The turmoil in Pakistan over acquittal of Christian woman Asia Bibi in a blasphemy case has not only brought the draconian blasphemy law into the limelight again but has also come as a first major domestic challenge to the new Prime Minister Imran Khan. Islamist organisations, backed by influential mullahs, have hit the streets demanding reversal of the supreme court’s verdict and death penalty for the hapless woman, who has already spent eight years in jail on charges of insulting Islam. Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy law, which had claimed some high-profile victims in the past, threatens to push the country into chaos. The issue provides an opportunity for Imran Khan to redeem himself as a ruler committed to justice and equality for minorities in the country. Earlier, he had succumbed to the pressure from the mullah-military lobby and withdrawn appointment of an Ahmadi Muslim from his economic advisory council. What is more appalling is that the mullahs have openly called for the murder of Supreme Court judges, who gave the acquittal verdict, and urged all Muslims in the Pakistan army to revolt against the apex court’s judgment. Though Imran, who has promised to usher in ‘Naya Pakistan’, issued a warning to the radical elements against taking the law into their hands, he must walk the talk and demonstrate to the world his government’s seriousness to rein in the extremist elements. Asia Bibi’s lawyer Saiful Mulook was forced to leave the country and seek refuge in the Netherlands following threats to his life. This reflects the gravity of the situation in a country where two high-profile politicians were assassinated for speaking out against blasphemy laws.
Instead of reforming the regressive blasphemy laws, the Imran Khan government appears to have surrendered to the influential clerics by assuring them that it will not oppose the filing of a review petition in the apex court against Bibi’s acquittal. It has also promised the protesters that she would be prevented from leaving the country. There has been widespread international outrage over Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws, which are perceived as being used to persecute religious minorities. Salman Taseer, the outspoken and secular Governor of Punjab who had campaigned for Bibi’s release, was shot dead in 2011 by his own bodyguard. Shahbaz Bhatti, then Minister for Minorities, was assassinated in the same year after he called for amendments to the law. With the Supreme Court’s bold verdict providing a boost to the campaign advocating reforms in the blasphemy laws, the ball is now in the government’s court to build a national consensus over the issue and save the country from getting into the hands of radical Islamists. The world will be keenly watching Imran’s next moves.