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.