The story of Asia Bibi (also known as Aasiya Noreen) is familiar to many. A Pakistani Christian woman accused and then convicted of blasphemy in 2010, Asia’s neighbors alleged she insulted the Prophet Mohammed – a claim that she vehemently denied. In 2018, her conviction was overturned by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. This week, Asia Bibi arrived in Canada, after spending eight years on death row in Pakistan. She was offered asylum due to worries around her safety and security in Pakistan, where Islamist groups such as Tehreek-e-Labaaik (TLP) protested her release from prison by blocking highways and pelting local police with stones. TLP is dedicated to upholding Pakistan’s harshest blasphemy laws.
When Salmaan Taseer, a prominent politician and governor of Punjab, expressed his sympathy for Asia’s case and vowed overturning Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, he was murdered in 2011 by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri. Qadri was celebrated by Islamist groups in Pakistan. These same groups later took to the streets to protest Qadri’s eventual execution by the state as punishment for his crime.
Blasphemy is an extremely sensitive issue, and there are justifiable concerns that blasphemy laws may be used – as they were in Asia Bibi’s case – to settle personal scores. Blasphemy accusations can also be employed to target minorities, or police Muslims. Later in 2011, months after Taseer was murdered, Pakistan’s Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, the cabinet’s only Christian, was shot dead by self-described Taliban gunmen who ambushed his car. They shot Bhatti at least eight times, before scattering pamphlets labeling him a ‘Christian infidel’.
The issue of blasphemy and fear of violence has ballooned in the UK in recent years. One of the most problematic aspects of Asia Bibi’s case occurred when her husband pleased for asylum in Britain. He stressed that Pakistan was too dangerous for his wife and five children, especially following the government’s deal with the TLP to end protests over Asia Bibi’s acquittal. Frustratingly, Bibi was not offered asylum in the UK, due to concerns of concerns of unrest and fear of attacks that offering her sanctuary here would cause. It was clear that extremist groups in the country, who support blasphemy laws and would present a danger to her security, got what they wanted.
The idea that Britain should have to accommodate these extremist factions, and jeopardize its liberal values by failing to offer protection to Asia Bibi, is both disturbing and dangerous. The question here is whether Britain is increasingly becoming too tolerant of the intolerant. Earlier this week, the Saatchi Gallery in London had to conceal two paintings after receiving complaints from Muslims that the works were seen as blasphemous. The paintings depicted the shahada – the creed of Islam – over the image of a female nude. The overlay of the two elements were intended to illustrate the conflict between Islamist extremists and the United States.
The cases of both Asia Bibi and the censorship of artistic expression raises serious concerns around freedom of speech. Such examples point to a ‘policing’ of what both Muslims and non-Muslims are able to express about the Islamic faith, something which may amplify following set categories of what ‘Muslimness’ or ‘perceived Muslimness’ is supposed to entail. This has important implications on free speech, as do recent rulings by European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that criticizing Prophet Mohammed is ‘beyond the permissible limits of objective debate’. In a liberal society, who determines the boundaries of tolerance, and who polices the intolerant? These are important questions that need to be answered. In doing so, we must ensure the rights of those we need to protect are not jeopardized in favor of those who seek to harm them.