My fellow panelists on Virtual Skeptics have given me the go-ahead to post the text of my story from last night. We’ll be whipping up a permanent home for the show and its supplemental material in a few days, I think, so stay tuned!
Today we’re going to talk about what happens when a religion gets access to a police force. A Christian girl named Rimsha Masih was arrested in an Islamabad slum on the 16th of August when a neighbor reported that she had burned papers that were alleged to have contained verses from the Koran. Now, the reports of what is alleged to have happened are somewhat varied, but I’ve done my best to disentangle them. The First Information Report was filed by Muhammud Ummad, who claimed that the girl had taken 10 pages of a book called the Noorani Qaida, burned them, and flung them into a garbage can. The Noorani Qaida is a sort of child’s primer for reading the Koran and is considered a holy text, so you don’t get to burn that. The neighbor contacted the local imam, Khalid Chisti, and the imam alerted the authorities and had the girl arrested. Ashes and pages of the Koran were found in her bag.
In the aftermath of the arrest, there was a mass exodus of Christians from the slum, some 2,300 of them, because a mob was poised to attack their homes. The imam who had called the police, Khalid Chisti, used the mosque’s loudspeakers to rile up the crowd and tell the local Christians to leave, saying: “All you chooras [a derogatory term for Christians] must leave here immediately or we will pour petrol on you and burn you alive.” An advisor to the Prime Minister on Minorities Affairs asked clerics to not allow the town to be attacked and raised questions about the legitimacy of the arrest.
There is a lot of dispute about the status of the girl. Human rights workers and her family say that the girl is 11 and has Down Syndrome. The police asserted that she is 16 and is 100% healthy. Eventually, she was determined by a medical examiner to be both a minor and developmentally delayed, though that decision was stayed because of a protest on the part of the accuser’s lawyer, who is demanding a bone scan. This lawyer, Rao Abdur Raheem, has specialized in prosecuting blasphemy cases, and observers saw his involvement as a very bad sign for the girl. He’s not what you would call a moderate, saying: “Those who burn the Koran are burning us,” he said. “This girl has confessed. Even if she is found to be 14 the offence is so serious the law says there cannot be leniency, she cannot have bail.” He also told The Guardian: “If the court is not allowed to do its work, because the state is helping the accused, then the public has no other option except to take the law into their own hands.”
On the 20th, the Telegraph reported that the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, had ordered an investigation into the arrest. The blasphemy law has been criticized by the West and Human Rights organizations for the way it has been used to settle minor disputes. But opposing this law has gotten two high profile politicians assassinated last year, including the Punjab governor and the minorities minister. Last month, another mentally ill person was seized from a police station in the province, where he was being held on a similar charge, and killed by a mob.
So, there have been problems in the past.
In a twist that caught my attention this week, on Sept 2nd the government arrested imam Khalid Chisti for planting burned pages on the child, charging HIM with blasphemy. 3 worshipers at his mosque, including the prayer caller, came forward and told a judge about the imam, saying that he had added pages of the Koran to the burned pages against their protests. The testified that he had replied: ‘You know this is the only way to expel the Christians from this area’.” This let the government, I think, out of a hell of a bind. It was under immense internal pressure to convict and intense international pressure to acquit. The arrest of the imam for the same charge as the girl faces is about the only contingency that I could think of that might take off some of that internal pressure.
A number of issues strike me as important about this story. After the fact, the imam gave an interview to AFP where he claimed that she burned the pages deliberately as part of a “Christian ‘conspiracy’ to insult Muslims and said action should have been taken sooner to stop what he called their ‘anti-Islam activities’ in Mehrabad.” This is an age old accusation, one that has been recklessly hurled at Jews, whose supposed actions against Bibles and eucharists was often used as a pretext for violence against them. It seems to me that the nature of the crime is one that destroys its own evidence, and it seems consistent that most of these incidents have hinged entirely on accusation. Furthermore, this is dangerous because, clearly, in the eyes of the mob as well as that horrid weasel prosecutor, an accusation is tantamount to conviction. I want to note that I have read literally dozens of reports on this story from all points in its development, and nowhere in the last few days have I seen any mention of taking legal action against the imam or the lawyer for threatening Christians, inciting violence against them, or subverting the justice system.
I do want to mention that even hardline Islamists in the region have said the prosecution of an illiterate minor with a developmental problem is an inappropriate application of the blasphemy law.