On October 9, Pakistan’s Supreme Court heard the final appeal of a Christian woman who has been on death row for nearly a decade on the accusation that she insulted Islam’s prophet Muhammad. The woman’s fate is now sealed: “They [judges] have come to a decision, but it has been reserved,” reported Mehwish Bhatti, an officer with the British-Pakistani Christian Association, from the courthouse.
Aasiya Noreen—better known as “Asia Bibi”—is a 47-year-old married mother of five children who fell afoul of Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy law nearly a decade ago.
According to her autobiography, Blasphemy: A Memoir: Sentenced to Death Over a Cup of Water, on June 14, 2009, she went to work picking berries in a field. Although she was accustomed to being ostracized by the other female pickers on account of her Christian faith, things came to a head when the dehydrated woman drank water from a common well on that sweltering summer day.
“Don’t drink that water, it’s haram [forbidden]!” screamed a nearby woman, before turning to the other dozen or so female workers and crying, “Listen, all of you, this Christian has dirtied the water in the well by drinking from our cup and dipping it back several times. Now the water is unclean and we can’t drink it! Because of her!” (Such beliefs are not uncommon in the Muslim world. In one video, an Egyptian cleric expresses his great disgust for Christians, and how he could not drink from a cup that was merely touched by a Christian.)
The argument spiraled, and the women began calling on Bibi to convert to Islam in order to save herself. “What did your Prophet Mohammed ever do to save mankind?” the embattled woman shot back.
A report summarizes what happened next:
After this, Bibi said the women started screaming, spitting at her and physically assaulting her. She ran home in a fright. Less than a week later, she went fruit-picking in another field when she was confronted by a rioting crowd, led by the woman who had initially shouted at her.
The crowd surrounded her, beat her and took her to the village, screaming: “Death! Death to the Christian!”
The village imam said: “I’ve been told you’ve insulted our Prophet. You know what happens to anyone who attacks the holy Prophet Mohammed. You can redeem yourself only by conversion or death.”
She protested: “I haven’t done anything. Please, I beg you, I’ve done nothing wrong.”
Bibi was taken to the village police station, covered in blood, where police interrogated her and put a report together. She was then put into a police van and taken straight to prison.
She has been in that cell ever since.
Despite inconsistent witness testimonies, a Punjabi court fined and sentenced her to death by hanging before cheering crowds in late 2010. Since then,
“I’ve been locked up, handcuffed and chained, banished from the world and waiting to die,” says Bibi in her smuggled memoirs. “I don’t know how long I’ve got left to live. Every time my cell door opens my heart beats faster. My life is in God’s hands and I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. It’s a brutal, cruel existence.”
This is to say nothing of the sufferings of her husband and five children: “I really love her and miss her presence. I cannot sleep at night as I miss her,” her husband Ashiq Masih once explained: “I miss her smile; I miss everything about her. She is my soulmate. I cannot see her in prison. It breaks my heart. Life has been non-existent without her. … My children cry for their mother, they are broken. But I try to give them hope where I can.”
All of this for asking a rhetorical question—“What did your Prophet Mohammed ever do to save mankind?”—variants of which non-Muslims have been asking for centuries.
In the late 1390s, for instance, Roman Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos responded to a group of Muslim scholars bent on converting him to Islam by saying, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Over 600 years later, in 2006, when Pope Benedict passingly quoted this assertion, anti-Christian riots erupted around the Muslim world, churches were burned, and an Italian nun who had devoted her life to serving the sick and needy of Somalia was murdered there.
In Pakistan, however, such “vigilante justice” is unnecessary to avenge the honor of Muhammad. According to Section 295-C of that nation’s penal code, “Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”
Because non-Muslims—particularly Christians, who by definition are known to reject Muhammad’s prophecy—are more likely to be suspected of blasphemy, and because the word of a Christian is not valid against the word of a Muslim, blasphemy accusations by Muslims against Christians are common and routinely result in the imprisoning, beating and even killing of Christians (as when 1,200 Muslims deliberately burned a young Christian couple to death in 2014 for allegedly insulting Islam).
In other words, Asia Bibi’s story is the notorious tip of a large but hidden iceberg. Seemingly not a month — sometimes not even a week — goes by in Pakistan without some Muslims accusing some Christians of insulting Muhammad, often just to settle a personal score (here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here) or to seize land (here, here, here, and here). These are followed by the usual riots, home- and church-burnings, beatings and expulsion of Christians, and, finally, arrest and imprisonment of the supposed “blasphemer.”
Although Bibi’s case has sparked outrage around the international community, all calls for her release have for a decade fallen on deaf ears. This is not so much because the nation’s authorities are determined to execute her—one infidel is surely not worth the world’s criticism and contempt—but because excusing her in order to save face with the world would instantly make them lose face with many of their own. That consideration is why, whenever there is any serious talk that Bibi might be spared, protests and riots often ensue. As Bibi’s husband once explained, “The Maulvis [clerics] want her dead. They have announced a [monetary] prize … for anyone who kills Asia. They have even declared that if the court acquits her they will ensure the death sentence stands.”
Authorities sympathetic to or siding with such “blasphemers” are also targeted. For example, two of her prominent advocates, Governor Salmaan Taseer and Minority Affairs Minister Shabaz Bhatti, were both assassinated in 2011. Taseer was shot twenty-seven times by Mumtaz Qadri, his own bodyguard. After the murder, more than 500 Muslim clerics voiced support for Qadri, who was further showered with rose petals.
This is arguably why Pakistani authorities continue to delay issuing a final verdict—to give Bibi time to die “naturally” in jail (as not a few Christians have under “mysterious” circumstances). Instead of placating the world but angering Islamists by releasing her, or placating Islamists but horrifying the world by executing her, the Pakistani judicial system abandoned Bibi to a deathtrap of a jail cell for a decade, where wretched conditions, severe maltreatment, unattended illnesses, psychological abuse and beatings should have killed her, as they did many others before her.
Much to their vexation, however, “She is psychologically, physically and spiritually strong,” Bibi’s husband explained days ago. “Having a very strong faith, she is ready and willing to die for Christ. She will never convert to Islam.”
In her memoirs, Bibi “wonder[s] whether being a Christian in Pakistan today is not just a failing, or a mark against you, but actually a crime.” Her question is finally about to be answered by Pakistan’s supreme court.
“All around Pakistan and even many parts of the world, the sense of anticipation . . . regarding Asia Bibi’s final appeal hearing are now at fever pitch,” said Leighton Medley of the British-Pakistani Christian Association concerning Bibi’s recent and final hearing. “There is a sense here in Pakistan that once again, battle lines are being drawn: the battle between those who support hatred and intolerance and those who fight for peace and justice.”
Accordingly, in the last few days, Christians around the world prayed and fasted, even as extremist Muslims riled each other and called for riots on social media, should the “blasphemer” escape death. Either way, “There will be protests on both sides and you can bet there will be trouble ahead,” continues Medley. “It truly is D-Day for Asia, this is the final countdown and we will soon know whether the extremists win or lose. And whether there will be peace and justice in Pakistan or just more hatred, prejudice and intolerance which sadly has come to typify Pakistan today.”