Tracking blasphemy cases in Pakistan is a good proxy for measuring the ebb and flow of extremism–and it’s not a pretty picture these days. The latest case to roil the waters involves a young girl from Pakistan’s Christian minority who was discovered last month with burned pages of religious texts among her belongings. (Her accusers said the pages came from the Koran, although this story has since come under scrutiny.) A mob gathered, calling for her arrest, and she was taken into police custody and charged with blasphemy, an offense that can carry the death penalty. What makes this situation even more egregious than the usual sentenced-to-death-for insulting-Islam case is that while reports of the girl’s exact age vary, she seems to be around 14 years old and has a developmental disability.
The girl in question, Rimsha Masih, is still in custody. Many of the area’s Christians have fled, fearing for their homes and lives. If history is any indication, there is good reason to believe that an angry mob or a murderous vigilante poses at least as much danger to the girl as does the legal system–no one convicted under the blasphemy laws has actually been executed. But in 2010, as two Christian brothers accused of writing a blasphemous pamphlet left court, gunmen shot them both dead. In 2011, liberal governor Salman Taseer was assassinated by his bodyguard for his advocacy against the blasphemy laws; Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated by Taliban militants for the same reason.
While the blasphemy laws are ostensibly on the books to protect Islam from insult, in practice they seem to be used more to provide cover for personal vendettas and grievances against neighbors or to rile up action against religious minorities, such as Pakistan’s embattled Ahmadi community (an offshoot Islamic group that is regularly persecuted in Pakistan) or Christians. As the Economist reports, the underlying aim in going after the young girl Masih “seems to have been to drive several hundred Christian families from the area for good.”
Moderates in Pakistan have tried over the years to change the blasphemy laws but they face an enormous challenge. First, many Pakistanis seem to believe that the laws come straight from the Koran and are therefore sacred. Second, there is a long historical precedent. Laws governing religious offenses have been around since before the country’s independence. They were turbocharged in the 1980s by General Zia-ul Haq’s government as part of his overall effort to “Islamize” the country. Trying to undo the laws brings on charges of going against shariah. Third, people who campaign against the laws, like Salman Taseer, do so at the risk of their lives.
Still, some brave moderates continue to speak against the laws and try to change them. In 2010, parliamentarian Sherry Rehman (now Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S.) proposed legislation that would immediately remove religious offenses from the jurisdiction of local officials and local courts and put them in the hands of higher police officials and higher courts, which would have made it harder for people to inflame local sentiments and twist the evidence. But outspoken religious conservatives scuttled the bill.
A recent twist in Rimsha Masih’s case could indicate a turning of the tide. One of her accusers, a cleric, is now himself in custody for blasphemy after a colleague at his mosque accused him of fabricating evidence—no less than planting burned pages from the Koran on the girl. It’s not clear what made the colleague step forward, but perhaps the hypocrisy of it all was just too much for him to bear. Maybe the ludicrousness of this case will help Pakistanis realize how the blasphemy laws are making a mockery of their legal system and religion.