jan 19, 2021
In Pakistan, Bails Granted and Denied
A mixed bag over the last two weeks in ongoing Pakistani blasphemy cases: a harsher sentence given to one victim and bail denied to three others, while another three have been freed on bail.
Blasphemy case developments
In Pakistan, Christian pastor Zafar Bhatti, previously sentenced to life imprisonment for blasphemy in 2017, has now been sentenced to death. This, sadly, is only a newly flagrant injustice in a case already rife with cruelty. Initially detained in 2012, Zafar has spent almost a decade in prison for the sake of a “crime” whose very punishment is a fundamental breach of human rights.
The brutality of this move may be largely symbolic, as Pakistan has not—to anyone’s knowledge—formally executed a blasphemy convict, even those sentenced to death. But it does not bode well for any prospect that Zafar can hope for release.
Three Ahmadi prisoners, also convicted of blasphemy, likewise ran up against Pakistani state opposition. Mahmood Iqbal Hashmi, Shiraz Ahmad and Zaheer Ahmad were accused of sharing blasphemous content on WhatsApp, which they themselves had not created. A bail request has recently been denied them.
This particular case and others like it take on an additional dimension of injustice: in addition to the unacceptable prosecution of “blasphemy,” it also represents a continuation of systemic discrimination against Ahmadi Muslims throughout the Islamic world, where simply calling themselves Muslims is enough to tar a member of the Ahmadiyya community with a blasphemy accusation.
Some victims freed
Things are not all bad in Pakistan with regard to recent blasphemy cases (though, granted, they are mostly bad). Two individuals accused of “insulting Islam” by “conducting a ritual allegedly to prevent floods” have been released on bail. Their actions were strange and kooky, to be sure, but nothing to warrant incarceration. Their case is still ongoing, and it remains to be seen whether they are convicted, but it is better that they are free nonetheless.
Nadeem Samson, another individual charged with blasphemy, has also been granted bail by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. As Nadeem has been detained for years on the basis of an accusation that was probably false, it is good to see that, at least in this instance, Pakistan was capable of meeting the minimum standard of justice prescribed by their own, still-unjust laws.
Texas synagogue hostage crisis
Details continue to emerge about the gunman who held four hostage in a Texas synagogue, later shot dead after all hostages escaped. Malik Faisal Akram, a citizen of Britain, had arrived in the United States in December, apparently with the explicit intent of making himself a martyr. In particular, he had demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a convicted terrorist. Akram staged the episode at Congregation Beth Israel, a synagogue near Fort Worth where Siddiqui is held, on the day of Saturday worship.
Although the FBI stated (controversially) that the ultimate goals of this standoff were not anti-Semitic in nature—Akram sought Siddiqui’s release, not death to Jews—there is no denying an anti-Semitic undertone based on the timing of his actions, the location, and Akram’s own statements. During the attack, he himself said he picked the venue of a synagogue because America “only cares about Jewish lives.” In other words, he believed his cause had a greater chance of succeeding because of the privileged status he believed Jews held in American society, itself only a stone’s throw or two away from more explicit anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish power and influence. (Based on his apparent belief that he could simply get Jewish religious authorities to free Siddiqui, it seems likely he subscribed to some of these tropes anyway.)
In a phone call during the standoff, Akram’s brother Gulbar attempted to dissuade him from this line of reasoning, arguing that his actions had no chance of accomplishing his goal. Gulbar urged his brother to surrender, telling Akram that what he was doing was a sin and that the hostages he was threatening were innocent. Akram rebutted: not only was what he was doing not sinful, it would make him a martyr, an end from which he would not be dissuaded. He went on to say that he did not care whether his actions accomplished his primary goal, because they could accomplish a secondary goal: “opening the doors for every youngster to come to America” and engage in similar attacks.
It is more than fortunate that this attacker’s extreme religious fervor, colored with tribal prejudice, did not result in the deaths or injuries of any innocents—and all Akram is likely to have accomplished is the setting of his own name into infamy. At the same time, the potential for violence from those who feel similar fervor remains, and it is incumbent on all of us to ensure such extremism is pushed into the pages of history alone.
A victory for free expression in Poland
Not every Western country is innocent of the sorts of antiquated laws against “insulting religion” which continue to define the Islamic world. In Poland, an equally regressive law—in fact, one that very closely resembles the language of those in countries like Egypt—remains on the books, allowing up to two years’ imprisonment for one who “offends the religious feelings of others by publicly insulting a religious object or place of worship.”
Fortunately, this law, although an affront to justice, appears less effective at putting people in prison than its counterparts in the Muslim world. Case in point: a recent legal victory for three human rights activists in Poland who had been “charged for possessing and distributing posters” depicting the Virgin Mary “wearing a rainbow-colored halo.” They were acquitted last March—and a prosecutorial appeal against them has recently been thrown out.
Still, that such individuals could even face trial in Poland to begin with reminds us that our secular freedoms and rights require constant defense—no matter where we are.