In a safe house in Karachi, Asia Bibi waits. She is a mother of five and a Christian, sentenced to death for blasphemy nine years ago after drinking from a tin cup shared with Muslims. Last year she was acquitted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, but she cannot leave the country for fear of being murdered on the way to the airport. The novelist Mohammed Hanif offers an explanation for a parody of justice that shames his homeland.
What exactly did Asia Bibi do to spend nine years on death row? We might never know. What we do know is that a lower court in Pakistan sentenced her to death on charges of blasphemy, charges that a village imam had made against her after she had an argument with her co-worker farmhands over a water vessel. We’ll never know what blasphemous words she uttered in that argument because recounting a blasphemy also constitutes blasphemy. But we do know what subsequently happened to her and to the country which has turned blasphemy into a dark religion.
We may not be certain of Asia Bibi’s innocence but in cases like this it’s always safe to presume guilt. Even now, after the highest court has declared her innocent, there are people out there still baying for her blood. And although technically she is a free woman, the government is reluctant to let her leave.
It wasn’t always like this.
Before Pakistan’s new blasphemy laws were introduced in 1986 we already had a blasphemy law in place, introduced by the British colonial rulers. In 58 years under the old law there were a total of ten cases. Since the new laws came into existence there have been more than 4,000.
It seems the new law has turned us into a nation of blasphemers. In Pakistan, a mere accusation of blasphemy is a lingering death sentence. Although nobody has been hanged yet under the new laws, dozens have been killed by mobs and whole neighbourhoods have been burnt down on a mere suspicion of blasphemy. An English professor languishes in jail after being accused by a student, and the lawyer pleading the professor’s case is dead, shot down for defending him. Surely defending a blasphemer is blasphemy?
Governor Salman Taseer, the last Pakistani politician to be photographed with Asia Bibi, was shot dead by his own police bodyguard. That police guard, Mumtaz Qadri, claimed that the governor had committed blasphemy by pleading Asia Bibi’s case and calling the country’s blasphemy laws “black”. Before Qadri was hanged in 2016, he filed a mercy petition pleading that he was a family man with children. Who would look after them? Asia Bibi also has children. So did Governor Taseer. Thousands turned up for Qadri’s funeral. He was declared a martyr; miracles were reported around his shrine.
A cult was born.
Pakistan has had enough right-wing nuts, but the groups that came together after Qadri’s death to form Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) were supposed to be peace-loving nuts with a penchant for theatre. They said their sole aim was to defend the Prophet’s honour. Belonging to the Barelvi sect, they were the kind of people who put up fairy lights on the Prophet’s birthday, wore Arab clothes and rode on camels through the city streets. They distributed rice pudding and sang songs of love for the Prophet, songs usually set to Bollywood tunes, songs that spoke of their longing for Medina. In Pakistan, where the Taliban and their non-combatant cousins spoke of taking over the state, and sometimes parts of the globe, the ambition of these lovers of the Prophet peaked at a trip to Medina and a wish to meet their maker there.
But things changed rapidly. Riding high on Qadri’s murderous martyrdom, TLP turned its love songs into blood-curdling anthems. They wanted power. They were like everybody else. But louder.
Last year TLP laid siege to Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. It was called a sit-in but in retrospect it was nothing less than an attempt to topple the government. They were protesting against a word that the government had changed in the oath that lawmakers are required to take. The oath had been changed from “I solemnly swear” to “I believe”. For TLP this was proof enough of a conspiracy against the Prophet’s honour. The government had committed blasphemy and had to go. The protests looked like a montage right out of Mad Max: Fury Road.
Huge speakers playing the TLP anthems were mounted on trucks. Gas masks were brought in and the protesters cut off all the entry points to Islamabad. Although even at their peak the protesters were not more than a couple of thousand, they were well organised. Food was provided by a friendly news channel. There was wall-to-wall coverage. The government tried to negotiate in vain. It launched a police operation and the gas masks went on. The police had to retreat.
Observing the situation, the army chief declared that it was not possible to fight its own people. The TLP wanted the law minister’s head. The minister’s head was presented and a pact was signed – not with the government but between protesters and a general, a major general from the ISI, Pakistan’s secret intelligence agency. All of the TLP’s demands were met. And then a video emerged of another general distributing envelopes stuffed with thousand-rupee notes to the protesters. He was caught on camera asking them: “Are we not your brothers?” If ever there were any doubts about who calls the shots in Islamabad, this video would silence them. But there really isn’t any doubt. Imran Khan, who was then in the middle of an election campaign that made him prime minister, claimed that the TLP’s demands were so genuine that his own workers wanted to join the protest.
Not long before the elections the TLP decided to take part. The party wasn’t even registered properly but it found willing candidates in most constituencies. Its manifesto was straightforward. On economics: we’ll tell the world we’re an Islamic country and we don’t pay interest. On foreign policy: anyone threatens us, here’s our Ghauri missile with its nuclear warhead. And we’ll nuke the Netherlands in any case because they’re harbouring blasphemers under the guise of freedom of speech. The TLP got more votes than all the traditional religious parties put together. It won no seats but it controlled the streets, and Khan endorsed it.
Then Asia Bibi was declared innocent.
When the former chief justice Saqib Nisar scheduled her case after spending most of his tenure raising funds to build dams and reforming, you knew that he was looking for more legacy. The TLP warned that any verdict that overturned the death sentence would not be acceptable. When Bibi was acquitted, as was expected there was mayhem on the streets. In a press conference the TLP leader asked people to murder the Supreme Court judges, and then – crossing a red line – asked the army generals to overthrow the army chief.
Now in Pakistan that’s real blasphemy. If you want to live in Pakistan you don’t say anything against the army, let alone its chief. There was a hush. The media didn’t dare report the TLP’s call to arms but the new prime minister, Imran Khan, in an impromptu address to the nation, threw up his hands and asked: who says things like this? What kind of country is this? Your country, Mr Khan. The same people you so openly supported.
A government bowing under pressure moved Asia Bibi to a safe house and said that it would allow an appeal against the acquittal. Her name was not placed on an Exit Control List, but despite very real threats to her life, she still wasn’t allowed to leave the country. The highest court in the land had declared that she was innocent and free to go but the government couldn’t afford to let her.
In the days that followed, the state showed that actually it was quite capable of squashing these hatemongers when it wanted to. In midnight raids the leaders of the TLP were picked up and moved to unknown locations and charged. While they were being arrested there were no protests, no roadblocks, not a squeak from the lovers of the Prophet. They knew the army meant business. You might be able to stay alive in this country despite committing a religious blasphemy, but say something against the army chief and you are the ultimate blasphemer.
We put Asia Bibi on death row for nine years without knowing what she really said in that field to her co-workers. Now there is no case against her. The highest court in the land has declared her innocent twice over. Her tormentors are in jail and probably won’t emerge any time soon. So why is the government not allowing her to leave the country? The answer is simple. Because there is no way of knowing what she might say about us when she is free and in a foreign country.
Mohammed Hanif was a Pakistan Air Force cadet before turning to journalism and fiction. His debut novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award