By Shabana Mahfooz
Feb 10, 2019
Just at the end of last month, the nine year old ordeal of Aasia Bibi finally ended in Islamabad, when the petition against her acquittal – the last legal hurdle in her freedom, was rejected. That very day, which was the 29th of January, was the birth anniversary of the first Nobel Prize winner of Pakistan, Dr. Abdus Salam. Aasia and Dr Salam had much in common, although sadly, the links proved to be miserable for both.
For nearly nine years, Aasia Bibi lived with death hanging over her head. In 2010, she had been sentenced capital punishment on a charge of blasphemy. It took nearly nine years for the apex court of Pakistan to rule that there was lack of credible evidence in her case. Until then, her case remained unresolved. For there was fear that supporting, following or speaking in favour of Aasia may bring a death penalty to the initiator – just like it had to Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti. For nearly nine years, Aasia remained forgotten. Her crime was no more than sharing a drinking utensil with her Muslim villagers with herself belonging to a different faith – a ‘crime’ which was not less than a sin in the eyes of her fellow women. For nine years, her faith and the desire to quench thirst proved to be an almost fatal threat.
Now, Aasia Bibi is free, but where is she? Despite claims made by the government that her life would be protected, she remains in danger. There are still many who believe that her ‘sin’ is not to be forgiven and if the state does not fulfil its duty, the law may be duly taken in one’s hand. She is freed from one confinement to live in another of isolation, until she may find solace in a cold, unfamiliar land, to live a life of obscurity. To be able to breathe in fresh air, she may have to leave her homeland, which denies her a glass of water. For her homeland is the land of pure, and she the impure.
Here, a sad account of another Pakistani comes to mind, who was also denied a safe life in his country. Dr. Abdus Salam was a Pakistani theoretical physicist. He shared the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics with Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg for his contribution to the electroweak unification theory; the first Pakistani to receive a Nobel Prize in science and the second from an Islamic country to receive any Nobel Prize. Salam was science advisor to the Ministry of Science and Technology in Pakistan from 1960 to 1974. He was the founding director of the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO), and was also responsible for the establishment of the Theoretical Physics Group (TPG) in the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC). The list of his accolades is lengthy, yet the magnitude of his contributions shrinks in the eyes of his fellow countrymen, because he did not belong to the true faith.
Dr. Abdus Salam belonged to the Ahmadiyya community. In 1974, he left Pakistan, in protest, after the Parliament passed unanimously a parliamentary bill declaring members of his sect non-Muslims. Dr. Abdus Salam continued his life abroad with more achievements and praise, but while he maintained contact with Pakistan and also visited occasionally, his genius could not benefit the country any more.
So the coincidences are many: Aasia is looked down upon in her very country because of her faith, and in Dr. Abdus Salam’s case, his belief is met with hatred and intolerance. It is believed that Aasia may have to leave her homeland because of a crime she did not commit, whereas Dr. Abdus Salam himself abandoned Pakistan and many belonging to his faith, to this day, seek abode in foreign lands to protect their lives. And the crime for which Aasia was accused was blasphemy, which is the charge levied on Dr. Salam’s faith. It has become a taboo to talk about the supposed crime of Aasia, as well as about Dr. Abdul Salam’s faith and the people belonging to it, including himself.
What is the common cause behind such spiteful behaviours? Is this a service to Islam? The religion, which upholds love and peace, not hatred and violence and which is the second largest faith in the world, is surely not in need of these measures. So is it a patriotic mission? Although Pakistan was conceived and created on the basis of religion, in practice, its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah had assured safety and honour to all faiths of Pakistanis. And he remained true to his word, for the first Foreign Minister of Pakistan was Muhammad Zafarullah Khan, an Ahmadi and the first speaker of the West Punjab Legislative Assembly was Dewan Buhadar S.P Singha, a Christian.
Today, we refuse to accept and grant accolades to Pakistanis, if we choose to refuse their faiths. We avoid talking about injustices done to Pakistani citizens, if their belief is not that of the majority. We silently let our fellow citizens escape our homelands, so that they can practice their faith freely, while we reserve freedom for only ourselves.
There are many similarities between the lives of Aasia Bibi and Dr. Abdus Salam. But the common threads bring no joy or strength. Each adds to the agony of the other. The flight of persecuted Pakistanis from their homeland may do no harm to its already inflated population. But it sure does narrow the slim white of Pakistan’s flag.