Pakistan was rattled by a third day of unrest on Friday as hard-line Islamic protesters burned tires in city streets and chanted incendiary slogans opposing the recent acquittal of a Christian woman who spent almost a decade on death row for a blasphemy conviction. After years spent waiting in solitary confinement, it appeared that freedom was finally on the horizon as Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned her conviction despite widespread fears that it would lead to unrest. The fallout was almost immediate; right-wing Islamic political parties quickly mounted calls for an execution despite her name being cleared. Roads were blocked, cellular service interrupted and schools were shut down across the country.
At least, Prime Minister Imran Khan was admirably forthright in condemning those who believe violence is an appropriate response to a judicial verdict with which they disagree. He also warned the extremist protesters from igniting clashes. Such sentiments were long overdue. It seemed the state, which has shown only cowardice to such tactics, was going to take a much needed action. However, in the end all went in vain.
Government succumbed to the pressure, and signed an agreement which brings us back to point zero. The government will put the name of Aasia Bibi — who has been acquitted by the Supreme Court of blasphemy charge — on the Exit Control List (ECL) and the decision in her favour would be reviewed. Meanwhile, Bibi’s attorney has fled the country amid death threats. The only way for Asia Bibi to survive was if she left the country, now there is a possibility of the worst to take place.
Bibi’s case has been polarizing since the start. In 2011, several prominent political figures who voiced support for her were assassinated, including Christian politician Shahbaz Bhatti and former governor Salman Taseer. Moreover, the controversy surrounding Bibi’s case poses an ironic challenge for the new Khan government, who rose to power through the same kind of public protests that paralyzed the country albeit with less religious rhetoric. The writ of the state has seemed particularly weak to many Christians, who only enjoyed an ephemeral victory before safety concerns settled in. Some members of the Christian community were circulating emergency notices warning that Christian churches and gatherings would become likely targets.
The government had a chance to give a message that Pakistan is a tolerant and peace-loving state, however, the agreement shuns all hope. Such elements have been coddled for too long. We should no longer tolerate it. How many more Aasia Bibis, Salmaan Taseers and Shahbaz Bhattis do we want before we realise we have been silent too long?