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Ayaz Amir
Friday, August 31, 2012
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Islamabad diary

If there was an international shoot-in-the-foot prize Pakistan would win it hands down, our genius for self-inflicted injuries surpassing that of all competitors. We don’t need RAW, Mossad or the CIA to conspire against us. We are self-sufficient in this department, no conspiracy from those quarters coming close to what we can do to ourselves.

As if the blasphemy discourse had not been worked to death already, we have another blasphemy case on our hands, the news of which has spread at the speed of light across the globe, contributing immeasurably once more to the fair name of the Islamic Republic.

Pity the concerned outsider trying hard to understand the Pakistani malaise, that peculiar gift for going over the edge in both thought and action at the slightest provocation. With the Rimsha Masih blasphemy case, however, involving a 13-14 year old Christian girl, chances are he would just give up in despair and pronounce this malady as beyond cure or comprehension.

What is this case about? Groping for an answer I went into the maze of rundown streets which is the old locality of Mehra Jaffer just outside Islamabad where this supposed blasphemy occurred, and there met Amad the complainant in this case. In my mind I had imagined the glittering eye of the fanatic. What I found was a friendly guy slightly confused at the sudden attention he was getting. I asked him his education and he said he had studied up to class five, could read a bit but knew not how to write.

Amad runs a CNG car-fitting shop in the G-11 Market. In a room upstairs I sat with him and a few other car mechanics and put a few questions. Amad said he had spotted Rimsha carrying a few burnt pages in a plastic shopping bag which on closer inspection turned out to be pages from the Nurani Qaida, a helpful primer for mastering the Arabic alphabet, preparatory to reading the Quran...pages not from the Quran then, and spotted by a person who could not read.

Forget for a moment the technicalities of what was burnt, I said. Did he think the girl Rimsha had any quarrel with Islam? No, he said, the others too nodding their heads in agreement. So what was all the fuss about and how was the glory of Islam affected? They all looked pretty blank. Had Rimsha meant to hurt anyone’s sentiments? Again silence. Amad looked a well-meaning person but clearly out of his depth.

Rimsha’s small house, now closed, is on one side, Amad’s house next to it; an open sewer dark with dirty water, on the other side of the lane; across the lane a rising bit of open ground covered with overgrown grass and littered with dirt and refuse and plastic shopping bags. The lights of Islamabad could be a world away.

On two sides of this patch of ground are small one-room houses; beyond it the mosque of Mohallah Bhudial, the name of this locality. I knocked at one or two doors to find out who lived there: migrant day labourers from Toba Tek Singh, Faisalabad and Sargodha. I felt my heart sinking as all around lay filth and squalor and it was against this sickening backdrop – God show me no mercy if I exaggerate – that the drama of such mighty issues as blasphemy was being enacted.

Young Mehreen Noor said it was she who took the burnt pages to the imam of the mosque. As she saw the quizzical expression on my face she said that when she saw the burnt pages she felt as if her liver (kaleja) was being torn apart. I was stunned. This from a 10-11 year old...and this is the atmosphere in which our young, especially those on the other side of the tracks, are being brought up. And it is for national greatness and redemption that we pray.

The imam held a council of war and Rimsha’s family was told to leave the locality within an hour. The police were also informed. Mercifully, no announcement was made on the mosque loudspeaker but matters took an ugly turn when news of the supposed outrage spread to the nearby bazaar. From most accounts it was Muhammad Amir Kazmi, an Urdu-speaking migrant from Karachi who runs his small Mashallah General Store, who was in the forefront of the agitation. After repeated announcements from the local mosque, a crowd gathered and the road was blocked. The crowd then marched to the Ramna police station where, discretion triumphing over valour, a blasphemy case on Amad’s complaint was registered against Rimsha and she was arrested.

Whether blasphemy of any sort had indeed been committed, whether the girl Rimsha was capable of such a thing as blasphemy, this implying understanding and comprehension, no police officer bothered to find out. No attempt was made to cool hotheads like Qadri. The police took the easy way out by registering the case and caring not a whit for the consequences.

Rimsha’s age, whether she is under-age or not, is being cited as grounds for taking a lenient view of the charge against her. But this is to beat about the bush. At issue should be neither her age nor her being afflicted with Down’s syndrome. The thing to determine is whether the inadvertent burning of a text such as the Nurani primer, whether by a mature person or an immature girl, constitutes by any stretch of the imagination an act of blasphemy.

Aasia Bib in Sheikhupura, the case which led to the murder of Governor Salmaan Taseer, was accused of blasphemy in much the same circumstances as are to be found in this case. She is still languishing in prison and brave will be the high court judge who will bring himself to give her any relief. The half-crazed fakir or malang sprung from police lockup in Bahawalpur by an enraged mob and then set on fire was also accused of burning some pages of holy scripture. Where are we heading, and what is this madness we are reaping? All in the name of religion.

And the sorry part is that incidents such as these usually happen in the poorest of localities. Then they are hijacked by muftis and divines sitting in state on television, and what may have begun from small causes is blown out of all proportions and Pakistan becomes a laughingstock once more around the world.

In front of Kazmi’s store I told a group of people that I received six or seven newspapers every day and that often enough in the Urdu papers there were religious supplements with photos of the Kaaba and the Holy Mosque at Medina. When all that newsprint was thrown away did it mean that my household was showing disrespect to the symbols of the faith? This was not blasphemy, they agreed. So how did Rimsha commit blasphemy? No answer.

If the Islamabad Police abdicated its responsibility and showed no spine on the first day, even now it is shirking its responsibility by passing the buck to the judiciary when it should have the guts to complete its investigation and say clearly whether the act of blasphemy on the part of an under-age girl had occurred or not.

But if the police are behaving in a spineless manner, what about their puissant lordships? At the drop of a hat a nation in thrall to exciting things has seen the generous exercise of suo motu jurisdiction? On a memorable occasion even two wine bottles allegedly discovered from the luggage of the engaging Ms Atiqa Odho were the subject of a suo motu notice. Does Rimsha’s case not merit the same attention? Or does the blackening of Pakistan’s face round the world for something which should not have arisen in the first place count for nothing?

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