Asia Bibi acquitted, but is she safe? Fighting over blasphemy in Pakistan is far from over

This is a day that human-rights activists have wanted to see for a long time.

Asia Bibi has been acquitted of blasphemy charges in Pakistan.

That’s the lede. What has impressed me in the early coverage of this decision is the degree to which international desk pros in several newsrooms grasped the importance of the news that will unfold after this story. I am talking about the reaction among Muslims who defend their nation’s blasphemy laws, which are used to punish freethinking Muslims more often than Christians, like Bibi, and believers in other religious minorities.

I could have lived without some of the political labels that many editors allowed in descriptions of key players in this story. I was also surprised how few reporters seemed interested in Bibi and the details of her own story.

But we will come back to that. Here is the top of a strong NPR story with the breaking news:

Pakistan's Supreme Court on Wednesday announced the acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was convicted and sentenced to death in 2010 for blasphemy in a case that has roiled the country.

In the courtroom, it took less a minute for the Chief Justice, Saqib Nisar, to upturn a series of legal rulings that had kept Bibi on death row for eight years. In terse remarks to the hushed, packed courtroom, he said that Bibi's conviction and sentence had been voided. 

In a 56-page verdict issued after the ruling, the three-judge bench appeared to side with Bibi's advocates. They have maintained that the case against the 51-year-old illiterate farmhand was built around a grievance by her fellow Muslim workers who appeared angry that she might drink from the same vessel as them. She was ordered by a local landlord to bring water to the women on a day while they were picking berries.

If you want to dig into the details, head over to this strong collection of background material that the BBC team had ready to go.

A major question: Bibi is now free, but is it safe for her to be free?

After all, most alleged blasphemers are killed by mobs, not legal representatives of the state. And, in the past, state officials who dared to criticize the blasphemy laws have paid a high price.

The court delivered its verdict quickly, no doubt aware of the sensitivity of the case and the danger of a violent reaction to it.

Asia Bibi's lawyer, closely flanked by a policeman, told me he was "happy" with the verdict, but also afraid for his and his client's safety.

Even after she is freed, the legacy of her case will continue. Shortly after her conviction a prominent politician, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, was murdered for speaking out in her support and calling for the blasphemy laws to be reformed.

The killer — Mumtaz Qadri — was executed, but has become a cult hero with a large shrine dedicated to him on the outskirts of Islamabad. His supporters also created a political party - campaigning to preserve the blasphemy laws — which gathered around two million votes in this year's general election.

It's the same party which many fear could be responsible for violent unrest in the coming days.

Bibi is obviously in great danger if she stays in Pakistan. Her family has lived in hiding for years, now. At the same time, a CNN report noted that hardline defenders of the blasphemy laws will be just as angry if she is allowed to flee Pakistan.

Will Bibi be able to leave, safely?

Will she be allowed to live safely in another country, or will hardline Islamists seek her out, no matter where she goes?

Here’s two pieces of that long CNN story:

CNN understands that at least two Western countries have offered Asia Bibi asylum once she has been released. Such a move will likely be greeted by mass protests by Islamist groups, which could turn violent.

It will also prove a key test for new Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who courted the country's religious right during his successful campaign and has voiced support for blasphemy laws.

Also, note this piece of that report — which includes a rare mention of the fact that Bibi is not just a generic Christian, but a member of Pakistan’s tiny Catholic minority.

Outside of Pakistan, Asia Bibi's case has become a rallying call for many Christians, particularly Catholics.

Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) led prayers for Asia Bibi's release last week in the UK, at a ceremony attended by her husband Ashiq Masih and daughter, Eisham Ashiq.

"We have prayed 10 years now for our sister, Asia, and I am confident that our prayers will be heard, and the judgment will go in favor of Asia, her family and the entire Pakistani Christian community," Father Emmanuel Yousaf said in a statement from the group.

The family met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in February, during which the Catholic leader reportedly described Asia Bibi as a "martyr," according to ACN President Alessandro Mondeduro. Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict, previously calledfor Asia Bibi's release.

As I said earlier, it is interesting to note the often confusing or loaded political language that journalists used describing the players in this drama — in a land in which there is no demilitarized zone at all between religion and politics.

In a global context, it is clear that a strong defense of religious freedom is a “liberal” stand. Anyone who is familiar with the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights knows that. Look at Article 18, in particular.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Thus, it would be accurate to say that — in the context of Pakistan — it is “conservatives” who are defending the blasphemy laws. They are trying to “conserve,” I guess, their nation’s current radicalized approach to the complex reality that is Islamic law.

At the same time, I am not sure that political words help all that much when trying to describe this case to American readers. In this land, at the moment, “conservatives” are often the most outspoken defenders of First Amendment language defending the free exercise of religious convictions. “Left” and “right” have been turned inside out, in recent years.

So what are we to make of this passage in a Washington Post report about the Bibi decision?

The surprise ruling is likely to intensify months of intermittent conflict between the anti-blasphemy movement and civilian authorities, who were forced to back down late last year when the group staged a weeks-long protest that blocked the major highway between Islamabad and nearby Rawalpindi. …

In Pakistan, where the mere allegation of blasphemy can lead to lynchings and murders before a court has even heard the evidence, Bibi’s case ignited acute tension between the increasingly aggressive far-right anti-blasphemy movement and groups supporting leniency.

That’s rather confusing. After reading that passage several times, I think what the Post team is saying is that being “anti-blasphemy” is the same thing as being pro-blasphemy laws.” In the West, saying your are “anti-blasphemy” usually means that one is opposed to states trying to legislate what is and what is not “blasphemy” in the first place.

The bottom line: Things can get confusing when reporters yank simplistic political labels into complex debates about religion.

One final word: If you want to know more about Bibi and her story, I suggest you head over to the story at The Telegraph, which included a large amount of faith-based material linked to this case. The headline: “Christian woman Asia Bibi spared death sentence in Pakistan after blasphemy conviction overturned.”

In particular, I appreciated this description of the alleged events that led to Bibi’s arrest.

Yes, some of the details are different than in other accounts. That’s kind of the point, since details of the accusations kept evolving.

An illiterate farm worker, Mrs Bibi scraped a living as a labourer and fruit picker in Ittan Wali, a village in the Punjab that was home to just three other Christian families.

One hot day in June 2009, she went to pick berries on a farm with a number of Muslim women neighbours, who asked her to fetch them a bucket of drinking water from a well. One of them then complained that Mrs Bibi had already drunk several times from the bucket with a metal cup, saying "This Christian has dirtied the water".

Heated words were then exchanged, during which Mrs Bibi is alleged to have told her neighbours: "Jesus Christ died on the cross for the sins of mankind. What did your Prophet Mohammed ever do to save mankind?"

Mrs Bibi claims the neighbours returned the insults in kind, saying Jesus was "a bastard" without a proper father.

Her neighbours then attacked her … spitting in her face and beating her in front of her nine-year-old daughter, Eisham.

"I was also beaten badly by the crowd — it was terrifying," Eisham, now 18, told The Telegraph. "All my mother had done was take a drink of water because she was thirsty."

The following day, a much larger crowd dragged her to a village mullah, who told her she had to either convert to Islam or die. She was then beaten almost unconscious with sticks before being thrown in jail, where she was sentenced 17 months later to death by hanging.

This story is not over. As several news accounts noted, no one has any idea what will happen to Bibi — or Pakistan — in the wake of this decision. Stay tuned.

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