Pakistan PM faces off with hardline Islamists over blasphemy acquittal

Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned a 2010 conviction against Asia Bibi for insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, sparking protests by Islamists in the country.
Thursday 01/11/2018
Radical Islamists rally to condemn a Supreme Court decision that acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, who spent eight years on death row accused of blasphemy, in Lahore, Pakistan, on November 1, 2018. (AP)
Radical Islamists rally to condemn a Supreme Court decision that acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, who spent eight years on death row accused of blasphemy, in Lahore, Pakistan, on November 1, 2018. (AP)

Radical Islamists in Pakistan rallied against the acquittal of a Christian woman who spent eight years on death row, as the country’s prime minister gained support for his stand against the religious hardliners.

The developments followed a landmark move by Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Wednesday that overturned the 2010 conviction against Asia Bibi for insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. The charge of blasphemy carries the death penalty in this majority Muslim nation.

Bibi’s acquittal immediately raised fears of religious violence — and presented a challenge to the government of new Prime Minister Imran Khan, who came to power this summer partly by pursuing the Islamist agenda. Khan warned Islamist protesters on Wednesday night not to “test the patience of the state.”

“We will protect people’s properties and lives, we will not allow any sabotage,” Khan said in a nationally televised address Wednesday.

Khan’s speech drew praise across social media, including from those formerly critical of the prime minister.

Prominent journalist Mosharraf Zaidi hailed a “remarkable speech” and a column in the English daily Dawn said Khan had taken “an unequivocal and strong line against religious bigotry and hatred that we have not seen taken in almost two decades.”

Blasphemy is a massively inflammatory charge in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where even unproven allegations of insulting Islam and its Prophet Muhammad can provoke death at the hands of vigilantes.

“Prime Minister Imran Khan was admirably forthright in condemning those who believe violence is the appropriate response to a judicial verdict with which they disagree,” said the English-language The News, which is often a critic of the PM.

Hafiz Saeed, a radical cleric wanted by the United States, urged followers to hold rallies across Pakistan on Friday to condemn Bibi’s release. Saeed is the founder of the outlawed Lashkar-e-Taiba group, which was blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people.

Protesters, rallied by firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, also set up roadblocks and burned tires in the southern port city of Karachi, while hundreds clashed Thursday with police in various parts of eastern Punjab province.

The Islamists also called for the killing of the three judges, including Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, who acquitted Bibi. The three are on the hit list of Rizvi’s Tehreek-e-Labbaik party, which has demanded a public execution for Bibi.

Rizvi has managed to turn out tens of thousands of supporters in the past, often forcing authorities to bow to his demands on religious matters. He has also vowed to “wipe Holland off the face of the earth” over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad if TLP were able to secure power of the nuclear-armed country.

Bibi remained at an undisclosed location Thursday where the 54-year-old mother of five was being held for security reasons, awaiting her formal release, her brother, James Masih, told The Associated Press.

Masih said his sister simply would not be safe in Pakistan.

“She has no other option and she will leave the country soon,” he said. Masih would not disclose the country of her destination, but both France and Spain have offered asylum.

Bibi was arrested in 2009 after she was accused of blasphemy following a quarrel with two fellow female farm workers who refused to drink from a water container used by a Christian. A few days later, a mob accused her of insulting the Islamic prophet, leading to her 2010 conviction.

Bibi’s family has always maintained her innocence and says she never insulted the prophet.

(Arab Weekly staff and news agencies)