Almost two weeks ago, Pakistani authorities imprisoned Rimsha Masih, an 11-year-old Christian girl reportedly with Down’s Syndrome, accusing her of burning a few pages from the Noorani Qaida, a beginner’s guide to Koranic recitation. Her case is now the subject of debate in the Pakistani press. The Express Tribune Online featured a member of the provincial assembly criticizing the misuse of the blasphemy law. A commentary in The Daily Times, an English-language Lahore paper, declared, “Mentally ill are those who charge an 11-year-old, illiterate girl of blasphemy and then enjoy the sport of watching humans killed just as the Romans used to do in the times of gladiators. The police officials that arrested the little slum dweller and the judges that sent her to jail need to be examined for symptoms of mental derangement.” The Urdu-language press—for example, Karachi’s Ummat Online—however, are rallying to protect the blasphemy laws regardless of their abuse.
The embrace of radical Islamism has been a cynical strategy in Pakistan. In 1971, after Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) won its independence, the Pakistani military made a fateful decision to promote radical Islamism as the glue to hold the country apart. After all, Pakistan was founded as a “land for the Muslims,” but in practice it is impossible to boil identity down to a single variable. Pakistan may have been overwhelmingly Muslim, but Pakistanis were as likely to see themselves as Pastun, Baluch, Bengali, or Punjabi (among others). When the Bengalis went their own way, Islamabad could no longer consider Pashtun and Baluch nationalism to be a mere irritant: It posed an existential threat.
General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq was Pakistan’s president and military dictator for a decade, beginning in 1978. While there has always been a condemnation of blasphemy on the books, he specified that it was an offense that should be punishable by either life in prison or by death. Over time and with the general radicalization of Pakistani society, the law has been applied with increasing frequency. Cases now number in the thousands.
There is no doubt that the blasphemy laws are being abused. While Islamists can say that the charge must still be proven in court, the sad fact remains that dozens of those accused have never had their day in court: They are lynched before a verdict can be announced. Some bold Pakistani politicians have acknowledged the obvious: The blasphemy laws are being abused and used to repress and attack religious minorities. However, simply calling for their amendment, let alone repeal, is a virtual death sentence. Both Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab; and Shahbaz Bhatti, federal minister for minorities, have been assassinated after demanding reform. Upon their deaths, several Islamist organizations praised their killers.
Pakistan may be a lost cause: Once such religious laws are on the books, they are nearly impossible to excise. Religious conservatives can depict their repeal as anti-Islamic, and all but the boldest moderates are cowed by the recognition that radicals will go outside the political process to impose their will or punish dissent. With the jailing of Masih, Pakistan has reached a new low.