The most intractable conversation I had with Kashmiri and Pakistani-origin constituents, during my nine years as MP for Wycombe, wasn’t about the Iraq war, Israel’s two military campaigns against Gaza, its incursion into Lebanon against Hezbollah, or the Afghanistan war. Discussion about all these was often difficult, but it was always straightforward – debate about what Britain’s foreign and security policy ought to be.
No, it was about the so-called Danish cartoons – the twelve illustrations published in Jyllands-Posten, a newspaper in Denmark, which depicted Mohammed. I met with a delegation of these constituents for a discussion about them – though, on second thoughts, I withdraw the word “discussion”, which implies a common basis for talking about a subject, however swiftly or strongly disagreements about it then emerge.
There was no such shared ground. Instead, the group and I talked past each other for the best part of half-an-hour. Their starting-point, though seldom directly stated, was that cartoons of Mohammed should not be published. It wasn’t clear whether they believed that the state should ban any such illustrations, or whether artists should simply self-censor: this seemed to shift back and forth. But what quickly became evident was that two conflicting worldviews were present in the room that spoke different languages. They were like the lines in Marvell’s poem that “though infinite can never meet”.
One was mine: that free speech about religion is integral to liberal democracy. The other was theirs: that blasphemy must be barred. One was modern, the other pre-modern (though it is worth bearing in mind that common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel weren’t abolished until as recently as 2008, though they had recently been honoured in the breach rather than the observance).
This may be a useful background against which to consider the Asia Bibi case. She is a Christian who faced the death sentence under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Originally framed to prohibit blasphemy against any recognised religion, they have increasingly targeted non-Muslims. Since 1990, those who make remarks considered derogatory of Mohammed can be punished by death. A Muslim judge must preside at the trial. Bibi was arrested after an altercation with fellow villagers in the Punjab. It is claimed that her family had previously been involved in a dispute about property with another family in the village. They are reportedly the only Christians in the village.
Bibi was tried and convicted. The High Court then upheld the sentence on appeal. Last month, the Supreme Court quashed it – citing “material contradictions and inconsistent statements of the witnesses”. Whatever may or may not have been said, the manipulation of the blasphemy laws as a means of paying back grudges happens in Pakistan. It may be worth noting that the woman whose quarrel with Bibi led to the arrest – she said that the latter should not have drunk from a cup used by Muslims – is reported to have been a member of the family involved in the property row.
Found not guilty by the court, Bibi is apparently now in hiding. In short, Imran Khan’s government has done a deal with the Islamist Tehreek-e-Labbaik political party, which bars her from leaving the country. She must wait until “the Supreme Court makes a final review of its verdict”. Such proceedings can take years.
Some of Bibi’s supporters here claim that the Government is too frightened of a hostile reaction from British Muslims to offer Bibi asylum. The claim is unproven – and, after all, she is not presently in a position to travel anywhere. Government sources suggest that Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid are not closed to an asylum offer. Like William Hague last week, they indicate that more may be going on than meets the eye. However, it would not be surprising were Ministers to be lobbying for Bibi to be freed from Pakistan to find refuge elsewhere in the West, in concert with other governments. (By the way: there’s not been a peep on her case from Labour.)
At any rate, hers is a test case for freedom. It should not be assumed that opinion in Pakistan is universally supportive of the original verdict. The country has a liberal middle class. But theirs is a minority view. Pakistan has travelled a very long way from the vision expressed by Jinnah, the founder of the state: “Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic State to be ruled by priests with a divine mission”. Horrifying videos show crowds chanting for Bibi’s death.
Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of the Punjab, who spoke up for Bibi and against the laws, was assassinated by a member of his own bodyguard. The only Christian member of the country’s Cabinet, Shahbaz Bhatti, who took the same position, was shot dead by gunmen in a car ambush. Returning to Britain, we understand why Ministers are reluctant to spell out their plans in public. But we believe that they should be making an asylum offer for Bibi private. We hope that she comes to Britain.
Finally, hers is not only a test case for the Government, but also for Muslim organisations in Britain – or at least those who claim to speak for British Muslims. Some are effectively blackballed by Ministers for reasons connected with extremism. There is debate back and forth about how extremism can be defined. We are very doubtful whether it can or should be be in law.
But one can surely say of extremism, as an American judge once said of pornography, that one knows it when one sees it. Support for murdering someone who expresses a view about religion is extreme, by any reasonable standard. If groups shunned by Ministers want to to meet with them, they can start by condemning Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, loud and clear. And add that Bibi would be welcome here.