Farahnaz Ispahani is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, DC and the author of the book Purifying The Land of The Pure: The History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities (Oxford University Press, 2017). In 2015, she was a Reagan-Fascell Scholar at the National Endowment for Democracy, in Washington, DC. Ispahani was a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center from 2013-2014. A Pakistani politician, Ispahani served as a Member of Parliament and Media Advisor to the President of Pakistan from 2008-2012. In Parliament she focused on the issues of terrorism, human rights, gender based violence, minority rights and US-Pakistan relations. She was also a member of the Women’s caucus in the 13th National Assembly. The caucus, which straddled political divides, was instrumental in introducing more legislation on women’s issues than has ever been done before during a single parliamentary term. Ms. Ispahani spent the formative years of her career as a print and television journalist. Her last journalistic position was as Executive Producer and Managing Editor of Voice of America’s Urdu TV. She has also worked at ABC News, CNN and MSNBC.
To quote a 2016 Amnesty International report, “As Good as Dead: The impact of blasphemy laws in Pakistan,” once an individual is accused of blasphemy, “they become ensnared in a system that offers them few protections, presumes them guilty, and fails to safeguard them against people willing to use violence.”
On Saturday, Rome’s Colosseum was lit in red in support of persecuted Christians, including Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. At the Rome gathering, Pope Francis described Bibi, alongside a Nigerian woman who was captured by Boko Haram, as “martyrs.”
Bibi, an illiterate berry picker, was convicted of defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed. She was accused by her Muslim neighbors who objected to her drinking water from the same glass as them because she was Christian. Under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, her alleged comment is punishable by death. In 2010, Bibi, at age 45, was sentenced to hang, but her case is still pending.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws date back to the military dictatorship of Gen. Muhammad Zia ul Haq. In 1980, making a derogatory remark against any Islamic personage was defined as a crime under Pakistan’s Penal Code Section 295, punishable by three years in prison. In 1982, another clause was added that prescribed life imprisonment for “willful desecration of the Quran” and, in 1986, a separate clause was added to punish blasphemy against Prophet Mohammed with “death, or imprisonment for life.”
Bibi’s case illustrates how blasphemy laws are used to persecute the weakest of the weak among Pakistan’s religious minorities. As a poor Christian from a low caste, Bibi was among the most vulnerable and susceptible to discrimination. And the legal system — which, in theory, should be designed to protect the innocent — failed her in every way
However, Bibi’s case isn’t the first case in which Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been used to punish minority groups. Since Zia ul Haq imposed the laws, their application has unleashed extremist religious frenzy.
Procedures for investigation and prosecution lend themselves to widespread abuse. Assertion by a Muslim witness that blasphemy was committed is sufficient for filing of charges and arrest of a suspect — even without corroborating evidence. Furthermore, the testimony of non-Muslim witnesses in defense carries less weight, and, in most cases, the filing of charges is tantamount to punishment, because bail is denied.
Worse still, once blasphemy is alleged, mob violence or targeted killing becomes a possibility. According to researcher Mohammed Nafees, from 1990-2011, there were over 50 cases “wherein blasphemy suspects were either extrajudicially murdered or died in jail.”
Lawyers who dare to represent someone accused of blasphemy have also been killed. In 2014, Rashid Rehman, a distinguished human rights lawyer brave enough to represent those most vulnerable to blasphemy charges — women and children of religious minorities, people with mental disabilities, and the weak and impoverished — was shot dead in his office by two unidentified gunmen.
Meanwhile, judges who have dared to acquit an alleged blasphemer or convict the killer of an alleged blasphemer have either had to flee the country or face death.
Nonetheless, until now, Western governments, which viewed Pakistan as a strategic ally in the war on terrorism, did little to protect Pakistan’s religious minorities.
However, that might now be changing — albeit slowly.
The Pope’s attention to Bibi’s case parallels efforts by the European Union’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief to secure her release by making it a condition for continued European market access for Pakistani products.
More specifically, Jan Figel, part of the special envoy, informed the Pakistani government that the future of Generalized System of Preferences, or GSP, status to Pakistan, which allows Pakistan duty-free access to the EU markets, would be directly linked to the peaceful resolution of Asia Bibi’s blasphemy case.
Farahnaz Ispahani is a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a senior fellow for South and Southeast Asia at the Religious Freedom Institute. She is a former member of Pakistan’s Parliament where she served on the foreign affairs and human rights committees. Her book, “Purifying The Land of the Pure: The History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities,” published in 2017. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
When Asma Jahangir died in Lahore on February 11, Pakistan and the international human rights community lost a great champion of justice and freedom. Asma stood for and by the side of Pakistan’s religious minorities as no one had ever done before. As a lawyer and a human rights activist, she was the greatest opponent of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which are the harshest in the world.
Asma founded the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and used it relentlessly to bring attention to the rights of Pakistan’s oppressed ethnic and religious minorities, women, children, and political dissidents.
She confronted military dictatorships and Pakistan’s deep state even when they threatened her and her family with vigilante justice orchestrated by religious zealots. Despite all this, she maintained a marvelous sense of humor and an even greater sense of justice and fair play.
Although Asma Jahangir was a remarkably competent and capable lawyer, she was wholly unimpressed by formalities and undaunted by considerations of her own status.
One would sometimes see her in Islamabad hitching a ride on the back of a motorcycle to get to an urgent hearing at the Supreme Court for victims of enforced disappearances when her car was stuck in traffic. On one trip to investigate extrajudicial killings in Balochistan, she slept on the floor with only books under her head as a pillow.
Her all-women law practice in Lahore bravely accepted cases of those accused of blasphemy notwithstanding threats of violence from religious extremists. She also represented bonded laborers, whose well-connected and influential masters were known for pursuing critics of their unjust practices using private armies.
In the mid-1980s, Asma became such a thorn in the side of the Islamist dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq that his hand-chosen unelected parliament (called Majlis-e-Shoora) retaliated by passing a resolution accusing Asma Jahangir of blasphemy and calling for her to be sentenced to death. The basis of the accusation was a comment she allegedly made in a Women’s Action Forum (WAF) meeting. General Zia set up a commission to investigate the accusation, but a recording of the WAF meeting proved Asma had not made the alleged statement.
Asma Jahangir secured an unprecedented acquittal for an 11-year-old Christian boy, Salamat Masih, and his uncles. They had been falsely accused of writing blasphemous words on the wall of a mosque in a small town near Lahore in 1993. Nevertheless, one of Salamat’s uncles, Manzoor Masih, was killed outside district courts in Gujranwala during the initial hearing of the case.
Asma represented Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih when they appealed before the Lahore High Court against their conviction by the trial court. Although she won acquittal for both clients from the Lahore High Court in 1995, the justice who rendered the decision, Arif Iqbal Bhatti, was assassinated. The case highlighted the inherent injustice of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
To her last day, Asma remained undeterred by the ongoing threats of violence against her for continuing to oppose these laws as well as discriminatory laws against the Ahmadiyya sect.
Asma Jahangir was a giant of a woman who spent her entire life fighting injustice, be it based on politics, socioeconomic differences, religion, or gender. She has left behind a still-fractured country that needs her now more than ever.
Pakistan’s oppressed and dispossessed will long remember Asma Jahangir, the woman with a huge heart, simplest tastes, and courage of a lion who gave voice to that unfortunate country’s voiceless. May she rest in peace.