Gwynne Dyer: "Blasphemy", caste, and persecution in Pakistan

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      It was a welcome change from the usual dreary story: a Christian or a Hindu Pakistani accused of blasphemy on flimsy grounds, tried, and sentenced to prison—or found innocent, set free and then murdered by some Muslim fanatic. This time was different.

      The victim this time was a 14-year-old Christian girl, Rimsa Masih, who is believed to suffer from Down’s syndrome. She was stopped by a young Muslim man who found the half-burned remnants of a book that allegedly included verses from the Qur'an in her carrier bag. He told the local imam, who called the police, and she was arrested.

      This kind of story usually ends badly in Pakistan. Two years ago, for example, a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was arrested for insulting the Prophet Muhammad while arguing with fellow farm workers. She was sentenced to death by hanging, but it was such a manifest injustice that the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, publicly called for the repeal of the blasphemy law. He was assassinated by his own bodyguard in January 2011.

      The bodyguard was tried for murder and convicted, but he was treated as a hero by many Pakistanis, and the judge who sent him to prison had to flee the country. Two months later the only Christian member of Pakistan’s cabinet, Shahbaz Bhatti, was also shot dead when he spoke out against the blasphemy laws. Since then, almost nobody has dared to criticize them.

      Asia Bibi remains in prison awaiting execution. Her entire family, including her five children, live in hiding and cannot work or go to school. And while the higher courts would once have thrown out her conviction—they have overturned hundreds of sentences for blasphemy imposed by lower courts that were too vulnerable to local pressures—she can no longer even be confident of that.

      So the outlook seemed grim for Rimsa Masih when she was arrested last month—but then the imam who had called the police, Hafiz Mohammad Khalid Chisti, was arrested for doctoring the evidence. His own deputy had seen him adding pages from the Qur'an to the young Christian’s bag.

      “I asked him what he was doing,” the deputy told a television station, “and he said this is the evidence against them (the local Christians) and this is how we can get them out from this area.” Two other witnesses came forward against Chisti, and Hafiz Mohammad Ashrafi, the chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, a body of senior Muslim clerics, declared that “Our heads are bowed with shame for what Chisti did.”

      Ashrafi added that Chisti was acting on behalf of a group who wanted to drive out the Christian minority in the area: “I have known for the last three months that some people in this area wanted the Christian community to leave so they could build a madrassah (on their land).” They have already succeeded: some 300 Christian families have fled in fear for their lives, and they probably won’t be back. But at least the state is starting to defy the fanatics.

      Bail is not normally granted in blasphemy cases, but on September 8 Rimsa Masih was freed on bail, and a military helicopter lifted her out of the prison yard and into hiding. And Paul Bhatti, the Minister for National Harmony, whose brother and predecessor Shahbaz was murdered last year, broke a political taboo by explaining why ordinary Pakistanis are more hostile to the religious minorities in their midst than most Muslims elsewhere.

      “It is not just a religious problem,” Bhatti said. “It’s a caste factor, because (the victims) belong to the poorest and most marginalized people. Unfortunately they are Christians, and this caste system creates lots of problems.”

      Islam teaches the equality of all believers, but the caste system is alive and kicking in Pakistan. Go far enough back, and almost all Pakistani Muslims are descended from Hindus—and when those Hindu communities converted to Islam, they retained their ideas and prejudices about caste.

      This was particularly disheartening for groups at the bottom of the caste pecking order who had hoped that Islam would free them. When the British empire arrived in the area, therefore, it was the poorest and most despised section of the population who converted to Christianity.

      So everybody knows that most Christians are really "untouchables". The argument that got Asia Bibi in trouble, for example, broke out when some of her Muslim fellow workers refused to drink the water she had fetched because Christians were “unclean”.

      The Hindu minority is mostly just as low caste as the Christians, and equally vulnerable. Together they are only six million out of 187 million Pakistanis, but they account for the vast majority of blasphemy accusations. In many cases, these accusations are merely a convenient weapon for Muslims engaged in land disputes and other quarrels with members of the minority groups.

      Maybe the Pakistani government has finally found the nerve to deal with this corrupt law and to protect its victims. The Rimsa Masih case is a hopeful sign. But Pakistan still has a long way to go before all of its citizens are really equal under the law.




      Sep 11, 2012 at 10:29am

      I seldom agree with Dyer, but this article is very good and should be read by everyone - especially those who continue to talk about how Islam does no harm. The core belief of Islam teaches peace and coexistence, but like most religions it is hijacked by people for their own agendas. Most of the upheaval in the middle east around Islam can be traced to the radical imans trying to keep control over the masses. They fear independent thinking and action. Too bad, that is just an aspect of fear. Islam can be a force for good and is strong enough to stand on it's own. The radicals who are stirring up trouble will not go away until the true, peaceful believers take their religion back. May peace rule!

      Mark Fornataro

      Sep 11, 2012 at 12:43pm

      What a tragic, evil mess Dyer so eloquently describes. Along the same lines is the fabricated evidence in cases of women being stoned to death with false accusations of adultery. One such case is documented in the movie The Stoning of Soraya M. available on Netflix.


      Sep 11, 2012 at 1:00pm

      The same case can be made for any religion in any region where one group wants to marginalize another. Any religion is just another mechanism to control people, and its usually just about the money or power wrapped in the guise of belief. This is why I personally truly believe all religion is evil. I long for a day when our species can throw off this absurd weight around our shoulders.


      Sep 11, 2012 at 1:23pm

      Vast majority of blasphemy cases are against "Muslims" not the minorities in Pakistan. I myself am an "ex-Muslim" from Pakistan who is running from this sort of intolerance. Most cases against Muslims who "blaspheme" and are declared "apostates" don't even make it to the media, they are handled by mob justice or even their own family members as most people in Pakistan believe killing an ex-Muslim will guarantee them a place in "paradise". I know because I used to believe that myself at one point in time. This is a law that is used against all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons.


      Sep 11, 2012 at 7:32pm

      I have said it before - ALL major religions are a complete and total waste of time.

      Raymond Fisher

      Sep 12, 2012 at 10:00am

      I could not have agreed more with McRocket. Religion has killed more humans in history than other conflicts......... Try reading History....


      Sep 12, 2012 at 11:51am

      I am not religious, but I believe religion has little to do with violent conflicts. Those who do such things simply use religion as an excuse. Were there no religions, they would kill in the name of patriotism, race, political beliefs, or some other meaningless reason.

      petr aardvark

      Sep 13, 2012 at 3:33pm

      one wonders whether that anti-islamic fillm that started all those protests, wasn't really staged just like that Imam planting evidence on that girl, to coincide with protests & the attack on the Benghazi embassy. At this moment no one seems to know the guy who filmed it but according to interviews with the actors, they thought they were making some historical documentary which had nothing to do with Islam. A lot of the speech was later crudely dubbed in and the guy who filmed it also spoke fluent Arabic.

      Bully Bully

      Sep 23, 2012 at 1:43am

      I remember an episode of South Park where Cartman goes into the future where religion is banned and everyone believes in "science", but they have wars because different groups believe in their own version of "science". Those who want to start trouble or lord it over other people will find any excuse to do so, whether it be religion, ideology or science. Religion was banned or restricted in Stalinist Russia and Maoist China, and they weren't exactly utopias of freedom, either.