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Death for 11-Year Old Pakistani Down Syndrome Girl Accused of Blasphemy?

As a chilling reminder that some misguided Pakistani Muslims think God wants to see their neighbors killed, an 11-year old Christian girl, possibly suffering from Down syndrome but certainly illiterate, is facing the death penalty after being arrested by police who “rescued” her from a wild mob threatening to burn her alive. This treatment seems to be becoming customary for “blasphemers” in Pakistan: last month another “mentally unstable” man was burnt alive by an excited mob. The Pakistani newspaper Dawn describes the young girl’s alleged crime:

 Some reports suggested the girl had been burning papers collected from the rubbish for cooking when someone entered her house and accused the family of burning pages inscribed with verses from the Quran.

The Guardian has a firsthand account of what happened:

 Hammad Malik, a 23-year-old with a shaven head and bushy beard who is deemed a “scoundrel” by the Christian community, said he saw Rifta walking out of the tiny, single-room dwelling where she lived with her parents and sister at some time after 6pm. He said it was pure chance that he noticed her bundle.

“I looked at it but did not know exactly what it was but I could see it had words written in Arabic,” he said.

He concedes that no one actually saw her burning anything as the offence allegedly happened inside the house, and she was caught while finding somewhere to throw away the remains.

The Washington Post suggests illiteracy might have caused the outburst: many people associate any Arabic writings with the Qur’an, being unable to read the actual words.

Meanwhile, the about 900 Christians who live on the outskirts of Islamabad have been ordered to leave for their own safety.

They have done this to provoke the Muslims, like they have with their noisy banging and singing from their churches,” said a local mullah, who would not give his name. “We are not upset the Christians have left and we will be pleased if they don’t come back.”

Pakistan’s law includes life in jail or the death penalty for desecrating the Qur’an. A politician, former Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer, who last year spoke out against the brutality of the law in defense of another Christian woman accused of blasphemy, was quickly executed by radical Islamists. (I met his sister on a recent trip to Pakistan; underneath the bitterness and the hatred, a genuinely modern and decent Pakistan struggles to survive.) The previous Chief Justice of the High Court managed to approve of this killing, noting that in Pakistan “the laws of God take precedent before the laws of man.”

One thing is clear: people who think that God is in any way pleased by this treatment of a frightened young girl with limited mental abilities are not well informed about the divine nature. Hint to all: if you have a religious leader who doesn’t immediately grasp the obscene nature of this persecution and instinctively loathe the ignorance and bigotry that spew it forth, you need to change religious leaders…fast. Your current guide is Hell bound in the fast lane.

We cannot forget that the ignorant, bitter mobs who cause such deplorable scenes are victims as well—victims of the incompetence and corruption of a society that has lost its way and of a religious tradition that has been befouled and abused. With little more education or comprehension than the frightened child they hope to hound to her death in the grotesque belief that this is somehow pleasing to God, they rage through a world they do not understand, pulled this way and that by blind, embittered guides who would not recognize the spirit of God if it came upon them in a whirlwind.

Fortunately there are signs that this current atrocity is enough to stir some genuine civic courage. To speak out against this kind of madness can cost your life in Pakistan, but journalists and even politicians are pushing to introduce some rationality into the situation. As CNN reports, Imran Khan, the cricket-star turned politician tweeted the following message: “Shameful! Sending an 11yr old girl to prison is against the very spirit of Islam which is all about being Just and Compassionate.”

President Zardari warned against “misuse” of Pakistan’s über-strict blasphemy laws to settle personal grudges and ordered an investigation into the incident.

There are voices of sanity in Pakistan, and they matter. Let us hope they prevail, in this case and more broadly as that great but wounded country struggles toward some kind of stability and health.

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  • Beauceron

    “some misguided Pakistani Muslims”

    If it were only “some”. It is certain,y not all, but “some” implies it is some small group of outliers doing something the majority doesn’t want. As you well know, this isn’t the first incidence of absurd blasphemy charges and the majority of the population doesn’t say a word– this is not a people, as the infamous cartoon controversey demonstrated, afraid to protest when riled. They have not protested these charges because the majority of them agree with them.

  • John

    Agreed on the general import of the article, but I don’t think “some misguided Pakistani Muslims think God wants to see their neighbors killed” is an insightful take on this–a bad start to a good article.

    Pakistan seems closer to an asylum with nukes than to a normal country. If they can some day, somehow overcome their paranoia regarding non-Islamic people and India, there is tremendous hope for their country. But that’s a surprisingly difficult task, given that such paranoia is now the path to wealth and demagogic power, while opposing that leads to poverty, powerlessness, and even death. Until this changes, Pakistan will remain hopeless.

  • Corlyss

    “There are voices of sanity in Pakistan”

    Kinda pointless in a failed state, don’t you think? As long as it pretends to democracy, it’s going to put the lowest common denominator of support first. Reason will not prevail because Islamic fanatics don’t practice reason.

  • Corlyss

    Besides, “hope” is not an investible strategy.

  • WigWag

    Why not offer sanctuary to all Pakistani Christians in the United States. If ever there was a persecuted minority it is Pakistani Christians. Is there any doubt that if they are welcomed into the United States that within a generation, these Pakistani Christian families will be a wonderful asset to the United States?

    I just find Professor Mead’s description of the perpetrators of this vile act as victims as simply too much to stomach. They tried to burn to death a ten year old with Downs Syndrome for goodness sake. In Pakistani society the poor girl had three strikes against her from the day she was born; she was female, she was Christian and she was disabled. Nothing excuses the behavior of the mob of crazed Muslims who tried to burn her to death; not ignorance, not illiteracy and not poverty. The world is full of poor illiterate people who would never contemplate doing to this poor child what the Islamist mob did. The fact that learned Americans would attempt to label the perpetrators of this act as victims in their own right says quite a bit about why the west is doing a poor job of confronting barbarity emanating from squalid places like Pakistan.

    Analogies with Nazism are often made too lightly, but if the attempted murder of a disabled girl on trumped up charges of blasphemy and sedition when her real “crime” is the religion she was born into isn’t the functional equivalent of Nazism, what is?

    And what has become of our political system when neither political party has anything at all to say about Islamic attacks on Christians happening all over the world? What is wrong with Obama and Romney that what is clearly a world-wide war against Christian believers by well funded (frequently by Saudi Arabia) Islamists inspires not a single word.

    Exactly how many Christians in how many countries have to be attacked, mutilated and murdered before Obama and Romney find their voices?

  • JAC

    “As CNN reports, Imran Khan, the cricket-star turned politician tweeted the following message: ‘Shameful! Sending an 11yr old girl to prison is against the very spirit of Islam which is all about being Just and Compassionate.'”

    Note that Mr. Khan refers to the spirit of Islam, rather than to the letter of the law.

  • Jim.

    The question is, how can outsiders unwilling to risk a war with a country of 150 milion gain any kind of traction with the hearts and minds that are going to have to change to make a difference here?

    That said, sitting back and doing nothing will solve nothing. We need to make it clear to the Pakistani government that they can’t treat Christians this way.

  • Rand Millar

    The previous responders represent a considerable spectrum of viewpoint on many issues, but above they appear to have in common a substantial skepticism with regard to Dr. Mead’s view that the privileged likes of Imran Khan and Ali Asif Zardari represent the better angels of Pakistan’s nature. Pakistan was founded by Muhammad Ali Jinnah and colleagues of the Muslim League specifically to enshrine the teachings of Muhammad the prophet in south Asian governance. That 7th-century Qureishi taught the oneness of government and religion, quite unlike Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who, referring to Caesar’s image, taught that they are separate. The consequences of this for temporal existence are profound.

    The artificial ethos of “It’s a Small World” falls to the ground when one considers the threat to peaceful mankind everywhere from northern Nigeria to the southern Philippines represented by the sincere adherents of Muhammad.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    That this backward culture feels threatened by a child tells us all we need to know.

  • Mrs. Davis

    Based on everything I have read for the past decade, I can only conclude that Mr. Khan is misinformed.

    And the fact that these particular victims are Christian is irrelevant and not a basis for American action. Muslims do not seem to discriminate in whom they terrorize on the basis of their non-Muslim religion.

  • Kris

    Why do you waste our time on this trivial incident when at the heart of Europe there are Rabbis flouting court decisions and mutilating children?


    “Blind, embittered guides who would not recognize the spirit of God if it came upon them in a whirlwind.”

    Even worse if the Lord is not in the whirlwind. What are the odds that this excitable lot would hear the still small voice?

  • Special child’s mom

    This is the definition of blasphemy.
    a : the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God
    b : the act of claiming the attributes of deity

    I do not expect Literacy from the extremists but I am sure they all can READ. This innocent little girl, is not the blasphemists, by the above definition, those accusing her are the ones. The Christian God is forgiving, I’m not sure the Islam entity is, specially after knowing they used ALlah’s name and the Quran as a reason to persecute this 11 year old mentally challenged girl….This is yet another terrorist act, I pray that Mr Ali Asif Zardari make the right decision. I think just to underline that not all Muslims are the same, the Muslim community n the USA needs to make their stand public about this…

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