In early August a young Christian girl named Rimsha Masih, who is reportedly afflicted with Down’s syndrome, was observed with burnt pages from a children’s textbook, Noorani Qaida, used to teach children about the Qur’an. According to the New York Times, for over a week “the incident bothered few local residents”, but more than a week later, on 16 August, a local cleric, Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti, at the urging of two conservative shopkeepers, told his congregation during the Friday prayer that among the book’s remains were pages from the Qur’an, an act in direct violation of the country’s harsh blasphemy laws, put in place in the 1980s under the dictatorship of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, and punishable by death.
As anticipated, hundreds of local Muslims formed a lynch mob, marched to the local police station, and demanded justice. Eventually, the local police conceded to the mob’s demands and placed the confused young girl, aged somewhere between eleven and fourteen, under arrest. She was then taken to a grim facility in nearby Rawalpindi to await trial, where she has remained ever since.
Meanwhile, angry mobs whipped into a frenzy by Chishti’s accusation continued to scour Mehrabad looking for additional blasphemers, prompting many from the local Christian community to flee if fear for their lives. To the sinister forces behind this plot, everything seemed to be going according to plan.
[inset_left]angry mobs whipped into a frenzy by Chishti’s accusation continued to scour Mehrabad looking for additional blasphemers[/inset_left]
The initial public reaction to Rimsha’s arrest was that of abhorrence, prompting Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari to call for an inquiry into the case on 20 August. This was a welcoming sign amid the growing chorus of international outcry leveled at the troubled country. In addition to Zardari, support for Rimsha has come from nearly every quarter of Pakistan’s population, including the popular Imran Khan, who described her arrest on Twitter as “Shameful”. He went on to say that “Sending an 11 [year] old girl to prison is against the very spirit of Islam which is all about being Just and Compassionate. [The] Poor child is already suffering from Down Syndrome. State should care for its children not torment [them]. We demand her [immediate] release.” Finally, Pakistan’s new Minister of National Harmony, Dr. Paul Bhatti, a former surgeon in Italy, who returned to Pakistan after his brother’s assassination to take up his post in government, is also “very hopeful” that Rimsha will be released on bail when the court reconvenes on 7 September.
At first, a great deal of speculation surrounded two important questions. First, Rimsha’s age, and second, her mental capability. These questions are important because they help determine the legal culpability of the offender. Toward the end of August, a medical review board determined that Rimsha was around fourteen years old and had a degree of mental disability. Under most circumstances, this would have excluded her from prosecution, but her opponents dismissed these judgments as political, with the lawyer representing the accuser saying that the “doctors are favouring the victim and the state is also supporting her.” This underscores the sharp contrast between those wishing to pursue this case and the rest of the Pakistani political establishment, which would prefer that this embarrassment would go away.
On 1 September, the drama unfolding in Pakistan took a dramatic turn when police arrested Chishti, who was accused by his deputy, Hafiz Mohammad Zubair, of manipulating the very evidence that he used to accuse Rimsha. According to the New York Times, Zubair told police that Chishti had added two pages of the Qur’an to a heap of burned pages of the Noorani Qaida in order to “strengthen our case” against the little girl. By choosing Rimsha as his scapegoat, Chishti appears to show his disdain for three of the most vulnerable segments of Pakistan’s population: Christians, women, and the disabled.
Nevertheless, the implication of Chishti has led to soul-searching throughout Pakistan, with support for Masih coming for unexpected quarters.
The most notable example came from Hafiz Mohammad Tahir Ashrafi, a senior cleric from the powerful All Pakistan Ulema Council, an umbrella organization with ties to radical Islamist groups. In spite of the council’s known hardline views, Ashrafi was disgusted by the situation, called Rimsha a “daughter of the nation” and demanded her immediate release. On top of this, in recognition of the continued threat to her life, Ashrafi vowed that council would guarantee her safety upon her release freed from prison. On the planting of evidence, Ashrafi felt that was Chishti was disgraceful: “Our heads are bowed with shame for what [he] did”. The reason behind Ashrafi’s unexpected condemnation of Chisti’s actions appears to be much more personal. As it turns out, Ashrafi also has a son with Down’s syndrome and can empathize with the Masih family.
But Ashrafi’s sense of outrage has led to a major development in the case. On 3 September he revealed that he had “known for the last three months that some people in this area wanted the Christian community to leave so they could build a madrasa there.” Chishti, he alleges, is merely the front man for a wider conspiracy, led by individuals seeking to stoke local antagonism towards the Christian minority. He has said that he would reveal information about the conspirators behind the plot at a later date.
Nevertheless, this remarkable turn of events in Pakistan is in equal measures rare and dangerous. In the past, many people who have spoken out against the country’s harsh blasphemy laws, have been ridiculed, harassed, and, in a number of cases, killed. Two notable examples stand out. In January 2011, the governor of Punjab Province, Salmaan Taseer, was assassinated by his own bodyguard after calling for reforms to the blasphemy laws. Two months later, in March, Pakistan’s minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who had also called for reforms to the law, was gunned down by extremists, who distributed leaflets after his murder describing him as a “Christian infidel”.
The outpouring of support from nearly all quarters of Pakistan, save a few zealots, suggests that this entire ordeal will be settled with Rimsha’s release from prison, but this is not a foregone conclusion. The court still could rule to keep her in custody and proceed to trial, but if this happens Pakistan’s legal system will come under unprecedented international scrutiny, and the trial has the potential to become a global media circus, which the government is doubtless eager to avoid.
It is also possible that something positive will come out of this incident. Recently Dr. Bhatti proposed setting up an interfaith commission that would vet blasphemy allegations before they reach the courts. This commission, he feels, should have the power to reject spurious accusation before they are exaggerated by the media, which inevitably puts pressure on courts to produce guilty verdicts despite flimsy evidence. Indeed, had Rimsha been a normal, mentally fit girl, her plight may not have led to an international controversy and could well have led to either her imprisonment for life or execution. Nevertheless, Dr. Bhatti’s idea is one possible solution, and may spark debate within Pakistan about how to ensure controversial cases are dealt with in the future.