- The Washington Times - Friday, November 26, 2010

After the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, a white reporter asked Malcolm X to respond to a statement in reference to the civil rights movement: “You feel, however, that we are making progress in this country.” Malcolm X answered, “No. You stick a knife into my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, that’s not progress.”

Such is the condition of Asiya Bibi, a Pakistani Christian mother of five accused of blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad. Ms. Bibi allegedly committed “blasphemy” while fetching water in her village near Lahore in 2009. After an 18-month imprisonment, a district court handed down a death sentence for Ms. Bibbi two weeks ago under Section 295B of the Pakistani Penal Code.

This is the same law that has subjected Pakistani Ahmadi Muslims to relentless and systematic persecution since 1984. Hundreds of Pakistani citizens belonging to various minority sects have been killed over the past decade under the guise of blasphemy law enforcement. As Shariah courts continue to hand down decrees to kill, stone and humiliate and the blasphemy laws continue to be used to impose death sentences as a punishment for freedom of expression, the situation with America’s strongest ally remains dicey.

Just during the past six months, Pakistan has twisted this knife among minorities nationwide. A mob burned down homes on the outskirts of Karachi when a Hindu boy drank water from a mosque cooler in July. During the same month, a Christian priest and his brother accused of blasphemy were mortally shot outside a Faisalabad court as they were returning from a hearing. In November, an Ahmadi family was pressured into exhuming the body of a relative buried in the Muslim graveyard after clerics threatened violence. And now a death sentence has been awarded to a Christian, Ms. Bibi, as a punishment for blasphemy.

As Amnesty International, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and Jinnah Institute are roused with condemnations against such human right abuses, the Pakistani Parliament and judiciary are silent. Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer’s is a lone voice, first condemning these laws in 2009 and now leading the charge to have Ms. Bibi’s clemency appeal approved by the president. Even Pope Benedict XVI called upon Pakistani authorities Wednesday to release Ms. Bibi.

While these efforts are expected to save one life, will they also pull the knife from the backs of millions of Pakistani citizens belonging to religious minorities?

Not really, say many of the pundits. Some say the blasphemy laws are Shariah-compliant based on a 1988 court decision. Some go so far as to declare them constitutional (based on a 1993 decision by the Supreme Court of Pakistan). Regrettably, these laws form the basis for the defamation-of-religions resolution pending before United Nations.

The actions of politicians like Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif support the dismal outlook painted above. Earlier this month, he directed the withdrawal of all cases against clerics who protested against alleged blasphemy incidents during the Musharraf government. And after the gruesome May 28 attacks on Ahmadis in Lahore, 13 religious leaders convened and publicly declared the attacks to be a conspiracy intended to cause repeal of blasphemy laws.

It is no surprise that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton thinks Pakistan can and should take a stronger stance against extremist elements. In this case, the extremist elements are Pakistan’s own Parliament and judiciary, which approve such barbaric laws in the first place.

So is Pakistan willing to make progress and do more?

To borrow Malcolm X’s words from the same interview, “Even if you pull the knife all the way, that’s not progress. Progress is in healing the wounds below. You don’t even admit the knife is there.”

From reading the mainstream Pakistani newspapers and some of the comments online, it becomes clear as day that a majority of Pakistanis are either oblivious to or ambivalent about this knife.

It took a revolution in America to remove the knife of racial prejudice and after half a century, the wounds are still bleeding. Even if the death sentence is annulled, Asiya Bibi’s emotional wounds from a 18-month imprisonment may continue to bleed for decades.

As for the millions of Pakistani citizens belonging to religious minorities, the knife of blasphemy laws remains sunk deep in their backs.

Dr. Faheem Younus is a former youth president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA and a clinical associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

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