By Iman Sheikh
Aug 21, 2012
Rifta Masih is an 11-year-old Christian girl who lives near Islamabad, Pakistan. She reportedly suffers from Down’s syndrome. Like many of the other Christians in her area — who comprise about 10% of the local population — the members of her family work menial jobs, and live in tiny properties rented from Muslim landlords.
On Thursday evening, Rifta was seen leaving the one-room dwelling she lives in with her sister and parents, carrying an earthenware dish filled with ash. Or, it may have been some refuse in a small shopping bag. Although Hammad Malik, a 23-year-old witness, is unclear on exactly what the girl was transporting, he is quite certain that the burnt remains had Arabic writing on them.
Rifta, he alleges, was burning pages from a Koran inside her house, and then trying to find a place to dispose of the remains. Although he did not see her do this, that did not stop him from assembling an angry group of men and reporting the incident to the local police, with the demand that the girl be apprehended in accordance with the country’s Blasphemy Law. The authorities at first did not act, but then moved swiftly to get the girl into custody when a mob of over 500 people gathered at the Masih home’s doorstep. Fearing for her safety, the authorities put her into a cell for a two-week detention.
Welcome to Pakistan: A nightmare society beyond pity or parody, where handicapped 11-year-old girls must be locked up to ensure their own safety.
According to the Blasphemy Law, anyone found guilty of insulting the Prophet Muhammad or the Koran can be sentenced to death. With blind religious extremism on the upswing, there is no shortage of Hammad Malik types — self-appointed religious vigilantes on the lookout for any transgression, real or imagined.
The law has been enforced in regard to even the most dubious reports of “blasphemy,” and has led to the murder of two prominent politicians. In January 2011, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was shot by his own bodyguard after he expressed sympathy for Asia Noreen, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. Scarcely two months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s first Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs and the only Christian in Pakistan’s Cabinet, was leaving his mother’s home in Islamabad when his car was sprayed with bullets. (The Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility for the killing.)
The aforementioned Noreen, better known in the media as “Asia Bibi,” was a farmhand who fetched water for her co-workers. When some Muslims refused to drink the water on account of it being contaminated by an “unclean” Christian, heated work-site arguments allegedly ensued. Later, a cleric received complaints that Noreen made derogatory comments about the Prophet Muhammad. A mob arrived at her house, attacking her and her family before she was rescued by the police. This was in June 2009. She is still in jail.
The Blasphemy Law can be manipulated by cynical plaintiffs, as a tool to take personal retribution. In the case of Asia Bibi, there had been a pre-existing feud between Noreen and a Muslim neighbour over property damage. In Rifta’s case, relations between the Muslim and Christian communities had been tense for months after complaints were made about the noise coming from churches in the area during religious services.
In Pakistan, Christians traditionally have worked as cleaners and sweepers; many Muslims still consider them “unclean.” About 900 Christians living on the outskirts of Islamabad have been ordered to leave the neighbourhood and the homes they have inhabited for two decades. On Sunday, houses on the backstreets of Mehrabadi, an area 20 minutes drive from Islamabad’s western embassies and government ministries, were locked up and abandoned, their frightened occupants having relocated to already overcrowded Christian slums in and around the capital.
Pakistan is a country with many problems — from corruption to terrorism to regional secession movements. But none captures the primitive, bigoted spirit of the nation’s religious extremists more perfectly than the witch hunt for “blasphemers” that has been used to persecute the country’s tiny, beleaguered Christian community. If an 11-year-old handicapped girl is considered fair game for the fanatics, what chance does anyone else have?