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Base passions driven by prejudice

September 05, 2012

BACK in 1955, a 14-year-old African American by the name of Emmett Till was tortured in the most atrocious manner imaginable by a pair of white men in Mississippi before being killed and dumped in a river. His alleged crime was to have flirted with the wife of one of his tormentors while buying candy at a local store.

Racial segregation in Mississippi and other southern states at the time was barely distinguishable from apartheid in South Africa. Emmett was an outsider — a Chicagoan who happened to be spending the summer with his uncle.

His distraught mother held out against a quick burial and insisted that her son’s disfigured body be transported to Chicago. She was equally adamant that mourners at Emmett’s funeral should be able to take a look at what was left of him.

Lynchings were not uncommon in the United States in those days; a few years earlier, Paul Robeson had led a delegation to the White House to press for federal action, and was infuriated when president Harry Truman told him that he had other priorities.

However, this particular crime, partly because of the publicity it received, had a galvanising effect on the incipient civil rights movement — not least because, despite considerable evidence against them, Emmett’s killers were acquitted by a Mississippi court.

I was reminded of the Emmett Till episode last week while reading quotations attributed to Rao Abdur Raheem, a lawyer for the man who has accused a Pakistani Christian girl believed to be in her early teens (if not younger), of blasphemy. “If the court is not allowed to do its work, because the state is helping the accused, then the public has no other option but to take the law into their own hands,” he told The Guardian.

“The girl is guilty,” he went on to say. “If the state overrides the court, then God will get a person to do the job.” The newspaper notes that Raheem’s office is decorated with a large poster of Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer.

Earlier, following a court hearing where he had challenged a medical report that determined the girl to be 14 years old with diminished intellectual capacity, the same lawyer had declared: “There are many Mumtaz Qadris in this country.”

To the profound shame — one hopes — of most Pakistanis, the latter assertion rings true. (It is also hard to forget how hordes of lawyers, presumably educated, were falling over each other to defend that fanatical misanthrope and showering him with flower petals.)

When blasphemy charges fail to stand up in court, as is invariably the case, those who have been acquitted frequently find themselves facing a lynch mob. To that extent, the accusation itself can effectively be a death sentence.

The law on which such charges are based dates back to the 19th century, but became an issue only after a draconian revision during Ziaul Haq’s dictatorial misrule. Following decades of sporadic abuse, often with malice aforethought, there can hardly be any good argument for maintaining these provisions.

They are unlikely to be rescinded, though, given that even a tweak intended to reduce the likelihood of misuse had to be abandoned in the face of intimidation.

Nor is it probable that those always on the lookout for real or imagined slights to their faith will be put off for long by this week’s developments in the blasphemy case, with a local imam, Khalid Jadoon, remanded in custody after his subordinates accused him of adding pages from the Quran to the bag the child was purportedly carrying — which is said to have contained semi-scorched pages from a school primer.

None of the reports I have come across have suggested that the provenance of the bag or its contents has incontrovertibly been established, which strengthens suspicions of a set-up.

After all, Hammad Malik, who is said to have initially accosted the child, was described in another Guardian report as someone “who is deemed a ‘scoundrel’ by the Christian community”. Jadoon, meanwhile, has been accused by a colleague, Hafiz Zubair, and now others, of seeking to bolster the case against the young girl by tampering with the evidence.

The broad aim behind the girl’s victimisation was to provoke a Christian exodus from the locality on the outskirts of Islamabad. It worked, and families that have since returned to their homes inevitably live in fear. The murderous Gojra rampage of 2009 is a relatively fresh memory.

Everyone associated with this cruel hoax deserves appropriate punishment. Jadoon’s arrest is encouraging whereas the girl’s confinement is a travesty that one can only hope will be concluded this week, with a bail hearing scheduled for Friday. Her lawyer is aiming for a quick acquittal, which seems even more logical than before in the light of the latest revelations.

There is another difference too: whenever Jadoon emerges from custody, he will be at little risk from vigilantes of the variety cited by Rao Abdur Raheem. The girl accused of blasphemy, on the other hand, will definitely need protection, despite the frivolousness of the charges against her, and the state should feel obliged to provide it for as long as necessary.

Even if a grievous miscarriage of justice can be avoided in this instance, however, prospects for positive side effects in terms of the blasphemy provisions or the status of minorities remain dim. It is nonetheless mildly encouraging that the All- Pakistan Ulema Council has found cause to be disconcerted by the episode.

What are the chances, though, of them voicing distress or advocating common sense each time Shias are massacred, Ahmadis are attacked or Hindus feel obliged to seek refuge in India?