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Saving Rimsha: Religious Intolerance is the Real Blasphemy

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Last week, an 11-year-old girl, with Downs Syndrome, named Rimsha Masih, from Mehraabad, a poor neighbourhood near Pakistan's capital Islamabad, was beaten by her neighbours.

Police attended the scene upon receiving a call from the local Imam who reportedly said the neighbours had beat Rimsha after they accused her of blasphemy.

The Imam claimed that he called police, concerned that the girl, already hurt, would soon be killed by a mob on its way.

Word was out that Rimsha was seen disposing of burned pages of the Quran in the trash. In Pakistan, such an act is illegal, particularly if you are a member of a religious minority. And Rimsha is one of Pakistan's Christians, composing only 4 per cent of the population. In Pakistan, Christians and other religious minorities, including Hindus and Muslims with dissenting views, are easily accused of blasphemy, a crime that carries the penalty of life in prison and death.

Blasphemy laws were introduced to Pakistan decades ago, transferred from India, for the purpose of protecting Muslims from hate speech. The laws have, in fact, had the opposite effect by endangering the lives of religious minorities, making them an easy target for blasphemy accusations and penalties.

Rimsha is now being held at the police station in Rawalpindi, traumatized and in solitary confinement. One report provides that she is there with her mother. Religious extremists in Pakistan -- who are not a minority and are led by hundreds of clerics, are calling for Rimsha's death.

In fear, many of Rimsha's fellow Christian neighbours have fled the area, concerned for their own safety.

According to Pakistan's Ambassador to the U.S., Sherry Rehman, who, for a time led a campaign to amend the blasphemy laws there, "President Asif Ali Zardari is taking serious note of the reports of the arrest of a minor Christian girl on the charges of blasphemy and called for a report."

Amnesty International and other human rights groups are demanding Zardari obtain Rimsha's immediate release and provide her protection.

But does President Zardari have the power?

Blasphemy laws reveal who is in power in Pakistan. And it is not President Zardari and his government. No. It is Pakistan's religious clerics, whose interpretation of Muslim scriptures is violent and intolerant -- some say Talibanized.

This was glaringly apparent last year when the leading casualties of Pakistan's blasphemy laws were two prominent government leaders, former federal Minister of Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian and former Governor of the Interior of Punjab and Salman Taseer, a Muslim.

Both Taseer and Bhatti were assassinated in early, 2011, after expressing outrage when a poor Christian mother of five, named Aasia Bibi was convicted of blasphemy in late 2010 and sentenced to death.

Taseer had sought a pardon for Bibi. Both leaders had demanded the law be amended. While some mourned their deaths, hundreds of Pakistani clerics celebrated them. Bibi now remains in prison, hoping for a pardon. But clerics have made it clear that if the government fails to enforce the law, the citizens will carry out her execution.

And these are only a few of the victims of Pakistan's blasphemy laws.

In 2009, 40 homes and a church were burned down by a mob of a thousand in the town of Gojra, in the province of Punjab. At least seven Christians were burned to death. The attacks were triggered by reports that a Quran was desecrated.

In 2010, two Christian brothers, were shot outside a court in the city of Faisalabad, accused of writing a blasphemous letter.

And this past weekend, the body of a young Christian boy, missing since spring, named Samuel Yaqoob, was found mutilated and burned to death. Though no one has claimed responsibility and no accusations of blasphemy have been made, the truth is obvious.

In Pakistan, Christian children are not safe.

But Christians are not the only ones in danger because of Pakistan's blasphemy laws. According to local NGO's and the U.S. State Department's International Religious Freedom Report, 2006:

"The number of people accused of blasphemy in Pakistan between 1986 and April 2006 (was) at 695. (Of those, 362 were Muslims, 239 were Ahmadis (also Muslim), 86 were Christians, and 10 were Hindus)."

Killing people for expressing negative and/or dissenting views on religion, for burning Qurans, for writing letters -- is this Islam? No. In Islam, a law that penalizes a person for challenging or disparaging the religion -- is blasphemy itself.

It blatantly ignores the Islamic demand for patience and love towards members of other faiths, even in the event of disagreements, as found in this verse of the Quran:

"29:46 Do not argue with the people of the scripture (Jews, Christians, Sabians and Muslims) except in the kindest manner -- unless they transgress -- and say, 'We believe in what was revealed to us and in what was revealed to you, and our God and your God is one and the same; to Him we are submitters.'"

And in the event of insult, Muslims are advised:

"25:63 The worshippers of the Most Gracious are those who tread the earth gently, and when the ignorant speak to them, they only utter peace."

Are we alone? No. Muslim citizens in North America and the U.K., including CAIR and the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, have expressed shock and concern for Rimsha's plight and seek action.

The crucial question is, why is Pakistan filled with such intolerance? And what is the solution?

Some, like the leader of Pakistan's political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI),Imran Khan, blame it on Pakistan's support for the war on terror, stating it has created a perception by ordinary Pakistanis that the government is a "puppet of the U.S." Armed Forces.

U.S.-led drone attacks have assisted in this perception, in which, reportedly a few thousand people have been killed, not all of them terrorists, some of them children. A crumbling education system and severe economic crisis serve as a backdrop.

Out of a population of 160 million, three quarters of Pakistanis live in poverty. Many feel disheartened by the inaction of their government to improve their lives.

And Pakistan spends less than 2.5 per cent of its gross domestic product on education. Half of Pakistan's population is illiterate. A third of all Pakistanis have spent less than two years at school. In many areas no government-funded schools exist and only the rich can afford an education.

In others areas, madrassas (schools operated by religious extremists) though no longer officially linked to terrorism, still serve as the only source of a free education.

Reportedly many Pakistani parents now keep their children at home in place of sending them to madrassas.

But no education means no hope and a young person without hope is an easy recruit for the Taliban and its wahabist ideologies, which regard religious minorities as the enemy.

It means if President Zardari and his government seek to elicit compassion from the Pakistani masses and maintain law and order, they must make a far greater investment in building schools and creating jobs. And if the Zardari government is unable to invest in its own people in this way, perhaps foreign aid must be provided directly to the communities who need it.

Would western money be better spent on education in Pakistan than on a war on terror that can never be won?

Can money invested on a drone instead be invested in secular Pakistani schools that teach skills, along with dignity, love, respect for women and minorities and human rights for all?

After all, what is worse than a 11-year-old girl being executed for blasphemy? That she may not be the last.