Pakistan’s Supreme Court has overturned a death-penalty verdict for Christian farm worker Asia Bibi. This landmark decision undermines blasphemy laws in the country. And the outcome has been hailed far and wide as positive:
Tears of joy this morning for #AsiaBibi and relief that her nightmare has finally come to an end. Fantastic judgment by #Pakistan #SupremeCourt
A moment of hope where we can start to dream the dream of a #NayaPakistan where the rights of all are protected. ???? https://t.co/IMDzvN82CL
— Sayeeda Warsi (@SayeedaWarsi) October 31, 2018
Finally. A horrific ordeal ends. For the past eight years, her life has been in limbo. Two senior officials were assassinated for defending her. Others were threatened, too. The rule of law must prevail. The state must not capitulate to violent mobs that seek to hold it to ransom https://t.co/FqHKCHYzAX
— Omar Waraich (@OmarWaraich) October 31, 2018
This ‘victory’ is bittersweet for many Pakistanis. Because the country has been fighting an uphill battle against violent conservative groups, particularly since the US-led military invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Hardliners in Pakistani politics have also gained momentum, adding their voice in support of harsher punishments for blasphemy.
History shall remember there were some among us who didn’t shy away from speaking the truth and defend the innocent when it was too dangerous and, in doing so, lost their lives.
Salam to Salman Taseer and Shehbaz Bhatti. We remember you. pic.twitter.com/PgGBLuYlaF
— Umer Ali (@IamUmer1) October 31, 2018
Following news of the ruling, conservative Muslim groups in Pakistan issued calls to protest. Some groups, including the far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), also incited violence against the judges who carried out the ruling:
"They (judges) all three deserve to be killed. Either their security should kill them, their driver kill them, or their cook kill them," TLP leader on three judges who freed #AsiaBibi, a Christian woman, from a death sentence for blasphemy against Islam https://t.co/Pbmpy8OTPK
— Mehreen Zahra-Malik (@mehreenzahra) October 31, 2018
Panic around public order, meanwhile, caused nationwide disruption:
Schools closed, flights cancelled, ppl scared because some lot thinks they are more Muslim than the rest. I await on the #SupremeCourtOfPakistan to call them.
— Agha Sameer (@theaghasameer) October 31, 2018
The prime minister speaks out against protesters
Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan warned against potential threats to public order:
It is our duty to protect property, to keep roads open & to keep people safe. The state will then use its power if you so as much even decide to incite any kind of violence at a time when the whole country is trying to rise together. Don’t force us into taking action #PMIKAddress pic.twitter.com/F2JJAXJppt
— Tehreek-e-Insaf (@InsafPK) October 31, 2018
Many people have hailed his speech as a step forward in the face of religious dogma and violence:
Well done Prime Minister @ImranKhanPTI. In the midst of this clamour and violence country needs a strong leadership which exhibits clarity and would not allow Writ of State to be challenged. We shoudnt concede space to bigots and those violating laws must pay for their crimes
— M. Jibran Nasir (@MJibranNasir) October 31, 2018
For the protesting men a clear, brief, and firm message: don’t mess with the State , don’t mess with the law…don’t force the State to hit back… bcos it will if u create chaos and anarchy. Excellent speech by PrimeMinister @ImranKhanPTI #AsiaBibiCase
— Nasim Zehra (@NasimZehra) October 31, 2018
Imran Khan has done what no PM has done so far. He has stood up against religious blackmailers who have exploited & smothered the system for last 70y.
Respect for Imran Khan just n-trupled!
— Baji Please (@BajiPlease) October 31, 2018
Muslim backing for the decision
Support for the Supreme Court decision, however, does not stem from secularist sentiment. Rather, many Pakistanis have expressed religious Muslim sentiments in support of the verdict. Because many feel the decision is more in keeping with Islamic principles of justice than the original death-penalty verdict:
Today i’m reminded of Imam Ali’s description re. what the Chief Judge of a state should be.
“He should be most fearless at the time of passing judgment.”
Excerpt from his letter to his Governor, Malik al-Ashtar: pic.twitter.com/4NuNHugJil
— Hira (@hiraheadquarter) October 31, 2018
This is a remarkable speech in its clarity and boldness. Thank you PM Khan.
May Allah continue to guide and strengthen Pakistan’s leaders with this kind of clear headed courage and sense of purpose. https://t.co/hSPkpyCFhW
— Mosharraf Zaidi (@mosharrafzaidi) October 31, 2018
Of course, it goes without saying that there’s still much work to be done:
Thinking about Mubashir Ahmad, Muhammad Ehsan, Ghulam Ahmad – 3 #Ahmadi men on death row for blasphemy. Sawan Masih and Nadeem James, 2 Christian men on death row for #blasphemy. Thinking about Junaid Hafeez, Muslim teacher on #deathrow for blasphemy. #aasiabibi #blasphemylaws
— Rabia Mehmood – رابعہ (@Rabail26) October 31, 2018
But this doesn’t change the fact that, at this historic moment, the nation’s mood is defined by hope:
This is an unbelievable moment that so many of us didn't think would come. Allah be with all those who lost their lives fighting for Asia Bibi, with her and her family, and for the streets where sanity may yet prevail one day.
— Mahnoor Yawar (@mahnoorie) October 31, 2018
It’s difficult to overstate the significance of Asia Bibi’s pardon in a very religiously conservative Pakistan. Though it may only be one step, it is in the right direction. And many Pakistanis are hopeful that this single step could be the one that begins a journey of a thousand miles.
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