Less than two weeks ago, while we were celebrating Sadiq Khan becoming the first Muslim and Pakistani-origin British mayor of London, in Pakistan, in chak no 44, Mandi Bahauddin, Christians were suffering at the hands of Muslims, and desperately crying for help after a Christian young man Imran Masih was accused of blasphemy. Instead of another Muslim country, many wealthy Pakistanis, and particularly politicians, consider the UK to be their second home, as it’s considered a dream destination. In the UK, they live fearlessly and peacefully for as long as they want. The present prime minster, Mian Nawaz Sharif, his brother Mian Shahbaz Sharif, Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, and several other politicians lived in the UK during their exile. This means that they are aware how minorities are treated in Britain, but sadly when they come to power they don’t treat minorities in their countries not in any way even close to that.
Although Britain separated religion and state a long time ago, its laws are still based on Christian values and ethos. For example, the Bible says, “Love thy neighbour as yourself”. Although the UK has several Hindu, Sikh and Muslim MPs and Lords, the recent election of Sadiq Khan is a phenomenal victory of the system.
After the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, it was Christian charities from Britain and other western countries that arrived before anybody else to rescue and support Pakistanis on a humanitarian basis. In 2012, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the then co-chair of the Conservatives and minister responsible for South Asia, and a Muslim, called for a revival of traditional Christian values, something that minorities in Pakistan cannot even consider.
Every year hundreds of Pakistanis pay hundreds of thousands of rupees to agents to obtain British visas. There is life security and justice in the UK, where everyone is treated equally, vastly different from how we treat minorities in Pakistan who are not even migrants but actually took part in the Pakistan movement. When many Muslims opposed the idea of Pakistan and criticised Quaid-e-Azam, it was Christian leadership that supported him. Recently the government has admitted this fact and lauded the services of Dewan Buhadar S P Singha, a Christian leader who participated in the struggle for creation of Pakistan.
Unfortunately, Christians are under a constant threat because of continuous misuse of the blasphemy law against them. Over a petty dispute anyone can accuse another person of blasphemy, without thinking of consequences that are often devastating. We have seen several dreadful instances of this in the past. There is a long list of such atrocities, but to mention a few there are a few that stand out in their enormity of the injustice that was done to Christians. Never can be forgotten the horror of Sanglahill, Joseph colony, Korian and Gojra, where apart from destruction of churches and houses, eight Christians, including children, were burnt alive. Who can forget the Christian couple Shama and Shahzad who in 2015 were killed and then burnt in a brick kiln furnace over unproven charges of blasphemy?
There has been no evidence in any case that anyone had actually committed blasphemy. Nobody has ever been questioned with regard to making false blasphemy claims. This not only encourages the perpetrators but also strengthens their belief that their faith permits them to ‘avenge’ blasphemy, that it is according to the teachings of Islam, and they are not committing any crime. Instead they see it as if they have performed their moral and religious duty in an Islamic state.
The blasphemy laws are written ambiguously and vaguely, and it is not clear what is considered blasphemous, and who will determine whether blasphemy has been committed or not. There is also a need to understand whether blasphemy — if the accusation is proven to be correct — has been committed inadvertently or intentionally. But unfortunately no such measures are ever taken into consideration even though they are important for a fair trial and for justice to be done. People have their own standards to consider blasphemy, and it could be anything that ‘offends’ the accuser. There are also several sections of the blasphemy law, and each section has a different penalty, but because of government’s lack of interest, people have taken the ‘duty of protecting religion’ upon themselves, and they have just one punishment for all offences: the death penalty. If the accused is caught by the so-called vigilantes of religion justice will be done there and then. And that happens despite the Supreme Court’s judgement that nobody has the authority to assume the role of a judge, jury and executioner in a case in which someone is accused of blasphemy.
We have seen this in practice in the recent case of Imran Masih. He has been accused of blasphemy for having a video clip on his phone that offended one of his co-workers, Bilal, and subsequently, a fatwa against Masih was issued. According to reports, a certain Dr Ashraf — who also worked in the centre where Masih was employed — advised Masih to flee the village to save his life, and for helping him, the doctor was also punished. Since Masih has fled, local Muslims have threatened the entire Christian community that their houses would be torched.
After some Muslim clerics made provoking announcements on the local mosque’s loudspeaker during the Friday sermon, the Muslim community socially boycotted Christians living in the village. Christians were sacked from their jobs, and even shopkeepers refused to sell them food and other grocery items. Many Christians left the village, while some have sent their young children away until the situation returns to normal. Creating such fear and punishing the whole community for an individual’s alleged crime is irrational and very unfortunate. I have also read in the local news reports that Muslims have told Christians to convert to Islam if they wish to continue living in the village, or to leave the village for good, whereas Christians own the houses they inhabit. With an audacity that comes with thinking might is right, they have asked the Christian community to hand over Masih to them so that they burn him alive in front of the church. Such demands in the 21st century are unimaginable, illogical and a crime. But since nobody has been punished so far, the type of mindset that glorifies self-justice or vigilantism continues to grow. A local Muslim businessman, Irshad Jhakar, has announced a bounty of one million rupees (approximately 10,000 dollars) for killing Imran Masih.
It is government’s responsibility to ensure security and protection of Christians who fled their homes, and to take appropriate measures to ensure that such incidents do not happen again. I would also like to appreciate the bravery of Dr Ashraf for standing up for Masih, and for saving his life, and Mohammad Jibran Nasir, a social and political activist, for highlighting this news and raising awareness. These responses have not just saved Pakistan from witnessing another tragedy against Christians, but have also protected Pakistan’s image from being more tarnished.
Since we know this is not going to be the last case of misuse of the blasphemy law, government of Pakistan, politicians, the judiciary and religious leaders will have to take responsibility to stop vigilante justice and the on-going misuse of the blasphemy law. The longer this takes, the more dangerous it will be.