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Unless we correct course, there will be more Aasia Bibis

A grave injustice has been avoided and, in that, there is much to be grateful for.
Aasia Bibi’s long ordeal, which constituted the most high-profile blasphemy case in Pakistan and could have culminated in her being wrongfully sent to the gallows, has finally ended.

The Supreme Court bench hearing her appeal acquitted her in a unanimous verdict yesterday and ordered that she be released forthwith. And yet, this case is about much more than the undeniable suffering that Aasia Bibi and her family have been put through, the years of solitary confinement she has endured, and the terror of not knowing whether she would ever be united with her family again or be spared the hangman’s noose.
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This is also a moment to reflect upon what we have become as a nation, and how we have arrived here. Such is the emotive power of religion in today’s Pakistan that the mere allegation of blasphemy, however flimsy, can trigger horrific violence. Even an acquittal by the apex court — as in the present instance — can provoke right-wing elements to threaten mayhem on the streets.

The verdict itself referenced one of the most savage murders provoked by allegations of blasphemy — that of Mashal Khan, bludgeoned and shot dead in 2017 by a mob of fellow students.

While Muslims comprise the largest number of those at the receiving end of such accusations, non-Muslims like Aasia Bibi are disproportionately targeted. Moreover, they are especially vulnerable, because paroxysms of faith-based violence can consume entire communities, as they did in the ransacking of Joseph Colony in 2013. Often victims are unable to ever return home; the hatred against them lingers long after the mobs have dispersed.

Indeed, many blasphemy allegations are rooted in personal enmity and a desire to appropriate the victim’s property. But that is immaterial in the eyes of some sections of society; to them, those accused of blasphemy are guilty in perpetuity, legitimate targets for vigilante violence regardless of whether the criminal justice system exonerates them. Indeed, even lawyers who defend such accused in court, and judges who find them not guilty, put themselves in peril. Some have paid the ultimate price.

The Supreme Court judges have shown courage and integrity by upholding justice in the Aasia Bibi case, as have others in similar cases in the past.

Parliament must now urgently consider how to prevent the abuse of the blasphemy law and end the impunity for those who make false allegations. Seeding bigotry in society for political gain has been ruinous for thousands of innocents in this country. Notwithstanding the protests against it, the verdict has also been welcomed by many; they are the key to a better tomorrow.

Unless we correct course, there will be more Aasia Bibis — and not all of them will be fortunate enough to escape with their lives.

Published in Dawn, November 1st, 2018

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