The Guardian Editorial
12 October 2016
The Supreme Court in Lahore will on Thursday hear the appeal of Asia Bibi against her death sentence for blasphemy. It is a case that has already cost two lives: that of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of the Punjab, who spoke out in her defence, and his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, who murdered the governor for defending her and was himself hanged. Qadri was described as a saint and a martyr for his crime by many in Pakistan, and by some prominent mosques in Britain. This is a poisonous mess. Successive generations of Pakistani politicians – most notably Zia ul-Haq – have used the statutes on blasphemy as a way to combine religious fanaticism with the fear and resentment of outsiders.
Almost all societies have speech codes enforced by law and reinforced by public opinion. The blasphemy law of Pakistan is not just an affront to liberal decencies; the evidence points to it being used as a tool to persecute minorities. It also involves a distortion and coarsening of the Sharia principles it claims to embody. Bad as the Islamic laws against apostasy are – and they are very bad indeed – they can by definition only apply to Muslims. The blasphemy law, by contrast, is freely applied against non-Muslims. A zealous interpretation would make Christianity itself punishable by death, since no honest Christian can pretend that they believe Muslims are right about the nature of Jesus, nor of Muhammad.
The law itself is in this sense an incitement to religious hatred. In one 2014 case in Lahore, the conviction of a street sweeper, Sawan Masih, was followed by a pogrom in which 180 Christian families were driven from their homes. The victims in Pakistan are almost always poor, as are their persecutors. Disputes over scarce resources are converted to matters of high principle that justify the cruellest punishments.
Mrs Bibi’s family are landless peasants. Her case stems from a dispute at the well where she and other women were fetching water. Words were exchanged, and five days later it was alleged that she had in the original argument said something disparaging about the prophet Muhammad. For this she has been sentenced to death, and the sentence upheld once on appeal. Large demonstrations already demand her death. Thursday’s hearing is her last chance. Her freedom would send a powerful message to the world about the courage of Pakistan’s lawyers and their commitment to justice in the face of murderous intimidation.