An update in the contentious Koran-burning saga in Pakistan: the accused Christian teenage girl, who reportedly has Downs Syndrome, has been granted bail. This follows the arrest of the Muslim cleric who tried to frame her by planting Koran-pages near some burnt paper. The New York Times has more on this story, which is indicative of the deep-rooted problems Pakistan faces:
The case has come to represent what many see as the abuses carried out in the name of Pakistan’s colonial-era blasphemy laws, which critics say are often used to intimidate members of minority groups. Ms. Masih was jailed after hundreds of Muslims protested outside her local police station at the instigation of a cleric, Muhammad Khalid Chishti, who said she should face the full force of the law — including, possibly, the death penalty.[…]Ms. Masih’s lawyers said the blasphemy charge was a ruse on the part of a local “land mafia,” with the goal of evicting up to 400 Christian families from her neighborhood.
Unless the case is dropped, the girl still has to face trial and potentially the death penalty in several months. Given the murder by radical Islamists of politicians and lawyers “soft” on supposed blasphemers, we hope some in Pakistan’s judicial system find the courage to try this case fairly.Whatever the outcome of the case, it’s not likely that it will significantly move the needle on the issue of minority rights in Pakistan by itself. Pakistan’s very identity is tightly bound up with Islam, and virulent strains of nasty radicalism have, sometimes with government encouragement, sunk their claws deep into many Pakistanis.Worse, the many injustices and cruelties of Pakistan’s economic system combined with the rampant incompetence and systemic corruption of the state keep tens of millions of Pakistanis continuously on the boil. Constant anger and frustration at a host of injustices breeds religious and political extremism of all kinds.Pakistan can’t overcome its crisis of religious intolerance until it finds its way to a more hopeful path of national political and economic development overall. This will be hard to do as rising religious and ethnic tension across the country scare off both foreign and domestic investment and put huge obstacles in the path of anybody trying to advance the causes of development and reform.The recent diplomatic thaw with India (a visa agreement has been reached that will allow citizens of the two countries to travel more freely, giving a boost to nascent trade ties) is perhaps the most hopeful sign that authorities in Pakistan are finally waking up to the country’s increasingly dangerous and isolated condition. But even so, it’s not at all clear that the central failure at the heart of Pakistan’s decline is being addressed. The military won’t push true civilian modernization (things like land reform, hard nosed anti-corruption policies that jail crooked politicians and bureaucrats and confiscate their wealth, empowerment of the poor through a genuine national education program and abolition of semi-feudal conditions and debt peonage in the countryside) and the civilian elite doesn’t challenge the military’s destructive fixation with India, slash the military budget and dismantle the overgrown and ineffective military and intelligence machine, Pakistan will most likely continue a slow motion descent toward an ever more dire failed state status.That devil’s compact between oligarchs and generals both defines and cripples Pakistan and deprives it of the benefits of either good civilian rule or the benefits of Singapore or Chinese style developmental authoritarianism. Pakistan has the worst of both worlds: civilian corruption with bone headed military authoritarianism. Islam, in increasingly intolerant forms, has served as the ideology for social protest.Things are only getting worse and the nuclear arsenal is growing. Let us hope that in this general atmosphere of desperation and decline, one small girl falsely accused by an empowered and bigoted hypocrite can live her life out in peace.