The release of Asia Bibi is a small step towards a more open Pakistan

Her acquittal could signal a relaxation of strict blasphemy laws and

create a better country in the process/

Asia Bibi
Asia Bibi ‘had taken a sip of water from a cup’. Photograph: BIBI FAMILY/HANDOUT/EPA

On Tuesday, Pakistan’s supreme court acquitted Asia Bibi in an historic verdict, overturning the death sentence meted out to her over charges of blasphemy.

The court established that Bibi, a Christian, was falsely accused by Muslim women picking fruit with her on 14 June, 2009. The allegation stemmed from a quarrel over the fact that she had taken a sip of water from a cup she had fetched for them, which in the eyes of her accusers she wasn’t allowed to touch.

Bibi’s acquittal generates hope that non-Muslim minorities will one day have the same rights as their Muslim compatriots – whether to drink water, to worship as they please or to speak their minds. Today, we can more easily imagine a tolerant and progressive Pakistan of the future.

The radical Islamists, to whom religious pluralism is an anathema, are hellbent on ensuring that this change does not happen. Spearheaded by the Tehreek-e Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), violent mobs are threatening to lock down the entire country, while calling for the heads of the judges who announced the verdict and demanding the government be dissolved.

Asia Bibi: protests erupt in Pakistan after blasphemy conviction overturned – video

TLP was formed as a pressure group to prevent the judicial execution of Mumtaz Qadri, who was hanged in 2016 for the murder of former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer. Qadri had accused Taseer of blasphemy for the latter’s defence of Bibi and his criticism of the blasphemy law.

Today, Taseer’s position on Bibi’s innocence has been vindicated. Now his call for reform of the blasphemy law should also be heeded.

Of course that reform remains a daunting task when the TLP is no longer a fringe movement, but one that can choke the capital for weeks, force the government to withdraw the appointment of a member of Pakistan’s economic advisory council for his Ahmadi Muslim faith (considered heretical by some Islamists), and dictate foreign policy.

It is also a party that won over two million votes in this year’s general elections. Similarly, the popularity of Qadri – whose face adorns TLP’s campaign posters despite his having been executed as a terrorist by the state – can be gauged by the attendance at his funeral or the shrine in the capital in his name, which are visited by many, including government officials.

Pakistan’s blasphemy law has been used to relentlessly persecute religious minorities since the Islamist-inspired Article 295c was added to the penal code, mandating the death penalty for blasphemy against Islam. Blasphemy allegations have increased massively since the introduction of the Islam-specific clause in 1987, reaching 1,335 by 2015 (between 1927 and 1986 there were only seven accusations of blasphemy).

Personal scores are often settled under the guise of piety – something that was clearly established by the supreme court in Asia Bibi’s case. And Islamist mobs undertake vigilante justice in protest that no one has yet been executed under the blasphemy law. As a result, there are concerns that Bibi’s release could inspire further mob violence.

The long-term solution is of course to reform – if not repeal – the blasphemy law. Any law that seeks to punish a victimless thought crime is a direct breach of freedom of religion and conscience in a civilised society.

While Pakistan might be a long way from embracing free speech that encompasses critiques of Islam, the verdict in Bibi’s favour has edged it closer to the removal of capital punishment in such cases. Incorporating reformist interpretations of Islam might make this possible.

A reformed blasphemy law would not only reduce the number of accusations – in turn reducing mob violence – it could pave the way for secular legislation. This would not only safeguard religious minorities, but also give Pakistan a much-needed national identity that isn’t limited to Islam or anti-Indianism.

Furthermore, after successfully reducing terror attacks by countering the militant threat, Pakistan has an opportunity to firmly uproot jihadism by defeating it ideologically.

This would require resolve on the part of the government and state institutions – especially the all-powerful military establishment that has historically utilised Islamist groups to serve its domestic and regional interests. The task is a huge one, but Asia Bibi’s freedom might well help unshackle Pakistan from the darker aspects of its religious inheritance.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based journalist and a correspondent at The Diplomat


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