Asia Bibi and Pakistan's Selective Persecution

In 2009, Asia Bibi, a 45-year old Christian woman, was asked to fetch water while working as a farmhand. Now, she has been in prison for a year and faces a death sentence under the damning blasphemy laws of Pakistan.
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Disgust and shame are the words that rushed to my head when a fellow Pakistani furiously walked over to my desk, quivering with anger, having heard for the first time about Asia Bibi's case. For those who have been too busy following instead the widely reported coverage of Pakistan's nuclear development, courtesy WikiLeaks, here's a summary of Asia Bibi's story which has been buried in the world section of many a newspaper.

In 2009, Asia Bibi, a 45-year old Christian woman with five children, was asked to fetch water while working as a farmhand. She was insulted by other Muslim women workers, who refused to accept it from her, calling her "unclean" due to her faith. Reportedly a dispute followed during which she was called names and her faith was branded a "religion of infidels." Furthermore, reports suggest that she dared to retaliate to such insults, and allegedly lashed out at the prophet and his faith, in a country that is 97 percent Muslim and where freedom of speech is a phrase often as nonsensical as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

Now, she has been in prison for a year and faces a death sentence under the damning blasphemy laws of Pakistan. Her crime is covered under Acts 295-B and C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which for the discerning reader are as follows:

295-B. Defiling, etc., of Holy Qur'an:

Whoever willfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur'an or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.

295-C. Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet:

Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.

Today the Lahore Court extended a stay order which prevents any amendment to the blasphemy legislation until further judicial action is taken on this case, thus making it impossible for President Asif Ali Zardari and the Governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer to pardon Asia Bibi till the final decision is made on her appeal.

In the Islamic Republic of Pakistan these laws may seem reasonable, but for Asia Bibi to be punished under them is not, as her only crime appears to have been fetching water (considered an honorable act in most parts of the world) and then defending her faith when she was rebuked for it.

Let's suppose Asia Bibi did relent and insult Islam. Where is the proof? It is one person's word against the other. Correction. It is a Muslim's word against a Christian's in a dominantly Muslim country, where none but a Muslim has the right to defend the honor of his or her religion. Also, it is important to note that the Quran and the Hadith do not unconditionally call for the execution of blasphemers, but it is the faithful few who have drafted the blasphemy laws, while the founder of the nation, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, who was married outside the faith and was as secular as secular can be, squirms in his marble mausoleum for herding all extremists under one roof.

I am a minority in Pakistan myself. Hailing from the Zoroastrian community, which has fewer than 2,000 people left in the biggest city, Karachi. I have never been overtly harassed by the Muslims surrounding me, but that may have more to do with the fact that I grew up in a metropolitan city with people who were exposed to diversity. Asia Bibi unfortunately was trapped in a small village in Punjab where tolerance is often more likely to be extended toward an animal than a human being from a different religion.

This case may lead most Westerners to cement their views of Muslims or Pakistanis as intolerable, religious fanatics who cannot tell right from wrong when it comes to their faith. And unfortunately, if Asia Bibi is forced to mete her fate at the gallows, I would have to agree with that viewpoint. That is the reason why it is important for all Pakistanis to be intolerant toward such intolerance and plead to our president, who's hands are supposedly tied by Islamic extremists and by stilted laws, to show that Pakistan as a nation will not stand by such hypocrisy. Having grown up in Pakistan, I know that the law is not impartial and that a poor person's suffering is not as important as that of a rich person and a woman's as that of a man. If a rich brat were to consume alcohol, steal or even kill in Pakistan it would not turn heads, but to establish religious absolutism and make an example of Asia bibi, is something the nation does not seem to be up in arms about.

Pakistani's are not the only ones who should feel responsible if she's put to death. Since America has inextricably tied its fate with Pakistan's, President Obama is now faced with a gift-wrapped situation whereby he can show that not only does America care about winning the war on terror, but it is also there to look out for the ordinary citizens of this country.

My friend, who introduced me to this case, and I are both journalists in New York. She is Muslim, I am Zoroastrian. When brought face to face with this case, we concluded that perhaps Pakistan deserves its problems and that perhaps God would be more merciful to us a nation, if we were more forgiving and less judgmental as a people.

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