It took a decade and the lives of two high-profile politicians, spawned a new fundamentalist party and marked a period in Pakistan in which religious extremism and bigotry grew stronger and more demanding of the powers that be. But the recent Supreme Court decision in the Aasia Bibi case shows there is still an internal tug of war for the “real” Pakistan, between those who want their country to be a modern Muslim nation and those pushing for an all-out medievalist Islamic state.
Sentenced to death in 2010 by a trial court under the blasphemy laws that were part of the toxic legacy of military dictator Zia ul Haq, Aasia Bibi, who belongs to the minority Christian community, finally won her freedom when the Court threw out a review petition against its decision acquitting her from the charge that she had insulted Prophet Mohammed and Islam on October 31 last year. Aasia Bibi could not be released then as protests broke out demanding that she be hanged, and the government had to take her into “protective custody”. It is unlikely that she can live in Pakistan safely as a free citizen even now. Salman Taseer, the late governor of the Punjab province in Pakistan, was assassinated in 2011 for campaigning for her freedom, and his assassin continues to be celebrated. Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian community leader, was also killed for campaigning against blasphemy laws. Others who have spoken against these laws live under the shadow of death threats. It is likely that like Malala Yousafzai, the Pashtun schoolgirl who took on the Taliban and nearly paid with her life for it, the 45-year-old Aasia and her five children will find their freedom, safety and security in a country far away from Pakistan.
While the Court ruled in favour of Aasia on the merits of the accusations against her, it is the blasphemy law that is the real problem. No institution or individual in Pakistan has been able to question this law. Even Pervez Musharraf, the military ruler who advocated “enlightened moderation” and managed to reform the anti-women Hudood laws, stopped short of touching section 295-c of the Pakistan Penal Code, under which “defiling the name of Prophet Mohammed” is an offence punishable by death. Despite the reality that this law is misused widely, now it is even more difficult than before to do anything that can remotely be construed as reforming this law. Closer home in India, where the Punjab Assembly recently brought in blasphemy law, the Aasia Bibi case holds a lesson.