Pakistan’s blasphemy law targets 11-year-old Christian

It is a common critique that residents of one country are disinterested in the goings on in other countries. But one story from this weekend spread quickly across news media and social media — albeit less so in American media than globally. The story is a sad one. I first learned about it from a news outlet called Times of India:

ISLAMABAD: An 11-year-old Christian girl has been arrested in Pakistani capital on a charge of blasphemy after she was accused of burning pages of the Quran, police said on Saturday.

Officials of Ramna police station said an FIR had been registered against Rimsha Masih, a resident of Umara Jaffar in sector G-12 in Islamabad.

The girl was arrested on Friday by personnel from a women’s police station after a man named Syed Muhammad Ummad filed a complaint against her.

The story went on to explain that local NGOs report the girl has Down syndrome. While the Times of India story, and others, spread the information about the arrest, it is frustrating how little information and context is coming through. This News.com (Australia) story is better, but it’s still limited:

Police arrested Rimsha, who is recognised by a single name, on Thursday after she was reported holding in public burnt pages which had Islamic text and Koranic verses on them, a police official said.

A conviction for blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan.

The official said that the girl, who he described as being in her teens, was taken to a police station in the capital Islamabad, where she has been detained since.

Angry Muslim protesters held rallies demanding she be punished, said the official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

“We had to register the case fairly quickly to prevent any unpleasant situation,” he added, referring to the demonstrations.

The suggestion is that charges were filed against the girl in order to protect her from the angry mob that was about to execute vigilante judgment against her. But what does this “angry Muslim protesters” mean? It would be helpful to know more about these protesters and if and how their views differ from others in the country. That the government got involved to protect her — if my reading of this report is correct — means something different than if they were leading the charge to execute a Christian 11-year-old with Down syndrome on blasphemy charges. Not a humongous difference, obviously, since she might suffer the same punishment, but a difference none-the-less.

Which brings us to this BBC report, which adds more context:

Her parents have been taken into protective custody following threats and other Christian families have fled.

It is thought that the girl has Down’s syndrome.

Paul Bhatti, Pakistan’s minister for National Harmony, told the BBC that the girl was known to have a mental disorder and that it seemed “unlikely she purposefully desecrated the Koran”.

“From the reports I have seen, she was found carrying a waste bag which also had pages of the Koran,” he said.

“This infuriated some local people and a large crowd gathered to demand action against her. The police were initially reluctant to arrest her, but they came under a lot of pressure from a very large crowd, who were threatening to burn down Christian homes.”

He said more than 600 people have fled from the Christian neighbourhood.

You’ll note that none of these reports are from American media. At the time of this writing, the reports I found were from outside American borders. Actually, as I come back in here this morning, it looks like American media is beginning to take note of this latest Pakistan blasphemy law story. There’s also this CNN International report, which gives more information and includes a quote from Muslim politicians within the country who are opposed to the blasphemy charge:

The statement from President Asif Ali Zardari called for an urgent report into the incident and said that vulnerable sections of society must be protected “from any misuse of the blasphemy law.”

“Blasphemy by anyone cannot be condoned but no one will be allowed to misuse blasphemy law for settling personal scores,” the president’s spokesperson Farhatullah Babar said.

Critics of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws say they are being used to persecute religious minorities.

Leader of political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and former international cricketer, Imran Khan, tweeted: “Shameful! Sending an 11yr old girl to prison is against the very spirit of Islam which is all about being Just and Compassionate.

Of course, given how widespread the support for these blasphemy laws is, it would be more helpful to have quotes from those defending them. It can be very difficult for readers outside the country to grasp the basis for and support of these capital blasphemy laws. Knowing that a few politicians carefully oppose them doesn’t exactly do much to further our understanding. Still, a helpful report and more is needed as this story progresses.

Image via Ahmadiyya Times.

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  • Ben

    I wanted a story on this Sunday for my US publication but could not get it. There were two reasons for this — Pakistan for murky but unrelated reasons shut down much of its cellphone network Sunday. So our freelancer in Islamabad had little ability to make calls. It also was Eid so it was difficult to get people anyway. Then, I could not find the story on AP or Reuters to use instead. Anyway, I think coverage will pick up now across the board and those outlets that did get the story early are to be commended for overcoming some tough hurdles.

    The taking of the girl in custody was done for a simple reason: if the enraged local community didn’t see police take action, they would do it themselves and maybe even attack the police station too afterwards. The cops also filed a case against the local Muslim cleric who whipped up locals against her, though they haven’t dared to arrest him, again, fearing the mob. It helps to understand that police in south Asia are often a weak force and are fearful of running afoul of crowds themselves. During street altercations, it’s not uncommon for cops to stand and watch and only intervene when passions are spent and someone is already beaten to a pulp.

    That’s a valid point about getting the voice of defenders of blasphemy laws. The times we have done that it boils down to “sharia says so” and their reverence for the Quran and the prophet, and it all feels a bit beside the point because it’s often just good old fashioned persecution of minorities or settling of local scores by a local leader whipping up a mob based on very flimsy, if not entirely fabricated, hearsay. Any ideas for questions that would elicit a more illuminating response?


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