Last month, the Lahore High Court in Pakistan upheld the death sentence for Aasia Bibi, a poor Christian woman, who was charged with blasphemy over five years ago. The zulm (oppression) inflicted upon her is manifest to any sane observer.
She had dared to drink water in a cup meant for the local Muslims. Her co-workers maligned her faith in a place where Christians are perceived as "unclean sweepers". Standing up for her integrity she has languished in prison for the last five years. Given her family went into hiding; she may have been relatively safer in prison.
Aasia Bibi's story hits close to home as I have taught Christian and Ahmadi Muslim students in Pakistan. A month ago, my Ahmadi former student visited me in Edmonton and told me about how others at work socially ostracize him at lunch hour. Last year, my Christian colleague in Pakistan told me she was hoping to leave the country, as she felt unsafe after a suicide bomb attack at the Peshawar Church.
Islamic political groups in Pakistan wield enough street power to resist any change to draconian laws that might make life bearable for religious minorities. While claiming to stand for peace, they instigate hate against religious minorities and casually justify mob lynching in the guise of defending their warped vision of Islam.
Lawyer Rashid Rehman paid with his life for taking up a blasphemy case to defend a University lecturer. Two Pakistani politicians, a Christian and a Muslim, have already been murdered for supporting Aasia Bibi. Educated lawyers have showered one of the assassins with rose petals.
Islam, like other Abrahamic faiths, has enough that can be tapped in to liberate human beings and enough that can be usurped to enslave and oppress them. The Prophet's cousin Imam Ali told the literalist and extremist group khawarij, 'The book is silent, it is us who speak'.
Students of Islamic Studies know of legal maxims that indicate that it is better to err in acquittal than in conviction. Professor Hashim Kamali at the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies in Malaysia has asserted that the Qur'an attaches a higher value to justice than to the prevention of evil speech. He has quoted verse 4:148 that reads, 'God does not like public utterance of evil speech except by one who has been wronged'.
It is not clear whether Pakistani Muslim student activists and community leaders in the diaspora have undertaken any substantive efforts against the ongoing persecution of Aasia Bibi and other religious minorities in Pakistan. It is equally not clear if they wield any political clout with the government of Pakistan and whether any effort in securing the release of Aasia Bibi would be counter-productive, as Islamic political parties would frame such efforts as an attack on "Islam".
The ineffectiveness of Pakistanis, who are sidelined as "liberals" by those Pakistanis who have imbibed a bastardized view of Islam, informs the criticism of Western bloggers and news pundits that conflate extremism with Islam. Thus, the views of those who find it convenient to stereotype and generalize are informed by the supremacist viewpoints of those who are unable to think outside the binary framework of "us versus them".
Pakistani Muslims in the Diaspora are rightly concerned about the rise in anti-Muslim sentiments and about being expected to answer for the actions of extremists like ISIS in the Middle East, Boko Haram in Nigeria and Taliban in Afghanistan.
Why should they be held answerable for the actions of those not even remotely related to them? But then again, the Muslim claim of the ummah (community) is underscored to such an extent that even Muslim converts are imbued with consciousness on the treatment of Muslims in other parts of the world.
While Muslim leaders defend those critics who, like Aasia Bibi's tormentors, attack their faith, a poor Christian woman awaits the noose. Can Muslim leaders and their critics jointly take steps to help free Aasia Bibi or are they bound to focus on ideology over the life of an oppressed human being?
Some Muslim analysts have written that instead of being on the defensive, Muslim leaders would do better with a proactive approach against the rising tide of anti-Muslim sentiments. What better way to be proactive than for a constellation of Muslim clerics and groups in the West to isolate bigoted Pakistani Muslim leaders?
Indeed, they can jointly stand up for Aasia Bibi in particular and Pakistani religious minorities in general. They can collectively call for rescinding blasphemy laws that subjugate minorities and for repealing the second amendment to the Pakistani Constitution that specifically subjugates Ahmadi Muslims.
Likewise, instead of engaging in armchair negativity, Muslim and Islam bashers can achieve their objective of destroying the oppression of "Islam" as they understand it, by doubling efforts to help free Aasia Bibi and other freedom of conscience prisoners in Muslim countries.
Will Muslim leaders and Islam critics join hands to do something useful and help rescue Aasia Bibi and others or will they continue to be embroiled in wasteful debates? The choice is before them.
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