Our government has refused to give asylum to Asia Bibi. This is an inhumane decision for which Theresa May is responsible, yet it’s British Muslim communities that are being blamed. Once again, a lie is being promoted that there will be unrest by British Muslims if she was given asylum giving political opportunists and Islamophobes alike cause to come out against British Muslims, promoting division and negative stereotypes.
We British Muslims know only too well what it is like to be a minority. 1,678 anti-Muslim hate crimes were reported this year in London alone, and the far right are increasingly mobilising mobs fuelled by hate against Muslims. The current brutal persecution of the Rohingya Muslims and incarceration of a million Muslims in Chinese concentration camps are another reminder, if any were needed, of the vulnerabilities of minorities.
Our insistence on minorities in Muslim majority countries being accorded the same rights and freedoms that we wish to safeguard for ourselves here is therefore based on deep empathy as well as principle. Anything less is unacceptable hypocrisy.
I am a human rights activist who happens to be a Muslim. And whilst I would not claim to speak for every single British Muslim on this case or others, I feel I have a good grasp of the general feelings within the communities, the views of key Imams and young people.
Most British Muslims agree with the judgement of Pakistan’s Supreme Court which was unequivocal in its defence of the rights of minorities in Pakistan, quoting the Quran: “There is no compulsion in religion” Chapter 2:256
The judgement is worthy of being understood more widely. A striking feature is the way it draws upon Islamic sources for its stance. Some political opposition forces are trying to claim the verdict is a gesture of appeasement to anti-Islam forces within Pakistan, or a caving in to external Western government pressure. If anything, it is a robust defence of faith – in the name of Islamic values. It is a refusal to appease a minority who are willfully misrepresenting facts to whip up religious fervour in a spurious ‘defence of the Prophet.’ Their actions stand in stark contrast to the actual message of the Prophet (peace be upon him), which the judgement quotes:
“Beware! Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority; or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I (Prophet Muhammad) will complain against the person on the Day of Judgement.”
The tragic chain of events was sparked by a row Asia Bibi had with a group of women she was harvesting fruit with. Some co-workers refused to drink from a container of water fetched by Bibi, claiming it was ‘unclean’ because of her Christian faith. The fact they were clearly uneducated about Islam, as there is no such edict in the faith, is no excuse for their bullying. Asia admitted to retaliating with “hard words” which in her words caused them “disgrace and dishonour”. To exact revenge, the women accused her of confessing to blasphemy.
I think it is important that the judgement pointed out that the accusers, in their treatment of her, had unacceptably disparaged Asia’s Christian faith in the first place. One judge quoted Shakespeare, referring to Asia as “a person, in the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear, ‘more sinned against than sinning’.” Indeed the judgment states, that even if what her accusers had claimed was true:
“Insulting the appellant’s religion by her Muslim co-workers was no less blasphemous…that is why it was ordained in the Holy Quran that: And do not insult those they invoke other than Allah, lest they insult Allah in enmity without knowledge. Thus, we have made pleasing to every community their deeds. Then to their Lord is their return, and He will inform them about what they used to do. (Chapter Al-An’am: verse 108)”
The whole case is a frightening example of mean personal pettiness and prejudice snowballing into ugly persecution and violence on a large scale. It would be easy to assume that such a situation is somehow unique to Muslims given the coverage. Yet, the idea of heresy is not one confined to Islam or even religion as a whole. Notions of secular political heresy and betrayal have been employed by extremists on the Right and the Left to justify doing terrible things to other human beings to maintain grip on power or personal gain.
Indeed, the case reminds me of the witch-hunt in Arthur Miller’s play ‘The Crucible’ where innocent women are accused of witchcraft and Satanism. Initially by a petulant and manipulative teenager, whose words instead of being challenged, end up being used to torture and kill innocents by a powerful Church and state. Many view the play itself a reflection of the political witch-hunt taking place at the time it was written - that of McCarthyism’ in the US, when the ‘Red Menace’ of communism was being hyped. Given the propensity of scapegoating by human beings, the need to be vigilant against intolerance of difference, and not complacent, is an ongoing one.
There are hijackers of religious sentiments in Pakistan. However, to make the assumption that British Muslim communities support them in large numbers is both false and wrong. Ideally Pakistan should be able to guarantee the safety of all its citizens, and Asia Bibi and her family should not feel the need to leave Pakistan. Her family and other Christians have lived in the village for generations. However, in the current volatile situation, it is understandable that Asia Bibi and her family have requested asylum abroad, including approaching the UK government. To deny this request on grounds of threats of ‘unrest’ by Muslims in the UK, as has been reported in some quarters, is not only capitulation of the worst kind but promoting an Islamophobic caricature of British Muslims being a reactionary monolithic bloc. We did not let the Taliban dictate to us when we gave asylum to Malala Yousafzai, so why are we capitulating now?