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Pakistani Christians leave a church in Islamabad on Tuesday. A Christian girl was sent to a Pakistani prison after being accused by neighbours of burning pages of the Holy Quran.
Pakistani Christians leave a church in Islamabad on Tuesday. A Christian girl was sent to a Pakistani prison after being accused by neighbours of burning pages of the Holy Quran.

Blasphemy case of 11-year-old is a war for Pakistan's soul

The mob who attacked, and wanted to kill, a little girl for an alleged blasphemous act symbolises Pakistan's struggle with religious extremism.

The blasphemy case against an 11-year-old Christian girl in Pakistan, and a mob's harassment of the Christian community near Islamabad, have renewed concerns about the spread of religious extremism in the country, which is, of course, officially at war with extremists.

The girl, Rimsha Masih, was arrested last week in Mehrabadi village, near Islamabad, for allegedly burning pages inscribed with verses from the Holy Quran. A local cleric led a mob to surround the police station and demanded police hand over the girl so that she could be burnt alive. Before she was arrested, Rimsha was severely beaten by members of the community.

The incident frightened many Christian families. About 300 families, including Rimsha's, reportedly have fled the area.

The 11-year old Rimsha has been reported to suffer from Down's syndrome, and her family has been unable to afford proper care for the affliction. The family lived in a slum area of Islamabad where her father, Misrak Masih, worked as a sweeper. (In Pakistan, sweepers and scavengers are mostly non-Muslims.)

Under Pakistan's anti-blasphemy law, desecrating the Quran is a capital offence punishable by death. It is yet to be determined whether the girl's act was deliberate or unintentional and, since she is a minor, the maximum sentence would be life in prison.

Without a complete investigation - and without taking into consideration the mental state and age of the girl - the mob's pressure to kill her points to growing religious extremism and intolerance in Pakistani society. This dangerous trend has intensified a sense of insecurity among religious minorities.

What is most alarming in blasphemy cases is that the law is not allowed to take its due course because of pressure from extremists. In most cases, the suspected blasphemers are killed by vigilante "justice". A similar incident happened last month in Bhawalpur district in southern Punjab when a mentally disabled Muslim man was accused of desecrating the Holy Quran, killed by a mob and his body burnt.

Introduced in 1986 by the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq, the blasphemy law was a part of Zia's Islamisation policy. Hundreds of people, both Muslims and non-Muslims, have been accused under the law. Most of the accused fall prey to extrajudicial killings by extremists.

The law has been criticised by moderate and liberal Muslims for its misuse to settle disputes, and there have been demands for change. No government authority, however, has dared to reform the law in practice.

Last year in January, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, was assassinated by Mumtaz Qadri, a police bodyguard. Taseer was in favour of reforms and very vocal about it. After his arrest, Qadri admitted that he had killed Taseer because the governor had called the blasphemy law a "black law".

After the murder, thousands of Facebook users joined a group on the social networking site extolling 26-year-old Qadri. And two months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian minister for minorities, was also shot dead by extremists in Islamabad for his opposition to the law.

Religious extremism manifests itself in different forms in Pakistan. The infiltration of radicalism in different sections of society - and even within segments of the security apparatus - intensifies the vulnerability of religious minorities and women. The worst form of religious extremism, almost routine in today's Pakistan, is sectarian-based terrorism.

On the same day that Rimsha was arrested, gunmen dragged 25 Shiites off a bus travelling between Rawalpindi and Gilgit and executed them. It was the third attack in six months in which people were selected and killed base on their sectarian affiliations. Last week's attack even caught the attention of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who expressed outrage over such deliberate attacks based on religious beliefs.

Pakistan is beset by violent radicalism and religious intolerance. The country's armed forces are at war with Taliban-related groups of religious extremists in the north-western tribal areas along Afghanistan border. But the war on extremism will have to be fought within society to check the radicalism. Moderate religious scholars, human-rights activists, media and civil-society organisations, and political and religious parties all must play an active role.

The Taliban recently criticised Imran Khan, the former cricketer turned politician, as a liberal infidel and called Pakistan's democratic system un-Islamic. Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan has announced that any politician contesting elections would be attacked in the tribal areas, as the Taliban deem elections as part of a "secular" system. The Taliban have already condemned the state judicial system and ran a parallel system when it controlled Swat in 2009.

Tolerance and moderation are basic principles of Pakistan's character, and the reasons why Muslims of the subcontinent struggled for a separate homeland 65 years ago. The Taliban want to remake nuclear-armed Pakistan according to their vision of an Islamic state. In the past week, it has been an 11-year-old girl who has been paying the price.


Syed Fazl-e-Haider is a development analyst based in Pakistan

Online: www.syedfazlehaider.com

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