Pakistan Descends into "Confusion and Madness" as Islamic Extremist Grip Tightens

Benedict Rogers
August 25th 2008

“Utter confusion and madness” was how one Pakistani source recently described the situation in his country to me. The country has been plunged into further turmoil.

President Musharraf has finally resigned ahead of plans to impeach him. Suicide bombers struck a military installation in one of the deadliest attacks in the country’s history. And the existence of the new, moderate, secular Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)-led coalition government remains fragile. Meanwhile, the Talibanisation of Pakistan continues apace. Benazir Bhutto may have been right when she warned in her book Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West, published after her murder: "Pakistan today is the most dangerous place in the world. Pakistan faces the threat of both Talibanisation and Balkanisation, which are gaining in strength."

The recent abduction, forced marriage and forced conversion of two Christian school girls, Anila and Saba Masih, aged 10 and 13 respectively, is just the latest example of the escalating persecution of religious minorities and growth in extremism. Abducted in southern Punjab, Pakistan on 26 June, while on the way to visit their uncle, they were forced to convert to Islam. When the girls’ parents appealed to the police for help, local authorities did nothing. In an initial court ruling, the judge awarded custody of the girls to the kidnappers, on the basis that since they had converted to Islam they could no longer live with their Christian family. A high court judgment overturned that ruling, but placed the girls in a government-run safe house and prohibiting them from contacting either the abductors or their parents. A hearing this week, on 20 August, failed to reach a conclusion, and another hearing is set for 9 September. If that fails to resolve the case fairly, the girls’ parents may go to the Supreme Court.

Forced conversions, forced marriages and the rape of young Christian girls in Pakistan is not a new phenomena. Last year in Charsadda, North-West Frontier Province, a whole Christian community of 500 people received ultimatums to convert to Islam or face “dire consequences.” When the authorities failed to act, the extremists were emboldened and such threats spread. On Easter Sunday 2007, a 12 year-old Christian girl was kidnapped and repeatedly gang-raped. One of her attackers told his accomplices: “Don’t hesitate to rape a Christian girl. Even if she dies, no one will get us. Her poor parents cannot pursue us.” Earlier in the year, a 14 year-old Christian girl was abducted at gunpoint, raped and beaten. Her attacker, believed to be connected to extremist groups, told her to convert to Islam.

But it is the widespread abuse of Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws which sets the tone for the country’s climate of extremism and intolerance. Introduced in the 1980s by the then dictator General Zia Ul-haq, the blasphemy laws contain two especially dangerous elements – the crime of desecration of the Koran, set out in Section 295B of the Pakistan Penal Code, and the most deadly one, Section 295-C of the Pakistan penal code, blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammed. Desecration of the Koran carries a life sentence; blasphemy against the Prophet is punishable by death.

Since 1986 several people have been sentenced to death, though subsequently acquitted. While no one has yet been executed by the state, at least 25 people have been arbitrarily killed by vigilante extremists. Even if acquitted, anyone accused of blasphemy is marked for life in the eyes of the Islamists. They cannot resume a normal life, and instead live in hiding or exile. Just last year, for example, a Pakistani Christian, Younis Masih, was sentenced to death for blasphemy. He has filed an appeal, but even in prison his life is in danger.

But the accused are not the only victims. Lawyers and human rights activists who defend blasphemy cases or campaign for the law's repeal are at risk. They are constantly on the receiving end of threatening telephone calls and physical attacks. In blasphemy cases, extremists, usually led by mullahs, crowd into the courtroom, shouting blood-curdling threats to the judge and defence counsel.

Everyone, regardless of religion, is a potential victim of the blasphemy laws. They are used either to target religious minorities, or between Muslims to settle personal scores. Almost every single case is completely fabricated, because the laws themselves are so absurdly written. No evidence is required, other than an accusation made by one person against another. There is no proof of intent, and an inadequate definition of blasphemy. In court the accuser does not even have to substantiate the charge. If the judge asks what the accused actually said, the accuser can refuse to elaborate, on the basis that by repeating the alleged statement they themselves would be blaspheming. In one case, the judge ruled that the accuser’s beard was of such an impressive length that his accusation had to be true.

Almost 900 people so far have been accused under the blasphemy laws. Those accused are jailed, often tortured and shackled in solitary confinement, and so even if acquitted, they emerge physically and psychologically scarred. A false rumour of blasphemy is enough to spark mob violence before it even reaches the courts. Earlier this year Jagdesh Kumar, a 22-year-old Hindu factory worker in Karachi, was beaten to death for allegedly making blasphemous remarks.

In 2005, a mob destroyed three churches, a convent, a school, a girls' hostel and a priest's home in Sangla Hill, accusing a Christian man of desecrating the Qur'an. "Within minutes, the Christian residential area was blazing. Christian residents fled to save their lives," a report claimed. Extremists used mosque loudspeakers to spread the rumour of blasphemy, and called on Muslims to rise up and eliminate Christians. They passed a resolution calling for the hanging of the accused person, three weeks after the initial violence.

Ten years ago today, the abuse of the blasphemy laws reached such a peak that Bishop John Joseph, Catholic bishop of Faisalabad in Pakistan, took the extraordinary decision to send the world a powerful statement of protest. He gave his life, shooting himself dead on the steps of the Sahiwal district court, following the decision to hang a Christian man, Ayub Masih, for blasphemy. Ten years on, Pakistanis must be asking whether he died in vain.

Although the government is now led by the PPP, Benazir Bhutto’s party, the prospects for repealing the blasphemy laws and setting Pakistan back on a moderate, democratic and peaceful path do not look immediately great. In addition to the rise of Taliban-style parties, even the PPP’s coalition partners could represent a problem. For all his recent touting of democratic values, the Pakistan Muslim League’s leader, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, was described by Bhutto as "a Zia protégé with Islamist tendencies". In power, according to Bhutto, Sharif praised the Taliban as a model for Pakistan to follow, and attempted to introduce an "Islamization bill", which if passed would have incorporated Sharia law into the constitution, and given the prime minister, not the courts, power to enforce religious edicts. It was, she argues, an attempt "to turn Pakistan into a theocratic state".

Moderate Pakistanis must also be going through some serious soul-searching about why it has gone so wrong. All this is a far cry from the guiding vision of Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammed Ali Jinnah. In 1947, Jinnah said the famous words:

"You are free. You are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed - that has nothing to do with the business of the state ... We are starting with this fundamental principle, that we are all citizens and citizens of one state."

Today’s Pakistan is very different from the country Jinnah desired.

Benedict Rogers is the author of A Land Without Evil: Stopping the Genocide of Burma's Karen People (Monarch, 2004), and has visited Burma and its borderlands more than 20 times. He also serves as Deputy Chairman of the UK Conservative Party's Human Rights Commission.

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