There has been a significant amount of societal unrest present in Pakistan over the past few weeks, due to the recent release of Asia Bibi amidst national condemnation. A religious minority citizen in Pakistan, Bibi was convicted and then acquitted of blasphemy charges due to comments she made about the Islamic Prophet Muhammad. The decision made by Pakistan’s Supreme Court has sparked a movement of religious fervency, led by conservative Islamist parties. While unrelated, the recent assassination of religious leader Sami-ul- Haq also shocked the nation, and shows a comparative portrayal of Islamic unity within Pakistan. Both incidences show the extensive presence of faith-based allegiance in the country; Asia Bibi’s circumstance displays how religious minorities can be shunned for their criticism of Pakistan’s national religion, while the death of Sami-ul- Haq portrays the unity that is present amongst the religious Islamic majority.
Asia Bibi was convicted of blasphemy in 2010, after being accused of insulting the name of the Prophet Muhammad. Bibi is Pakistani- Christian in a majority Muslim country, and was originally sentenced to death due to her allegedly offensive remarks about the Prophet. Last week, she won her appeal in Pakistan’s Supreme Court. During the appeal process, many conservative Islamist groups threatened mayhem if Bibi got acquitted. This court’s decision was followed by immense disapproval and numerous riots by many Pakistani citizens, with the demonstrations led by the Islamist movement Tehreek-e- Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). While Bibi is no longer facing a death sentence, this decision was made due to the lack of evidence, not because the court was critical of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws or the consequences for the convicted. The laws against blasphemy are publicly supported in Pakistan, and consequences include life imprisonment or the death sentence under Pakistan’s penal code. BBC News has reported that over the past two decades, there has been at least 60 people in Pakistan that have been killed due to alleged blasphemy crimes. These laws are often used to target minority populations and journalists in Pakistan, who may disapprove of the country’s religious systems. International human rights groups severely criticize these laws, especially because of this misuse.
The Pakistani government established an agreement with the TLP in light of the violence, to decrease the immense protests occurring nationwide. The TLP is allowed to complete an application to restrict Bibi from legally leaving the country, along with other provisions. CNN reported, “Pakistan's government also agreed not to oppose a review petition filed against the Supreme Court's judgment in Bibi's case, to release everyone detained in connection with the protests and to take legal action regarding deaths that may have occurred during the protests.” Bibi is currently remaining in prison for her own safety, and any individual that enters or leaves the facility is searched for her protection. Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, has been pleading with international entities to obtain asylum for his family. Many Pakistani residents are relieved over the ‘compromise’ determined by Religious Affairs Minister Noor-ul-Haq Qadri and Punjab’s Minister for Law Raja Basharat, on behalf of the Pakistani government, and Pir Muhammad Afzal Qadri and Muhammad Waheed Noor, on behalf of the protesters. However, many people are disappointed by the Pakistani government’s decision, due to the perceived “surrender to the forces of religious extremism and hatred against minorities, who are often targeted on trumped-up charges of blasphemy against Islam.”
The assassination of Sami- ul-Haq, also known as “the Father of Taliban”, has also caused widespread shock within Pakistan. Pakistani and Afghan Islamic youth and leaders alike gathered to mourn Sami- ul-Haq, who was a respected leader within the Taliban. As the Washington Post explained, “The packed funeral was a momentary pause in the nation’s divisive turmoil as well as a tribute to Haq’s multifaceted influence on the country.” Sami- ul-Haq was incredibly influential Islamic leader, and is now perceived as a martyr by many. He was a prominent Sunni cleric, and also served as a mentor for Afghan Islamic fighters at the Akora Khattak seminary. This gathering in Pakistan portrays the comradery that is present amongst those who were affected and influenced by the religious leader, regardless of nationality or strife.
The unity shown by these thousands of people is a stark contrast from the earlier protests in Islamabad over Asia Bibi’s acquittal, where many were protesting in the name of religion. While both incidences were affecting Pakistan simultaneously, the violence over Bibi’s acquittal served to ‘protect’ Islam while the reverence for Sami- ul- Haq served to honor his impact on the religion. Both of these situations show the impact of Islam on Pakistan’s civil society, and serve as contrasting examples of how religiosity is portrayed in the country.