Rimsha Masih, a 14 year old Christian girl, has been in a Pakistani jail since August 16 charged with the crime of blasphemy. Sighted holding a burned copy of a Muslim religious textbook, she was taken into police custody for her own safety after a local Muslim cleric, Khalid Jadoon, provoked the townspeople into a frenzy. Protesters stormed the jail where Ms. Masih and her mother were being held and did not relent until police agreed to charge the girl with blasphemy. In Pakistan it is illegal to desecrate a Muslim holy text; the offense is punishable by death.
Last week, lawyers applied for the release of Ms. Masih arguing for her exemption from the strict blasphemy laws based on the weight of her young age and a medical board finding which established that she suffers from mental disability. Due to her age, disability, and complete lack of evidence establishing how the damaged book even came into her possession, senior government and police officials are predicting that the case will ultimately be dropped. This provides little comfort, however, because it is highly unlikely that she will be able to return to her village. For her own protection she will most likely be forced to leave in exile.
Human rights activists are using Ms. Masih’s case as their latest round of ammunition to force change to the blasphemy laws which they claim have commonly been used by powerful Muslim clerics to persecute religious minorities and others against whom the clerics may hold grudges since the laws went into effect during the British colonial era.
Calling for this change is not without its risks, however. The issue is one of the greatest dividing lines splitting the Pakistani people today. In January 2011, Salmaan Taseer, then governor of the Punjab Province, was brutally shot to death by his own bodyguard for speaking out in favor of changing the blasphemy laws. Non-Muslims have historically been exposed to oppression in Pakistan but protecting the oppressed is finally becoming too much for the state to handle. Authorities are routinely forced to file blasphemy charges against religious minorities to keep them and the officers attempting to protect them safe from unruly mobs. Capitulation does not always have the desired appeasing effect, however. In July a mob stormed a police station holding a prisoner charged with blasphemy. The people dragged the man from the building, beat him to death, and burned his body outside the station.
Are blasphemy laws outdated in twenty-first century society? Should Pakistani Muslims be forced to amend their traditions to protect religious minorities in the country? What can be done, if anything, to protect oppressed people without demanding that a culture change its laws?