x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

'All that is necessary is that good men do nothing ...'

Despite Rimsha Masih's acquittal, no-one accused of blasphemy in Pakistan can truly feel safe

While Pakistanis greeted the acquittal this week of 14-year-old Rimsha Masih with a sigh of relief, I fear her trials and those of her family are far from over. An individual, once accused of blasphemy, can never feel safe in Pakistan again.

The country inherited this blasphemy law from the British, who intended it to deter inter-religious disputes. Regretfully, Pakistan not only retains the law, but also allows it to be misused for personal vendettas and the settling of scores.

Rimsha's case was clearly flawed. A teenager, reportedly handicapped with Down syndrome, should have been forgiven by any sane person, even if she did desecrate the Quran - which she didn't. Instead, evidence was tampered with to implicate her.

The cleric who originally accused the girl, and called for her execution, has been thoroughly discredited. Witnesses who testified in the case have recanted.

But the damage has been done. The dozen or so Christian families who lived in the same neighbourhood have left their homes in search of safer havens, out of fear of a retaliation that might also target them. Their properties are now worth whatever someone might choose to pay.

Religious intolerance seems to have again become a worldwide phenomenon. Many accuse Muslims of having begun this cycle of hate and intolerance. But it is immaterial who is guilty, or how the followers of a religion are compared to each other.

What matters is that sanity returns. We must reclaim our common humanity from those who attempt to hijack it by violent means, spreading hate in the name of religion.

There are those who might say that nowhere is there greater and more urgent need of reclaiming a country from bigots than in Pakistan. I do not know if that is true, but as Pakistan undergoes such turmoil, shame on us all if we fail to take action.

Ultimately, in whatever country and whatever the religion, bigotry is always the same. The spread of intolerance always comes down to a minority of individuals who are intent on spreading hate. The most dangerous person in the world is the person who believes he is right - no matter what the circumstances - and is prepared to resort to violence to impose his belief.

Ironically, education has very little to do with bigotry. There are an astounding number of highly educated bigots in every country. It is not a matter of race, or class, or nationality. Bigotry cuts across all of these divisions - an unfortunate unifying factor for humanity.

Pakistan's most recent case is just one on a list of atrocities, with perhaps the most high-profile crime being the murder of Punjab governor Salman Taseer last year. The outspoke politician was killed because of his criticism of the same blasphemy law, and his defence of a Christian woman who was accused of similar crimes.

In Pakistan's crisis, there are age-old patterns that are uncomfortably familiar. Two quotations come to mind. The philosopher and scholar Edmund Burke is generally credited with this truism: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

And then there is the famous quote by the theologian Martin Niemöller about the Nazis' takeover of Germany in the 1930s: "Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me."

By no stretch of the imagination do I qualify as Burke's "good" man, but the least I can do is to speak before they come for me. And for Risha and her family, someone must speak for them.


Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer