Aasia bibi is a poor Christian woman from a village in Punjab who was arrested for blasphemy in 2009. She got into an argument with some other women from the village while working in the fields (purportedly over her drinking from a cup of water and hence “polluting” it) and in the course of the argument she allegedly said something “blasphemous” about the holy prophet of Islam. The details of the case are murky and no one seems to know for sure what blasphemous statement she actually made that day (the most commonly reported one is that she said something along the lines of “Jesus died for the sins of the world, what has your prophet done for humanity”; other versions exist; the investigating police officer claims that she said much more, but even quoting it wud be blasphemy, so look it up on wikipedia) but whatever the details, a case was registered under Pakistan’s uniquely harsh blasphemy law (a death sentence is mandatory in case guilt is proven) and she has been in prison ever since.
As usually happens in blasphemy cases, she was sentenced to death by the local court (local judges usually feel it safest to convict any and all accused blasphemers, expecting that the most egregiously wrong verdicts will be reversed by higher courts that have better security). Meanwhile her case had come to national attention and the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, visited her in prison and spoke of her getting a presidential pardon. He was attacked in the media as a supporter of blasphemers and one of his own body guards shot him dead. The body guard was arrested and eventually hanged, but his grave has become a religious shrine and several ministers (including some in the current Imran Khan government as well as the opposition PMLN) have visited the grave to pay respects to this “hero”.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the Lahore High court upheld her death sentence in spite of multiple lacunae in the prosecution case (case was registered several days later, her accusers had a property dispute with her, witnesses gave contradictory testimony about what happened, etc etc), passing the buck to the supreme court. Meanwhile a section of Barelvi mullahs had latched on to her case as their special cause, making it risky for courts and governments to take her side, so the case languished for year. In the meantime, the army decided these mullahs could be useful in their campaign to take down Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and when these mullahs created a new Islamist party (Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasoolillah, TLYR, “movement (of) We are here o prophet of God”), they appear to have done so with “deep state” support. When a few thousand people from this party blockaded the national capital on a trumped up “issue” related to the finality of prophethood in 2017, the army refused to help Nawaz Sharif’s govt crack down on them and Imran Khan’s party supported them, forcing the interior minister to resign. The party took part in elections in 2018, winning thousands of votes across the country, tilting the balance against Nawaz Sharif in a few critical seats (likely their main purpose as far as the army was concerned) and winning a couple of provincial assembly seats in Sindh.
But while her supporters within Pakistan were powerless to help her, Aasia bibi’s case became famous internationally and the government of Pakistan faced increasing pressure from foreign donors, especially from EU countries. Perhaps because Pakistan is facing one of its periodic financial crises these days and is critically dependent on the goodwill of these donors, her case was finally taken up by the supreme court and a judgement in her favor was announced on October 31st. Non-cynics will no doubt feel that I am being too cynical in ascribing this judgement to anything outside the normal judicial process, so I should add that this is just my personal guesswork, not based on any inside information.
The state knew in advance that a judgement was about to be announced and that it may go in her favor. They also knew that Barelvi groups (led by the TLYR) had made her their pet cause and would undoubtedly protest if she were to be released. Surprisingly (more surprising to those who think Imran Khan’s government is minimally competent) the government appears to have made little or no preparations for this event other than issuing the usual warning letters to local police chiefs to stay vigilant. The Raj era modus operandi in such cases would be to arrest likely ringleaders, secretly buy off others, have a heavy police presence on hand and nip any free lance protests in the bud, while unleashing a propaganda war against them. Arrangements would be in hand for releasing her the moment the judgement is announced and flying her out of the country before the mullahs even realize what has happened. Once she is out of the country the mullahs can vent their rage on the roads, but there are no obvious manageable demands over which they can negotiate with the government. After a few days of protests, arrests, behind-the-scenes shenanigans and payoff and some property damage, the matter will die down. This is not rocket science, it is a tried and tested method of running a country where the ruling elite occasionally has to take unpopular steps. The administrative apparatus of the Raj has decayed considerably over time, but it is still the (rusty) steel frame of civilian rule in Pakistan and this particular job is one they are trained to do and are still capable of carrying off. Unfortunately, the current crop of goofs is new to power and is even less competent than the Zardari or PMLN governments and they appear to have flubbed it.
Beyond the obvious incompetence and disarray of the Imran Khan government lie two other systemic and serious problems with the current state setup in Pakistan; diarchy and the Islamist conundrum. Formally, Pakistan is a constitutional Republic with an elected government and the army is an arm of this government. In actual practice the army is a separate center of power that dominates the civilian regime and acts independently of it. When it feels that the civilians are not cooperating in some domain that they consider critical (or when they feel the civilians are trying to bring the army under civilian control), they are apt to undermine the civilian regime using multiple well developed levers. Intelligence agencies of the army have a presence down to township level and openly interfere in politics and governance. Media houses are pressurized in a thousand different ways to hew to the army’s line and are chock full of anchors and journalists who are mouthpieces for the army. The army runs its own media operation (larger than most “civilian” media groups) and social media is similarly policed and used. It is widely believed that the army helped Imran Khan win the last elections and that this (as opposed to Nawaz Sharif’s government) is a government that is completely subservient to the army. In this setting there is invariably administrative anarchy and lack of responsibility. The de jure government is one thing, the de facto bosses are another. Everyone is looking for signals and hints and reading tea leaves and there is no unity of command. Add to this the fact that the army’s vast PR apparatus has spent decades badmouthing politicians and civilian rulers and undermining their authority and it is a wonder that some sort of civilian administration is still standing. This would be manageable if the tottering remains of the Raj had been replaced by some more efficient (even if undemocratic and illiberal) military regime, but this is not the case. While the army’s ability to use force and manipulate the media and civilian politicians is legendary, its ability to actually administer the country is seriously lacking. Pakistan has had direct military rule for decades and every time they have been forced to restore some semblance of democracy because they simply could not do the job. Unfortunately, they do have the PR ability to obfuscate this fact, but not the actual ability to rule the country. It is the worst of both worlds.
The other problem (the “Islamist conundrum”) consists of the contradictions between trying to be a modern state in a Western (or now Western and Chinese) led world system and an Islamist ideal that recognizes no nation states and no subordinate role for Muslims. There is no space or time to write more about this today, but you can find some Pakistan specific background here. Suffice it so say that this conundrum adds another layer of difficulty to an already difficult problem.
So with this background in view, here is where we are: the supreme court has acquitted Aasia bibi of the charge of blasphemy and as far as the law is concerned, she is free to go. Given that many thousand (perhaps millions) of Pakistanis want to kill her if they can lay their hands on her, the best course for her is to escape to a Western country that will give her asylum. Several countries have already made that offer. But meanwhile, the mullahs (led by the TLYR, until recently a darling of the deep state) are on the streets protesting, blocking roads, burning buses and so on. On the first day after this started, Imran Khan made a (probably completely sincere) speech to the nation in which he insisted that the rule of law would be upheld and violent protests will not be tolerated. True to form, Pakistan’s small but prominent and relatively prosperous liberal elite swooned and went into one of their periodic outbreaks of “hope and change” excitement, imagining that the awesome might of the state would now fall upon the mullahs and Pakistan would change direction, yadda yadda yadda. But within 24 hours the mood has started to sour, as Allah has apparently decided to accelerate the Pakistani liberal’s “elation and depression cycle”; the protesters are out in force, the government seems to be in disarray, the country has been locked down and the Prime minister has flown off to Beijing to beg for money. As a result, some are swinging to the opposite extreme and now talking about an imminent civil war and the demise of all liberal hopes. As usual, I believe Bihari Baba was right and the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
The Pakistani state is not dead and I don’t think they are about to die. Many of the protesters are true believers ready to kill or even die, but their leaders are very low level Barelvi clerics and low level Barelvi clerics are famous as the most easily purchasable commodity in Pakistan. Meanwhile the state still has awesome power at its command. I don’t think this rabble can bring down the government or start a civil war. The criminal incompetence of the regime has allowed this to snowball and the fact that they do not appear to have flown Aasia out yet creates the perfect cause for the protesters to target (i.e. there is a possibility of physically holding her in Pakistan, so that is their first demand; if she were already out, or even if she is taken out now, then the main target is already out of their reach. They can vent their frustration and burn some property, but then there is no obvious single concession that they can demand). But this does not mean civil war. As far as I can tell (and this is of course a distant observer’s guess, make of it what you will) the following scenarios are possible:
- Aasia is flown out. Protesters make a fuss. Some leaders are secretly bought out and others are harshly dealt with. The whole thing peters out in a few days. Those leaders who secretly cooperated are allowed to go back to bashing Ahmedis and whatever politicians needs to be kept in line. Nothing fundamental changes. This may not look likely, but it is very much possible. Even now. Not exactly a happy outcome, but life will go on.
- Government wilts under pressure. Army is not willing to risk (or has no desire for) confrontation with former and current “assets”, so a dishonorable deal is made. Using some completely illegal maneuver, Aasia is again taken into custody (perhaps “for her own safety”) or put on the exit control list. A review petition is filed. It has no standing, but a pliant chief justice can keep it pending. Donors are not happy, so eventually there may be another attempt to get her out. European donors may even be cajoled into applauding the government’s “sincere desire” and Anatol Lieven or Kugelman or some such can write an op-ed about how hard things are for the Pakistani government and how much they deserve to be paid more or else the mullahs will take over. Life goes on.
- Government completely helpless. Mullahs (more likely, their sympathizers in the security forces) allow someone to kill Aasia bibi. Sad news. Much hand wringing. Some of the protesters are seen hugging each other and weeping uncontrollably. Some genius writes an op-ed about the psychological pain of being involved in such protests. Life goes on, but the sky looks distinctly darker. (at least to liberals)
- This one is a doozy. It is not likely, but it is not out of the question. Aasia is allowed out. Free lance true believers kill one or more judges, generals or ministers (even Imran Khan is not safe). Martial law is declared. Some mullahs are arrested and there are rumors that some may even be shot. Liberals split on supporting army rule. Much hand wringing. Major economic crisis. People start to think of entirely new arrangements. Shit happens.
Which one will it be? I think #1 is still the most likely, but perhaps I am out of touch. What do YOU think?
For background on the blasphemy issue and why it will not go away, see here.
PS: There is a “liberal dream scenario” out there wherein this is a “turning point” and now the army and Imran Khan have realized what a mistake it was to support these mullahs and there will be a major and thorough crackdown on all bigoted mullahs and Pakistan will become Jinnah’s Pakistan (never mind that Jinnah himself went to Lahore to defend a famous blasphemy murderer who had killed a Hindu publisher to defend the honor of the prophet). This is not going to happen. The narrative of the deep state (and one they sincerely believe in at one level) is pan-Islamist and more to the point, their hard work of 50 years has gone into setting up and supporting the Islamist infrastructure in Pakistan. They cannot easily let it go. And even if they wanted to, the cause has wide public support. Westernized liberals and Marxists are a small minority. It is senseless to expect their will to prevail.
PPS: Yes, the investigating officer’s version of her “blasphemy” was in this article earlier, but someone pointed out that they could not share it in Pakistan because reproducing the remarks would be blasphemy, so I have removed it, the actual words are at this link)
None of this is in the media. Total blackout. pic.twitter.com/92fdI1OImo
— Gul Bukhari (@GulBukhari) November 2, 2018
The funeral of Salman Taseer’s murderer (and bodyguard) Mumtaz Qadri