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Not In My Name: Islam, Pakistan and the Blasphemy Laws

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You could not make it up. An 11-year old Christian girl in Pakistan with Down's Syndrome is in police custody, and could face the death penalty, for allegedly burning pages from the Quran.

The girl, who has been identified as Rifta Masih, was arrested on blasphemy charges and is being held in Islamabad pending a court appearance later this month. She was detained by police after an angry mob turned up at her family's single-roomed home in a poor district on the outskirts of the Pakistani capital.

"About 500-600 people had gathered outside her house in Islamabad, and they were very emotional, angry, and they might have harmed her if we had not quickly reacted," Pakistani police officer Zabi Ullah told reporters.

"Harmed her"? Really? I mean, really? What on Allah's earth is wrong with so many self-professed Muslims in the self-styled Islamic Republic of Pakistan? Have they taken leave of their morals as well as their senses? It beggars belief that they should want to hurt or attack a child in the name of a religion based on mercy, compassion and justice.

Some defenders of Pakistan's notorious blasphemy laws - under which anyone found guilty of insulting the Quran or Prophet Muhammad can be sentenced to death - have been keen to highlight the growing number of press reports that suggest Masih may be 16, rather than 11, and may not have Down's Syndrome.

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To which the only appropriate response is: so what?

Whether she is 11 or 16, mentally able or mentally retarded is, frankly, irrelevant. For a start, a child is a child and should be treated as such. Pakistani authorities have legal as well as moral obligations. Second, even if this girl did set fire to pages from the Quran - and there is, incidentally, not a single eyewitness to this alleged 'crime' - to sentence her to death for doing so would be, to put it mildly, a grossly disproportionate 'penalty'.

Personally, I've never quite understood why so many of my co-religionists are so keen to kill or maim those who 'insult' Islam, Prophet Muhammad or the Quran. What is behind such rage and, dare I add, insecurity? Is their God so weak, so sensitive, so precious, that He cannot withstand any rejection?

Mine, for the record, isn't. As the Pakistani writer and singer Fifi Haroon noted on Twitter: "You think God needs little old you to protect him from an 11-year-old girl with Down's Syndrome? Think again."

It is worth pointing out that there is a misguided assumption among some Muslims that Pakistani-style blasphemy laws are divinely-mandated. They aren't. They were instituted by Pakistani dictator General Zia ul Haq in the 1980s, says leading Pakistani human-rights lawyer Asma Jahangir, "as a pretext for waging war in Afghanistan and adopting an aggressive stance towards India. By advancing a more orthodox version of Islam, he was able to hold on to a repressive regime and quell any opposition".

Here is the reality: the books of Islamic tradition are replete with stories of how Prophet Muhammad was verbally and physically abused by his idol-worshipping enemies in Mecca. They threw animal intestines and excrement on him; on one famous occasion, a group of homeless children threw stones and rocks at him. Yet he did not have them killed, tortured or detained. The founder of the Islamic faith, it seems, had a much thicker skin than many of its 21st Century adherents.

So far, in Pakistan, no one has yet been executed for blasphemy but, as the Guardian's Jon Boone observes, "long prison terms are common - one Christian couple was sentenced to 25 years in 2010 after being accused of touching the Qur'an with unwashed hands".

Christians have long been a target of Pakistan's ultra-conservative Islamic religious parties and movements. The blasphemy laws, in particular, are used again to criminalise Pakistani Christians on the flimsiest of pretexts; Rifta Masih, perhaps, is just the latest victim.

Of course, some of my co-religionists will soon claim that this latest story is all a Western media conspiracy - against Islam, against Muslims, against poor Pakistan. If only. Listen to Jahangir, who says those accused of blasphemy are "almost always helpless in the face of intimidation and a frightened or biased judiciary... Pakistan's future remains uncertain and its will to fight against rising religious intolerance is waning."

Listen to Zora Yusuf, head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, who says the law "has been exploited by individuals to settle personal scores, to grab land, to violate the rights of non-Muslims, to basically harass them."

Masih's arrest even provoked Imran Khan, the country's most high-profile politician, to tweet:

"Shameful! Sending an 11yr old girl to prison is against the very spirit of Islam which is all about being Just and Compassionate."

He added:

"Poor child is already suffering from Down's Syndrome. State should care for its children not torment them. We demand her immed release."

Khan is to be commended for his public condemnation of Masih's arrest. It is a bold (dangerous?) move in a land where politicians - such as the Punjab governor Salman Taseer - have been shot dead for speaking out against the barbaric blasphemy laws.

I, for one, am fed up with politicians, mullahs and mobs using my religion to further their own vicious and sectarian agendas. So here's my own very simple message to the bigots, fanatics and reactionaries of the Islamic world: whatever intellectual or theological disagreements we may have with them, the fact is that Christians (and, for that matter, Jews) are our brethren; the Quran respectfully refers to them as the "People of the Book". Nor should we extend our tolerance, compassion and solidarity only to members of Abrahamic faiths while demonising and discriminating against everyone else. Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists - all of them are also our brethren. Don't believe me? Listen to the verdict of Imam Ali ibn Abu Talib, the great Muslim caliph and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad: "Remember that people are of two kinds; they are either your brothers in religion or your brothers in mankind."

The imprisonment of this Christian child isn't only about Pakistan or Pakistanis. Those of us who claim to be members of a global Muslim ummah cannot be silent when such flagrant human-rights abuses are committed in the name of Islam and in the world's second-biggest Muslim-majority nation. Denial is not an option, nor is turning a blind eye. We have to speak out against hate, intolerance and the bullying of non-Muslim minorities - otherwise we risk becoming complicit in such crimes. "Not in my name" has to be more than just an anti-war slogan.

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