Aasia Bibi ruling: Pakistan’s Christians still need protection
Pakistan’s Supreme Court verdict, acquitting Aasia Bibi of false charges of ‘blasphemy, is in many respects a very courageous verdict.
Pakistan is a country where the mere accusation of blasphemy is enough to warrant a vigilante killing. Those who oppose the country’s blasphemy laws can themselves be accused of blasphemy. Only the most courageous judges could deliver this verdict.
But this has been hailed by some, including Amnesty International as a landmark ruling. It is not. It is not a ruling that will improve the plight of Pakistan’s Christian minority – or even for that matter the many Muslims who are falsely accused of blaspheming Muhammad. This is a crime which under s.295C of Pakistan’s penal code still carries a mandatory death penalty.
The judgement is based on a mixture of sharia and western-based law. It is the latter, particularly, the law of evidence, which has ultimately prevailed. The judges found that the massive contradictions in the statements of prosecution witnesses as to the place, number of persons present (varying between 100 and 2,000) and even date (varying between the day of the alleged blasphemy and two days later) of a village meeting when Asia Bibi was alleged to have confessed to “blasphemy” meant that they could not be considered “truthful witnesses”.
The Supreme Court strongly affirmed Pakistan’s blasphemy law and in no sense sought to question it. They began by quoting a wide spectrum of Muslim opinion supporting the death penalty for blasphemy against Muhammad – including such figures as the medieval theologian Ibn Taymiyya whose writings are today frequently quoted by the most radical Islamists.
They even sought to use the introduction of section 295A of the penal code during British rule to justify the later 295C which makes insulting Muhammad a capital offence. The former (malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings) was introduced in 1927 after a man called Rajpal wrote a book containing what were alleged to derogatory remarks about Muhammad. The Supreme Court judgement relates this incident and states: “However, Muslims were not satisfied with it and one Ghazi Ilm ud Din Shaheed succeeded in murdering Rajpal. After the trial Ilm ud Din was convicted and given the death penalty. He is considered by the Muslims to be a great lover of the prophet Muhammad…”
The use of this reference in the court’s justification of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws is disturbing. The word ghazi is a term of reverence for a jihadi. Indeed, this term was widely applied to Mumtaz Qadri by crowds protesting his execution in 2016 for the murder of Punjab governor Salman Taseer. Qadri had killed him because he had stood up for Asia Bibi and called for reform of Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
Whilst the court strongly defended Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, it was also strong in its criticism of their “misuse”, stating: “No one could be allowed to defy the name of the holy prophet Muhammad and be left unpunished, but there is another aspect of the matter; sometimes to fulfill nefarious designs the law is misused by individuals levelling false accusations of blasphemy. Stately, since 1990 62 people have been murdered as a result of blasphemy allegations, even before their trial could be conducted in accordance with the law.”
In other words, the judges said that Islamic blasphemy should be punished – but only the state has the authority to try and punish such cases – and decide whether or not it is a malicious allegation.
The court dismissed the accusation against Asia Bibi as a “concoction” and described her accusers as people who could not be described as “truthful witnesses”. What they alleged that she said – which the lower courts had deemed to constitute Islamic blasphemy was: that Muhammad had married his wife Khadija for her wealth and then discarded her, and that, “The appellant had also uttered words to the effect that the Holy Quran was not a book of God and it was not a divine book but a self made book.”
The court went so far as to describe some of the main evidence given by her accusers in support of this as “nothing short of concoction incarnate”.
The judges also drew attention to the fact that the original police complaint had been written by a lawyer, yet there was no lawyer in the village, nor any record of anyone visiting the city. The accusers claimed to have forgotten who the lawyer was.
Their judgement implied that these false allegations of blasphemy against Asia Bibi were pre-planned, rather than being simply a result of the Muslim women she had had an argument with seeking to act out of spite.
What the court has not ruled on is as important as what it has said.
In particular, there is a dispute in the Hanafi School of sharia, which is the predominant school observed in Pakistan, as to whether a non Muslim can actually be executed for Islamic blasphemy. Abu Hanifa the founder of the Hanafi school himself said: “If a dhimmi (non-Muslim) insults the Holy Prophet, he will not be killed as punishment. A non-Muslim is not killed for his kufr (denying the Prophet) or shirk (polytheistic beliefs). Kufr/Shirk are bigger sins then sabb e rasool. – (Therefore non-Muslims will not be killed for sabb e rasool).”
In recent years this issue has even been debated in Pakistan. Yet, the Supreme Court chose not to rule on this issue.
One of the blasphemy allegations made against Aasia Bibi was that she had claimed that “the Holy Quran was not a book of God and it was not a divine book but a self-made book.”
This raises a very serious issue as to whether this statement made by a Christian in fact contradicts Pakistan’s blasphemy law. The Hanafi sharia states that a dhimmi is not to be punished “for that which constitutes his belief” and saying “Muhammad is NOT a prophet” is not itself sabb (blasphemy).
On a positive note the Supreme Court stated that the kind of extra judicial confession, in which Aasia Bibi was forced to confess to blasphemy, cannot be used as primary evidence of blasphemy, but only to corroborate other stronger evidence. This sort of evidence would not be allowed at all in many countries, but this is a small step in the right direction.
Significantly, the Supreme Court emphasised how seriously courts should treat false accusations of blasphemy – and urged the Pakistan government to take action to punish those making false allegations.
The ruling stated: “This court has held that the commission of blasphemy is abhorrent and immoral besides being a manifestation of intolerance but at the same time a false allegation regarding commission of such an offence is equally detestable besides being culpable. If our religion of Islam comes down heavily upon commission of blasphemy then Islam is also very tough against those who level false allegations of a crime. It is therefore for the State of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to ensure that no innocent person is compelled or constrained to face an investigation or a trial on the basis of false or trumped up allegations regarding commission of such an offence.”
If the Pakistan government were to do this, it would not in itself solve the injustices suffered by Christians and other minorities, but it would act as a deterrent to prevent other people suffering the same eight-year ordeal as Aasia Bibi.
One of the judges suggested that the Muslim women who accused Aasia Bibi may have insulted the Christian religion and as such could themselves be guilty of blasphemy as Islam believes that Jesus Christ is a prophet. He stated that, “Insulting the appellant’s religion by her Muslim co-workers was no less blasphemous.”