Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy movement is showing once again that real power lies in the streets

Asia Bibi’s life is still in danger. Despite being acquitted on Oct. 31 by Pakistan’s Supreme Court, which lifted her death sentence on blasphemy charges, the Christian farmworker is unable to leave the country. After the verdict, violent mobs unleashed anger, threats and destruction. They laid siege to major cities. They blocked motorways. They torched cars, buses and buildings. They even threatened the lives of the prime minister, the chief justice and the army chief. And yet, instead of making clear that this violence won’t have a bearing on the Bibi case, the authorities bowed to the pressure.

On Wednesday night, there were reports that she might have finally left the country. Senior European Union officials and her lawyer, who has had to seek temporary asylum in the Netherlands, said she was on a flight out of Pakistan. Later the government announced that she had been moved from a jail where it couldn’t guarantee her safety to a secure location in Islamabad. And the commotion excited by her possible departure has only made the religious hard-liners more determined, as they prepare to mount large demonstrations after Friday prayers this week.

For Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the leader of Tehreek-e-Labbaik (the Movement of Devotion to the Prophet), nothing short of her execution will do. The crisis has revealed, once again, a deepening fault line that runs through the country: For religious hard-liners, the law only matters as long as it conforms to their brand of Islam. When the two diverge, hard-liners such as Rizvi can bring pressure to bear by casting themselves as Islam’s true representatives.

There is nothing that stirs more outrage in Pakistan than the charge of blasphemy. A mere accusation is enough to endanger someone’s life; in Bibi’s case, for example, there is no evidence that she ever made the statement of which she is accused. Judges are terrified of acquitting anyone, lest they become the next target. Defense lawyers have been killed in court. Witnesses and families have to go into hiding. The authorities, instead of standing firm in defending human rights, meekly give ground to those using violence to suppress those rights.

You don’t need the highest number of votes; you just need the highest number of violent supporters. It’s the consequence of a ruinous history of indulging or backing armed groups for cynical, short-term gains. And it backfires every time.

Omar Waraich

For Rizvi and his supporters, there is no higher calling than to avenge an alleged insult to the prophet Muhammad. In a country where all but three percent of the population is Muslim, he has managed to promote a narrative that insists Islam is perpetually imperiled. He calls on his followers to take matters into their own hands (which can include claiming the lives of others). To maintain this violent hysteria, his supporters always insist an offense was committed and that punishment must follow. They are never relieved to learn that the allegation was false, that the evidence doesn’t exist, and that the accused is innocent.

The passivity of the Pakistani authorities stands in stark contrast with its reaction to the rise of the nonviolent Pashtun Protection Movement, which has been demanding an end to extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances. The authorities have casually spurned the group’s demands, suppressed media coverage of its efforts, banned its peaceful demonstrations and detained its leaders. But when it came to Rizvi and his followers’ use of violence, they can seemingly get a free pass.

The real threat to the country’s security was considered to be the austere and literalist-minded Taliban, who had seized vast swaths of territory, mounted devastating bombings in major cities and killed thousands of Pakistani troops. Little did anyone suspect that Rizvi’s branch of the Barelvi tradition, to which the majority of Pakistanis belong and which has long been regarded as a quiet and mystical branch of the faith, would also turn on the state, and in a more insidious manner. Rizvi’s followers are not limited to the hills of the tribal areas but have the potential to sway people in the country’s heartlands.

For Prime Minister Imran Khan, the crisis represents a major challenge. Each time he has raised hopes with bold commitments, they have been swiftly reversed — whether it was the pledge to give Bengali and Afghan refugees citizenship, to appoint a member of the Ahmadi sect to his economic advisory council, or to uphold the Supreme Court verdict and confront Rizvi’s mobs when they threatened violence.

Last year, Khan and his party were happy to support Rizvi’s violent rhetoric and practices, accusing the previous government of being part of an “international conspiracy” to weaken Islam, and successfully securing the resignation of the then-law minister. In the last election, Rizvi formed a party that gathered more than 2 million votes in a suspiciously well-funded campaign.

But it isn’t elected office that Rizvi covets. He has realized that true power can be commanded on the streets. You don’t need the highest number of votes; you just need the highest number of violent supporters. It’s the consequence of a ruinous history of indulging or backing armed groups for cynical, short-term gains. And it backfires every time.

It is not clear what will happen to Bibi. It is forbidding to think of the ordeal that awaits her if she indeed has not left the country, having already endured eight years on death row for a crime she didn’t commit and that shouldn’t exist in the first place. What is clear, however, is that the government — far from protecting the weak and marginalized who need it the most and challenging the powerful forces of bigotry who can defy it — has abandoned its own commitments to human rights.

Omar Waraich is deputy South Asia director at Amnesty International.