Yousuf Qureshi has never met or seen Aasiya. Yet, his heart is so full of hatred that he is willing to give anyone, even you, Rs. 500,000 to kill her. By the way, he does not seem to hold you in very high esteem either; he believes that you will be willing to commit murder for him for less than US$6,000. And if you will not, he calls upon the Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) to do the killing for him. For around the price of a new Suzuki Mehran VX he wants you to commit murder, make three children orphans, and take a human life. All reports suggest that he is mighty proud of what he is trying to do!
It is incidental to the story that the man who is providing this incitement to murder happens to be a so-called “Maulana” and the khateeb of the historic Masjid Mahabat Khan in Peshawar. It is incidental because at the end of the day neither of those facts are ‘material’ (in a legal sense). What is material is that this man, Yousaf Qureshi, is a criminal (incitement to murder is a crime) and he is providing material incentive to turn others into criminals (killing others is murder, a crime).
It should not matter what you think of Asiya Bibi, or about what should happen to her, or of the Blasphemy law, or indeed of Masjid Mahabat Khan. What matters is that murder is a crime. Inciting others to commit this crime is a crime. Paying or promising to pay others to commit this crime is a crime.
This here is not a matter of theology, it is a matter of the law. And not a matter of constitutional law, but of criminal law. This is a test of our society’s appetite for tolerating criminality in the name of morality. But more than that it is a test of our polity’s ability to implement its own laws. Can the government of the Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa province, sitting in Islamabad, or the government of Pakistan, sitting in Islamabad, ignore this blatant and so very public disregard of the laws of the country? And if they do, what does it say about them, about their own disregard for the most fundamental laws of the land, about our society, and indeed about us?
Maybe the answer is all too predictable. But at least there are voices crying out against this criminality in the name of morality. Here are excerpts from two newspaper editorials. First, from The Express Tribune (Dec. 5):
A cleric in Peshawar has offered Rs500,000 to anyone who will kill a Christian brick-kiln labourer, Aasia Bibi, sentenced to death for blasphemy by a district court. Maulana Yousaf Qureshi of Peshawar’s famous Mahabat Khan Mosque is outraged that some people are talking of letting the accused go free and repealing or amending or procedurally correcting the law that has terrorised minorities in Pakistan and has become a global index of intolerance of the Pakistani state.
It is a measure of the fanatic excess of the said Yousaf Qureshi that he should encourage all citizens to kill with the blandishment of money, reducing Muslims to paid killers while the process of law is unfolding in the case of Aasia Bibi. Confirming fears that some Pakistani clergy is interfacing with terrorists, he has called on the “mujahideen and Taliban” to kill her, probably knowing that the ferocious terrorist of Bajaur, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, had already made a statement to that effect earlier.
Maulana Qureshi belongs to the Deobandi seminary of Jamia Ashrafia that arose as one of the powerful sectarian madrassas under the patronage of General Zia in the 1980s, even issuing a fatwa against the Shia during the rise of Sipah-e-Sahaba in the country. Qureshi says: “No president, no parliament and no government has the right to interfere in the tenets of Islam.” But the fact is that it is parliament that has made the law, and since parliament is subject to human folly it is equally subject to correction.
… In the case of Aasia Bibi, mitigation was present but was not allowed. The Christian woman was extremely poor, possessed minimal consciousness, and not literate enough to understand what was happening to her. A higher court may soon decide that mitigation was present but was ignored by the district court for various reasons. In many past cases, the lower courts were seen to be under pressure from extremist clerics present inside and outside the court. No one has ever been hanged for blasphemy in Pakistan. Judicially speaking, no one has committed blasphemy in Pakistan since the coming into force of this law. But innocent people have been made to suffer.
Next, this editorial from The News (Dec. 5):
… Whatever the outcome of the Aasia Bibi case, she and her family are marked as targets for the rest of their lives and she will never be able to live as a free woman, if pardoned, in Pakistan. Her case is the subject of appeal and therefore subjudice, making comment difficult, but it is not difficult to robustly condemn the calls for extrajudicial killings that are so beloved of certain individuals and groups. A spokesman for the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government said that as the case was still in the courts its decision “would be acceptable to everyone.”
His statement is one of almost unbelievable naïveté, because as is so patently obvious to anybody reading a newspaper or watching television that is not the case at all. There is a sizeable portion of the population that might do the bidding of Yousuf Qureshi and feel entirely justified in their actions if they did. A voice of reason was supplied by Latif Afridi, a former president of the Peshawar High Court Bar Association who, commenting on the maulana’s remarks, said that “nobody in their right mind makes such statements” and that they were … “a mad person’s words and contrary to basic human rights.”
Do we see any action under Article 506 of the Pakistan Penal Code which prohibits open threats to the life of another? We do not – but neither are we seeing much beyond anodyne words from civil society and the ‘usual suspects’ who speak on behalf of minorities. All states have a duty of care to their citizens. Just how much of either duty or care will be afforded to Aasia Bibi is an open question. And it shouldn’t be.