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Pakistan blasphemy laws unlikely to face reforms despite outrage over Down syndrome child's arrest

Despite international anger, mainstream political parties in Pakistan are unlikely to address the unpopular issue of reforming the country's blasphemy laws, especially in an election year.

People gather outside the house of a Christian girl, arrested on charges of blasphemy, in the slum neighbourhood of Mehrabad in Islamabad. The girl’s mother and sister were beaten and a lynch mob surrounded the home following claims she burned pages of the Holy Quran.
People gather outside the house of a Christian girl, arrested on charges of blasphemy, in the slum neighbourhood of Mehrabad in Islamabad. The girl’s mother and sister were beaten and a lynch mob surrounded the home following claims she burned pages of the Holy Quran.

KARACHI, PAKISTAN // When a mob gathered outside the home of Rimsha Masih in an Islamabad neighbourhood, they demanded Pakistan's blasphemy law be brought to bear.

The 11-year-old girl, who reportedly suffers from Down syndrome, was accused of burning a religious text - an offence punishable by death - and arrested.

Despite international anger over the incident, mainstream political parties in Pakistan are unlikely to address the unpopular issue of reforming the country's blasphemy laws, especially in an election year.

All attempts by politicians, activists and even military rulers to reform or do away with the law have been met by outrage and violence by determined supporters from a spectrum of religious groups.

Over the past two years, leaders of the ruling Pakistan People's Party have addressed the issue, and paid the ultimate price.

The governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was shot dead last year by his own bodyguard after taking up the case of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy.

The Christian minister of minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, was also murdered shortly after for appealing for changes to the law.

While a majority of Pakistanis are unlikely to openly support such violence, there is no widespread public support for reforming the law.

Regardless of international pressure and the damage to Pakistan's already battered reputation, local political imperatives are likely to keep the law intact.

Critics among Pakistan's embattled liberals say the law is regularly misused by people to settle personal scores and dispossess neighbours from land. They say religious extremists also use it against vulnerable minorities, especially Christians and members of the Ahmaddiya sect.

"The question of reform is politically too toxic," said Cyril Almeida, a political columnist based in Karachi. "It's the ultimate vulnerability. If you have a rabid core determined to get their way, there won't be much of a pushback from society because it's not something they'll actively get involved with, whether they approve or not."

Even though the current Pakistani government is ruled by a coalition of secular political parties, they have failed to reach a policy consensus about how to tackle the blasphemy law issue.

"Because Islam is a political plank to dismiss rivals as 'not true Muslims', everyone steers clear," said Raza Rumi, the director of programmes at the Jinnah Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank. "The law is a subset of the overall direction of the state, which needs to be reset."

Many Pakistanis consider the law to be taken from Sharia, but it was added to the constitution during the reign of Islamist military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, who enacted numerous policies to promote a brand of Wahabbi Islam as essential to Pakistani identity.

"The Zia-ized mindset is deeply embedded in popular opinion making and the national discourse in Pakistan," Mr Rumi said.

Increasingly, the discourse is driven by the Urdu-language electronic press, which is generally nationalistic and religiously conservative. One of the most popular shows during Ramadan was hosted by a televangelist who only last year was fired from the same channel, Geo, Pakistan's largest private network, over on-air remarks deemed anti-Shia and anti-Ahmadi. Another show featured the conversion of a Hindu man to Islam in front of a live audience.

"The Urdu media are sympathetic with the blasphemy law and also the ones who abuse it," said Mr Almeida. "They are also alarmist about attempts to de-Islamise Pakistan. They play a pernicious role."

After years of appeasing religious forces, and an unsympathetic populist media, the centrist political parties are finding their options limited when issues such as the blasphemy law and minority rights come to the fore.

"It's an age-old habit of appeasing [the] right," said Mr Almeida. "They hope [the] right stops bothering them but the more you appease the hard-core right, the more space they want to grab."

The most vulnerable, especially working-class Christians, continue to suffer. Rimsha Masih, a street sweeper, was alleged by neighbours to have burnt pages from a religious text. Accusers in her Islamabad neighbourhood admitted to a reporter from The Guardian that they did not see the alleged offence. Since then, local newspapers have reported that nearly the entire Christian community has fled their homes.

In Karachi, the vulnerable inhabitants of the Christian slum of Eissa Nagri face particular hardships. "We have fear because people misuse this law," said Javed Michael, a local community leader and politician with the Tehreek-e-Insaf party. "In the name of religion they are killing even their own brothers, so who will care for us?"

foreign.desk@thenational.ae