradoxically occurred while devout Muslims fulfilled their Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca where they prayed for Allah's mercy. This punishment is contrary to Islamic teachings on justice.

How can the benevolent act of sharing water, the source of life, undertaken by this Pakistani Christian woman toward her Pakistani Muslim co-worker lead to a death sentence? The co-worker refused to accept water drawn from the same barrel as a non-Muslim sparking a callous and controversial case.

Court documents indicate that the encounter provoked two unmarried women to accuse Bibi of making an offensive remark about the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. Bibi denies this allegation testifying that she never defiled the Prophet or commented against Islam. She maintains her innocence but asked forgiveness and after already serving 15 months in prison received an astounding response by the judge who condemned her to be executed. Leaving one to ponder, where is Islamic justice?

This harsh Blasphemy Law, forced upon Pakistan by former President Zia ul Haq, was one of the first examples by extremists in Pakistan to manipulate and exploit Islam for their own political gain. In Zia's case, it was consolidation of power. Later his supporter Nawaz Sharif, known for ordering the Pakistan nuclear tests in 1998, now heading the hardliner Pakistan Muslim League PML(N), continued the politicization of Islam. Equally disturbing are the actions of former self installed President, Pervez Musharraf, who defends the cruel Hadood ordinances that force women to produce four witnesses when they are raped or be arrested for adultery.

This pattern of perversion of Islamic principles in Pakistan now rivets the world's attention as it did when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated three years ago. Bibi and her family fear that she will be murdered as well while waiting for justice to be served. The death sentence against Asia Bibi for blasphemy is not only directed against her and her family, but in a broader sense against all of Pakistan, a nation whose international reputation hangs by a thread.

The Blasphemy Laws of Pakistan are antithetical to the protections to minorities guaranteed in Pakistan's Constitution and the very concept of religious freedom on which Pakistan was founded in 1947. A study by the National Commission for Justice and Peace reports that a total of 964 people have been charged under this ordinance: 479 Muslims, 340 Ahmedis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and 10 of other religions. Thirty-two people charged with blasphemy have been murdered through extra-judicial killings. In the case of Asia Bibi, the Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court said, "the treatment meted out to the woman was an insult to humanity."

Fortunately the current elected President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, has taken a forthright stand, reiterating "Pakistan is a nation of many religions and all Pakistanis, no matter what their faith, are equal under the law." Zardari recently indicated that if his action is necessary, he "will grant clemency to Bibi to insure that she is neither incarcerated nor harmed." However, Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) does not have the necessary votes in Parliament to repeal these dysfunctional blasphemy statutes and there is pressure for him to acquiesce to radical extremist factions. It is wrong and unjust that Nawaz Sharif, head of the second largest party in Pakistan, refuses to join with Zardari to change this discriminatory law.

It is unacceptable that billions of dollars of US economic aid are flowing to a nation that is persecuting minorities. The blasphemy edicts send a message to the international business community that Pakistan is an unwelcome place to invest and to do business. The blasphemy laws do not only undermine justice and decency in Pakistan, but subverts Pakistan's place in the community of nations. My visits to Islamabad, Lahore and Rawalpindi, working with people of Pakistan from various fields, validates the potential promise of Pakistan, but only if these unjust and malevolent laws are repealed.

The Holy Qur'ān demands that Muslims bring about justice with benevolence (ihsān), "Surely God enjoins justice and doing good to others (ihsān) (16:90)." According to Mohammad Hashim Kamali, author of Foundations of Islam: Shari'ah Law "Justice must be attempted in the spirit of ihsān, that is, even when it is not demanded by anyone; the attempt should be in equity and good faith which would gain the pleasure of God." The responsibility of justice by Muslims to non-Muslims is found in Ibn al-Qayyim's teachings in Al-Turuq al-Hukmiyah, "Any path that leads to justice and fairness is an integral part of the religion and can never be contrary to it." Muslims towards non-Muslims are directed in the Qur'ān to act justly with benevolence, "God forbids you not to do good and be just. God loves those who have strived for justice (60:8)."

My lifework is to advance economic opportunities and support for those in need with initiatives that bring people of all religions together for peace. Inspired and mentored by Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity; I travel to far regions of the world supporting their ministry of universal love. As a mother, it was heart wrenching seeing the tears of sorrow on Bibi's 12-year-old daughter, Isham Masih and to hear this child's agonizing pleas for her mother's life. It made my stomach churn listening to her town cleric who called for Bibi's arrest and prosecution. Upon the announcement of her death sentence he proclaimed a chilling response: "This is the happiest day of my life, it brought me tears of joy!" His malicious mentality incited violence forcing Bibi's family with a disabled child to flee their home because of subsequent death threats. Islam teaches the contrary; that the person who causes one to be evicted from their home will not see Allah on the final Day of Resurrection. The politicization of Islam, whether by terrorists or jihādist fanatics, is a perversion of some of the basic tenets of the Qur'ān.

Islam teaches to accept Jews and Christians as "people of the Book." The Qur'ān states, "We believe in Allah and what has been revealed to us, and what was revealed to Abraham, and Ismail and Isaac and Jacob and the tribes, and what was given to Moses and Jesus and to the prophets from their Lord; we do not make any distinction between any of them." This acceptance by Islam of the sacred texts of Christianity and Judaism extends also to guarantees for physical safety. "Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews and Christians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve." These Qur'ān words are inconsistent with the Blasphemy laws of Pakistan and the resulting heinous charges levied on Asia Bibi.

President Zardari has taken a bold stand, a profile in courage standing up against religious intolerance. But he should not stand-alone. Other political leaders and parties must stand with him. The military, and the civil society and the media, must take a stand. The case of Asia Bibi is a defining moment in Pakistan's national character and consciousness to find shame or promise. It is time for all of Pakistan, the international Muslim community and all humanity to stand together on the side of religious freedom, justice and benevolence (ihsān) for peace.

After all, "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other!" ~Mother Teresa

Noel Irwin Hentschel specializes in World Religions and Global Ethics at the Franciscan School of Theology and is CEO/ Chair of AmericanTours International and The Noel Foundation.

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