Rimsha Masihi is of uncertain age. According to her parents she is only eleven. According to a report submitted to a court in
Islamabad in Pakistan she is ‘about’ fourteen. In a way her age is irrelevant; eleven or fourteen, she is a juvenile under the law. But that did not stop her from being held in a maximum security jail, all the while in solitary confinement. It would be traumatic for anyone. It was all the more traumatic for this underage girl because, according to some accounts, she has Down’s syndrome.
The present riots across much of the Islamic world over an insult to the Prophet Mohammed show how seriously people take their faith, and how seriously they react to any perceived offence. It’s particularly serious in
Pakistan, a country where the vast majority of people are Muslim, a country where blasphemy is punishable by life imprisonment or even by death.
There is a paradox here.
Pakistan, as the Economist noted in a recent report, takes its religion seriously, yes, but it’s also a country where the Quran is routinely desecrated and the Prophet insulted. Or at least it is judging by the number of cases brought before the courts under the blasphemy legislation.
Rimsha is one such accused. Vulnerable, educationally sub-normal and illiterate, she was accused of blasphemy in August after a neighbour and a local imam claimed that she had burned pages of the holy book. Given that little girl is a Christian, part of the country’s tiny and cowed minority, the alleged offence was all the worse.
She is the most unlikely and yet the most likely victim imaginable. No sooner had the accusation been raised than a mob gathered outside her home in a slum district of Islamabad, threatening to burn her family to death. The whole Christian community had to flee in terror of reprisals, as the girl was taken into custody.
The threat against Rimsha and her family was real enough. In 2009 accusations of blasphemy against Christians living in Gojira in
Punjab province saw eight people being burned alive by a mob. More recently, a mentally disturbed Muslim man, arrested for blasphemy in the city of Bahawalpur, was dragged out of prison by a 2000-strong lynch mob and set on fire.
In a recent article for BrooWaha detailing the plight of elderly women in
Ghana accused of witchcraft (No Country for Old Women, 6 September) I made the point that there was some similarity in these cases with older forms of persecution in Europe and America. Superstition is only part of the explanation; the rest is made up of more venal motives, often centring on personal or material factors
A similar process seems to be at work in
Pakistan, where false accusations made under the blasphemy laws are used to settle personal scores or to lay claim to property. In the case of Rimsha it gives all the appearance of pure sectarian intolerance, a convenient way of clearing out all of the local Christian families in the area where she lived.
She has now been released on bail. Not only is the case against her weak in the extreme but her treatment also provoked an international outcry over the treatment of minorities in
Pakistan. More than that, two weeks after Rimsha was detained, Mohammad Khalid Chisti, the local imam and her chief accuser, was arrested after his deputy at the mosque claimed that he himself had secretly planted the pages of the Quran in her bag to make it seem that she had burnt them.
But the case has acquired implications going beyond
Pakistan’s borders. For some questions of innocence or guilt are clearly irrelevant. There are those in the Muslim community prepared to speak up for Rimsha. There are others, like a university student quoted in a recent Times report who said that the bail decision was wrong and against Islam – “As Muslims our goal should be to please God and not the US”, he said, “This decision may force people to take the law into their own hands.” The threat could not be clearer.
There have to be questions raised about the mentality and the morality of people who find injustice and persecution ‘pleasing to God.’ There have to be questions about a country that allows blasphemy law to be used as a tool of repression and mob violence. It’s certainly true that there are those in the ruling
Pakistan People’s Party who recognise the problem but they raise objections at their own peril. Last year two of the party’s leaders were gunned down after criticising the law.
In the end I think the case against Rimsha will be dropped, after the present national and international fires have damped down. But no matter what the outcome she and her family are unlikely ever to return to their former lives. For them there is never likely to be justice, just law that acts as a warrant for lawlessness.