It was an extraordinary flight from Islamabad to Ottawa in Canada on Wednesday, bathed as it was in pregnant symbolism. It was a distressing reflection too on the social mores in Pakistan, chiefly that Asia Bibi, the Christian mother of four who languished for years in death row on charges of blasphemy, feels safe no more in her country, now floundering in the quest for Naya Pakistan.
There is consternation in liberal democracies that she feared that her life was in danger even after being acquitted by the Supreme Court. Worse, she had to stay in hiding despite the fact that the court had decreed that she was a free citizen. Ever since she won “freedom” on 31 October last year, the clerics have been up in arms against the verdict of the apex judiciary, vigorously orchestrating the demand for punishment.
As it turns out, it has been a spurious freedom. Hence her anxiety for offshore, trans-Atlantic security. The general outcry against her release over the past few months recalled the assassination of the Governor of Punjab province by his security guard for what the latter had perceived was an act of blasphemy. The subtext of the two episodes is that the allegation of blasphemy, as often as not contrived, is still very much a threat to Pakistan’s society even with the liberal Imran Khan at the helm of governance.
As a Christian, Asia had gone to fetch water from a well that is used by the Muslim population. Ergo, the accusation of blasphemy was as facile as it was contrived. In the face of the outcry by the clerics, successive political dispensations have not dared to rock the blasphemy applecart. The stark truth that both Mr Khan and Begum Hasina are yet to accept is that religious minorities can on occasion countenance an existential crisis both in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
To the west of the Radcliffe Line, blasphemy persists as an almost intractable issue, just as rational thought is sometimes an anathema in Bangladesh. Yet another ominous trend in Pakistan must be that even the Supreme Court can be a victim of Islamist condescension, a fact that has been reaffirmed by Asia’s predicament. As she flew the miles between Pakistan and Canada, she personified the canker of intolerance that still survives in her country. Second, the judiciary can scarcely be depended upon to offer enduring protection. Third, as she reunites with her family she has been able to evade the mortal wrath of fanatical fury.
Familial bonding in a distant land is an option to save oneself and arguably also the children from the weapon that kills. The charge of blasphemy has turned out to be a potentially murderous cocktail of judicial and fundamentalist, even antediluvian, implications. The judiciary would appear to have lost the battle. As much is the message of Asia Bibi ‘s flight to freedom. The case horrifyingly illustrates the dangers of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the dire imperative to repeal them.