11-year-old girl faces blasphemy charges in Pakistan

Underlying this religious violence are real economic and political problems that must be addressed.

Girls Koranic school [illustrated]_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Girls Koranic school [illustrated]_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
An eleven year old girl in Pakistan, who is illiterate and suffers from learning disabilities, has been arrested on charges of blasphemy and faces the prospect of spending the rest of her life in jail.  Rimsha Masih has been charged with allegedly burning pages from a text book that contained quotations from the Koran.
Rimsha lives in the slum of Umara Jaffar, in Islamabad, a poor community comprised of both Muslims and Christians.  On August 17th, the last Friday before Eid, which celebrates the end of Ramadan, news of Rimsha’s arrest spread throughout the slum.  Rimsha’s accuser claimed to have witnessed her throwing away a bag that contained ten pages from a schoolbook.  The pages, which included passages from the Koran, were partially burned.
A mob soon assembled at Rimsha’s home demanding that she be burnt alive.
She and her family were eventually taken into custody for their own protection, but not before they suffered severe beatings.  Christian families were then told they had just three hours to vacate their houses.  One imam reportedly threatened to burn alive with gasoline any Christians who remained in the slum.
After protesters surrounded the local police station and demanded that Rimsha be charged with blasphemy, officials eventually complied.  Rimsha is being examined in order to determine her age and her mental capacities.  Her accusers claim that she is actually 16 and has no mental impairments.  Police have instead confirmed that she suffers from Down’s Syndrome.
Tensions had been high between the two religious communities in Umara Jaffar.  Disputes have arisen in the past over the conduct of Christian church services, including whether musical instruments would be permitted.  Some have claimed that the allegations against Rimsha may have been part of a sectarian plan to drive Christians out of the slum in order to make room for more Muslim families
Pakistan still has on its books the strict blasphemy laws put in place by its former dictator, Muhammed Zia ul-Haq.  Three million Pakistanis are Christian, and blasphemy cases involving them have been a recurring feature in recent years.  An accusation of blasphemy can be difficult, if not impossible, to defend.
An illiterate Christian farm worker, Asia Bibi, is currently in prison after her conviction in 2010 for blasphemy based on allegations made by Muslim neighbors.  Her husband, Ashiq, and daughters are now in hiding, moving from safe house to safe house in fear of their lives.  According to Ashiq, after a dispute between her wife and other village women over a water bucket, a mob came to their house a few days later and Asia was eventually arrested.  Asia was offered clemency if she was willing to convert to Islam.  She refused and is still in custody.
Critics contend that the strict blasphemy laws are used as a means to harass minority groups in the country.  Despite concern over the laws, they seem untouchable in the current political environment.  To publically question the laws is to put yourself at serious risk.
The governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was shot by his own bodyguard after he decided to take up the case of Asia Bibi.  Unfortunately, he was killed before he could take any concrete action on her behalf.  Also, the first Christian to serve as a minister in the Pakistani government, Shabbaz Bhatti, was assassinated by Muslim extremists as he left his mother’s home in Islamabad.
Pogroms have occurred in other parts of Pakistan in the past.  One in 2009, in the south Punjab town of Gojra, resulted in eight Christians being burnt alive.  The escalation of violence against Pakistani Christians has attracted a growing amount of international support in recent years, including from Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.
President Asif Ali Zardari faces significant challenges.  His inability to protect his Minister of Minorities is a particularly damning indictment.  In the face of pressure from militant extremists, Zadari has abandoned his plans to liberalize the country’s blasphemy laws.  Many within Pakistan are treating the killer of Governor Taseer as a hero, instead of a criminal.  A senior government official have even said that he too would kill a blasphemer, if needed.
As a result, accusations like those facing eleven year old Rimsha remain a grim and unfortunate reality in contemporary Pakistan.
Even the American military in Afghanistan, as it continues to struggle to achieve lasting gains before the Obama surge is abandoned, has been contending with blasphemy charges this week.  Soldiers involved in a Koran burning incident, as well as Marines who desecrated Taliban corpses by urinating on them, will now face only disciplinary action, rather than criminal prosecution.  These incidents led to large riots in Afghanistan and revenge attacks on American forces that left four dead.
Any religious belief, no matter how sincerely held, can unfortunately be manipulated, either intentionally or unintentionally, to become a divisive instrument, rather than a tool for reflection and salvation.  Human fallibility has a habit of trumping divine aspiration.  Underlying this religious violence are real economic and political problems that must be addressed, if lasting stability and prosperity is ever to be obtained.
Rimsha, and other innocent bystanders like her, should not be sacrificed simply because their leaders remain reluctant to confront the difficult challenges that their countries face.
The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Economist.