Before Prime Minister Imran Khan went off to China, two problems blew up, which meant that he could either cancel the trip, or go abroad while not sure of what fate had in store for him. The problems both involved the Supreme Court, and might have raised fears that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf was about to be abandoned by the forces that had been backing it.

The problem which involved the whole country was that of the Supreme Court judgement in the case of Asia Bibi, the Christian woman accused of blasphemy in 2009, who was convicted by the Sheikhupura Sessions Court and given the mandatory death sentence, and whose conviction was upheld by the Lahore High Court. The Supreme Court quashed the conviction, sparking a wave of protest, both against the acquittal and against the possibility that Asia Bibi and her family would be allowed to go abroad and seek political asylum. The blockage of the roads and intersections of major cities caused offices, shops and educational institutions to shut down.

They were re-opened after an agreement with the Tehrik Labbaik Pakistan Chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi, but several conclusions were left behind. The first was that, given another provocation like this, the TLP could repeat the closure. Another conclusion is that if the TLP is indeed backed by the military, then this strike definitely was, and thus the PTI is facing the military, or at least a section thereof.

It also leads to the calls for mutiny within the armed forces, as well as a revival of the allegations about COAS Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, that he belonged to a non-Muslim sect, and a demand that he be removed. That points to someone else trying to get the COAS changed. As Prime Minister Imran Khan gave credence to the allegations against General Bajwa by mentioning them in his speech to the nation, it may well be that he is on the side of those who want General Bajwa replaced. The calls by some protesters for a mutiny in the armed forces raised a number of fears. The first was that there were memories revived of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer’s assassination by his police guard, Mumtaz Qadri, over the same case. The second memory revived was of the 1857 Mutiny, which was a searing experience which still casts a shadow over the military of today, even though both men and officers are now Muslim. There was also the danger of the breakdown of the image that the army promotes, of being a defender of Islam.

Another point of intervention for the Supreme Court was the transfer of the IGP Islamabad. The Supreme Court stayed the transfer, but wanted the post filled because of the protests over Asia Bibi. Just as the protests put the government under pressure, so did the transfer reveal an authoritarian streak in the PTI, where an IGP could be transferred for not doing a minister’s will, even if that will was illegal. The PTI is running into almost continual trouble with the police, and though the last high-profile example was that of the IGP Punjab, and before that that of the DPO Pakpattan, there have been rumblings among the District Management Service (ex-DMG, ex-CSP) officers who do not like having to follow the orders of PTI elected officials and officebearers. This is another example of the PTI falling into the ranks of traditional parties, even though one of its rallying cries was the need to change the prevailing VIP culture.

Azam Swati seems to be the sort of person preferred by the agencies, being introduced to politics on returning from the USA as district nazim of Mansehra. He came to the PTI after a spell in the JUI(F), and has preferred the Senate to the hurly-burly of direct elections. He is by training a lawyer, and got a law degree in the USA, so he cannot claim to be ignorant of the standards to which elected officials are supposed to be held. An uneasy standoff is developing: district officials and policemen could get in trouble with the courts if they obey the executive, or act to please it in anticipation of orders (as seems to have happened in Pakpattan); and with the PTI if they try to act as the Supreme Court wants them to (as the IGP Islamabad seems to have done).

The Asia Bibi case has the problematic dimension of showing the lack of confidence in the judiciary, which sacking two PMs has not achieved. It should not be forgotten that the Ghazi Ilam Din Shaheed case played a role in building support for the creation of Pakistan, as it made Muslims feel the need for a state of their own, one where blasphemers would be punished by the state, not by private individuals.

It has always been the duty of the state to punish blasphemers. Between 850 AD and 859 AD, 48 Christians blasphemed against the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and were duly executed in Cordova. This was deliberate, being acts meant to seek martyrdom, knowing that the punishment would be capital, and that this was a sure means of martyrdom. A pair of Christians committed blasphemy in the central mosque of Cordova, another did so to a qazi in his court. All acts of blasphemy were highly public and unmistakable.

The accounts of the event also say that the state saw the danger that feelings against Christians might get inflamed among the Muslim majority, but that did not stop the punishments. The third case of blasphemy saw a lesser punishment, but the populace began to grow restless. However, the state is very powerful, as the Prime Minister pointed out. It applied pressure on the Church, and the blasphemy stopped, the Bishop of Cordova being among the last executed.

One purpose of the state administering the death sentence for blasphemy is to prevent any repetition of Ghazi Ilam Din’s example: if the lovers of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) are assured that the state will punish blasphemy, they will not be obliged to do it themselves. The idea there is the maintenance of the state’s monopoly of force. Blasphemy would provoke the believers. Indeed, the examples of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) sanctioning death for blasphemy are ratifications of executions already done than orders issued. It is also worth noting that those examples are from Madina, where he (PBUH) was head of state.

The example given commonly, of his lenience towards those who had insulted or tortured him in Mecca, after the Conquest, does not apply. While he was very much a Prophet for 13 years there, he was not head of state. However, he was in Medina. Blasphemy is thus seen as an act of rebellion, much as apostasy, another capital offence. The Caliph Usman told the rebels who had besieged him there were three capital crimes in Islam: adultery, murder and apostasy, asking which he had committed. Blasphemy is thus a type of apostasy. In an Islamic state, it would be an act of rebellion.

An Islamic state does not allow acts of private vengeance. However, it assumes that court judgments will not be challenged. That is just what protesters against Asia Bibi’s acquittal were doing. Of course, no one seemed to have made the argument that the courts had decided the case according to British procedure, not Islamic, where appeals are not allowed. However, if the Supreme Court did not find the evidence, it had no recourse but to acquit. Those protesting showed that they did not accept this. There was also the fear expressed, shown in the agreement, that Asia would flee the country, as had other alleged blasphemers acquitted by the courts.

The Asia Bibi case protests showed that the PTI has not yet built the State of Medina those Imran Khan references, for that state did not permit blasphemy. And its courts were trusted.


The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.