M A Niazi The case of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman, convicted of blasphemy against the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and sentenced to death, has provoked a storm which seems to have gained strength only after Punjab Governor Salman Taseer visited her in jail, and though the visit itself raised a number of questions, it also highlighted the fact that the case has highlighted the blasphemy law, and its place in the present reality of Pakistan. The controversy caused by various aspects of the case has led to its being quoted by the Sunni Ittehad Council in its Rawalpindi-Lahore Long March, as well as to the restraint placed on the President by the Lahore High Court against Aasia Bibis release. The latter order might provide one clue as to the reason for the prominence of the case, the element of extension of the extraterritoriality already apparently granted to the US citizens in Pakistan to non-Muslim Pakistanis, particularly Christians. Those fearing Aasia Bibi being taken abroad are relying on past precedents, where blasphemy convicts, usually Christian, have been given refuge abroad. In this case, the government would play a role by the President giving Aasia a pardon, so that at least she would no longer be wanted by the local authorities when she is spirited abroad. Aasia Bibi is being portrayed as an innocent, though there has been a conviction made by a court, and it is being presented not merely as a wrongful conviction, but also as the existence of a wrongful law. It is a firmly held belief in certain circles that the blasphemy law, among others, is subject to misuse against minorities. Minorities are otherwise oppressed, and so if they were to be subjected to persecution, then that would be an argument for the abolition of the entire Penal Code. After all, false cattle theft charges have been made against industrialists, so neither religion nor strength has been a guarantee against the state, or rather against those who control its levers. Part of the problem is that blasphemy has been considered a law and order problem. The blasphemy law is Section 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which includes all forms of blasphemy, in a chapter titled; Offences against Religion, immediately after a chapter dealing with offences against public safety. The punishment for the original offence was two years in jail, and it was only in 1991 that the offence of blasphemy intending to harm the feelings of any religion was enhanced to 10 years. It was Parliament which introduced the offence of blasphemy against the Prophet (PBUH) in 1986. The assumption of the British Raj was that people of the subcontinent were unusually attached to their respective religions, and were likely to create a law and order problem for the occupying power because of their expressions of ire. There was no discrimination in favour of Muslims, and they could only look for a two-year sentence, if the Prophet (PBUH) was blasphemed against. That was an offence that carried the death sentence, and it was executed first in the time of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) himself, and that too more than once. Muslims ruled over large numbers of non-Muslims for centuries, with the Indian subcontinent being only one among several examples, but only in Spain did Muslims face a systematic attempt at blasphemy, as Christians there once sought martyrdom by blaspheming. The problem was only solved by executing the offenders and replacing the bishop at the root of the problem. Even Hindus, with their idol-worshipping ways, never tried this way of combating the Muslims, with whom they were engaged in almost constant struggle from the arrival of the British. There was one attempt to blaspheme against the Prophet (PBUH), but it ended with Ghazi Ilm Din Shaheed killing the blasphemer. Though Ghazi Ilm Din played a role in the creation of Pakistan, it remained ruled under the laws of the Raj. The West has allowed all sorts of blasphemy against Jesus, and looks askance at Muslim attempts to give the Holy Prophet (PBUH) a special place. It regards blasphemy as an issue of both freedom of expression and of religion. Though heavy punishments are still on the books in western countries for blasphemy against Christ, they are no longer administered. The West would like Muslims to follow that example, which is no longer Christian, but pagan. Paganism was always tolerant from necessity, and never claimed the exclusivity that the Abrahamic religions have done, and have been open to the principle of religious toleration. (Though the example of the only idol worshippers in the world, the Hindus, shows that they follow this principle more in the breach than the obedience.) The Aasia Bibi case is just a peg on which the blasphemy laws are to be tested. If the Punjab Governor was to have his way. Under which the laws would be amended, and Aasia Bibi released. However, supporters of the legislation see it as a religious duty, and blame external forces for wishing to amend the law. Their rhetoric at least justified the need for such a law. However, supporters have said that they will also oppose any amendment that might be made. There is also resentment provoked by the inability, or at least the perceived inability, of the state to deal with blasphemers who are also its citizens, just because they belong to a religious minority, which is an overwhelming majority in the West. It does not help that this minority belongs to the Hindu Untouchables, from which they had converted, and continue in their ancestral occupations, and their corresponding low social status, and that too in a very status-conscious society. The resentment is also caused because of the disrespect implied for the Pakistani courts. One plea is that the appeals process has not been exhausted, because a death sentence implies an automatic revision before the High Court, a forum at which blasphemy convicts have used to go abroad in the past. There is also an undercurrent of mistrust of the powers of pardon wielded by the President, which so far have been self-serving, and meant to allow the corrupt not just to escape, but also to keep the proceeds of their crimes. It does not help that the President who has been restrained from issuing the pardon, and who appointed the Governor active in the case, is himself ducking and weaving with the judiciary to avoid various trials. The government should realise that its liberalism is not valued by the country at large, and part of the anger at this case is because of the governments perceived quiescence in the conviction of Dr Afia Siddiqui by an American court. It seems an issue in which the government would find itself unable to interfere because more elements are involved than it may have thought in the first place. Its need to interfere would only be because it faces greater pressure from abroad, not necessarily governmental, to do something. In the West, there is likely to be a unanimity of opinion, because while the liberals are against any blasphemy law, the religious right is opposed to Islam in virulent fashion. It would be better, if the government remembered that Pakistan was created to prevent blasphemy, not please the West, but till it does, all that can be done is hold fast to the courts decision. Email: maniazi@nation.com.pk