Sentenced to death for being a Christian

Last week, Asia Bibi released her book “Blasphemy: A memoir”. For those of you who have not read Asia’s account of her treatment as a Pakistani Christian in the press, it makes for a damning indictment of a country that already has problems curbing its Islamist image.

In July 2009, mother-of-five Asia, 46, went to the fields to pick strawberries in the Pakistani summer heat for 250 rupees (under $2.50 USD). When she went to get a cup of water from the nearby well, one of the locals screamed at the others not to drink the “haram” (forbidden in Islam) water after it had been drunk from by a Christian. It didn’t take long for the rest of the women picking berries to go on the attack. When her religion was insulted and she was threatened if she did not convert to Islam, Asia was unrepentant. She told them in no uncertain terms “I’m not going to convert. I believe in my religion and in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for the sins of mankind”. Jesus is not considered the son of god in Islamic mythology and is not believed to have died on the cross. Asia’s statement of her position alone was taken as an insult to Islam and sent her tormenters into a torrent of hatred and abuse.

Five days later, Asia was attacked by the same mob again. She was taken to the village holy man. Unfortunately for Asia, this man preached an ultraconservative brand of Islam and had a hold on the local population. Asia was beaten, sworn at, spat on and told she must renounce her Christian faith and convert to Islam. After an ordeal that lasted hours, the police came and made arrests. Not of Asia’s would be lynchers of course, but of Asia herself: on the charge of blasphemy. Asia was being charged on the grounds that her words, including a proclamation of her Christianity, were blasphemy. If Asia were to be found guilty, she would face the death penalty. For four years now, she has languished in jail facing the gallows under 295c of Pakistan’s penal code. Even if released without charge, she is almost certain to end up the victim of vigilante violence like those who have fallen foul of the law before her.

And many have done so. Whilst Asia was arrested and jailed four years ago, the blasphemy law continues to claim victims. In July, Sajjad Masih, another Christian targeted by the law was sentenced to life imprisonment for a supposedly blasphemous mobile phone text message despite the conviction being based on flimsy if not non-existent evidence.

To add to this, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recently released its report detailing Pakistan’s poor history on religious freedoms. In the last year and a half alone, the report documents 203 acts of violence in the name of religion. This led to over 1,800 casualties and 700 deaths in no small part due to the witch hunts of minorities enabled by the blasphemy law.

What happened next in Asia’s case is even more frightening. The governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest, most populous and richest province, openly showed his support for Asia calling for the scrapping of what he called a “black law”. Salmaan Taseer was eventually shot by his own bodyguard Malik Mumtaz Qadri whilst his other bodyguards looked on.

It didn’t end there. Minister of minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian himself, was also gunned down in his car having just visited his mother. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack saying Bhatti was a “known blasphemer” as he had many times proclaimed his Christian faith and stated his belief in Jesus not as a prophet, as in Islam, but as the son of god. Unfortunately, the blasphemy law is so vague and broad that it can be applied to even proclamations of faith antithetical to Islam and perversely, is based on the offence taken by others. In Asia’s case, she was arrested for offending the Muslims around her for voicing a difference of opinion on a matter of theology.

The final horror was the way in which Mumtaz Qadri, Salmaan Taseer’s assassin, was greeted by Pakistanis. After Taseer’s murder, there was a noticeable chilling effect. Asif Ali Zardari, the president at the time, suddenly went quiet. His hints of pardoning Asia stopped. Talk of rescinding 295c were nowhere to be heard. In death, Salmaan Taseer had been abandoned by his own political party. There is no talk of the new Pakistani administration rescinding the law.

On Christmas Day 2010, 200 people, exclusively Christians, marched in support of Asia calling for her release and the scrapping of the blasphemy law. Weeks later, 40,000 Pakistanis marched in support of the law which could see Asia killed. They threatened nationwide strikes and vigilante justice if the law was changed. The government cowered in fear at this show of Islamist force arranged by the political religious parties. Banners included “Mumtaz Qadri is our hero” and “We salute the courage of Qadri”. A sobering fact: as Mumtaz Qadri left court, Pakistani lawyers showered him with rose petals. Meanwhile, Asia Bibi sits in jail waiting for her food to be poisoned, for her to be murdered by would be vigilantes or, horrifyingly, by the state itself. 

At the time of partition, Pakistan’s non-Muslim population (which included modern day Bangladesh) stood at 23%. Today, it is down to as low as 3%. That figure is quite telling. In not challenging Islamism, Pakistanis have all but forced their non-Muslim countrymen to leave the country. Pakistani Christians today still look for a place where they can hope to not be burnt alive in their homes, have their churches attacked by grenades or their children arrested for perceived insults to Islam. This all stands in stark contrast to the way things had begun for this country back in 1948.

The founder of the nation, Muhammad Ali Jinnah said “you are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state”. A secularist appeal for freedom of religion from the father of a nation. A far cry from a Pakistan now where Mumtaz Qadri is garlanded with roses as he leaves court a murderer. It was only this summer that one of the members of the most popular opposition party, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, shocked Pakistan’s national assembly by demanding the pardon and release of Qadri. Support for the assassin remains.

Asia’s story and the aftermath makes for frightening reading and reminds us of one of the consequences of Pakistan’s unchecked drift towards an inward looking tribalism that doesn’t include non-Muslims. Pakistan has over the decades shaped its identity through everything non-Muslim, non-Western and ultimately non-Pakistani. Of course the tragedy here is that Asia Bibi is just that: Pakistani. Her detractors seem to forget that the white of the Pakistani flag represents the country’s minorities.

Asia’s future does not look hopeful. Pakistan’s death penalty was suspended under a 5 year moratorium by the last premier, Asif Ali Zardari. The EU expressed its concern over the government’s having allowed the moratorium to expire. However, faced with a surge in violence from Islamist militants including the Pakistani Taliban, new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has reinstated the death penalty to try and curb the growing threat. Ironically, in a bid to deal with militants, reinstating the death penalty may allow Asia to be hanged by a blasphemy law that only continues to exist to appease Islamists to be found on Pakistan’s television screens politics. In a country of such contrast and contradictions, this doesn’t seem all that out of place. A country where murderers are garlanded with roses and being a Christian is enough to warrant the death penalty.

Asia has said “I am given raw material to cook for myself, since the administration fears I might be poisoned, as other Christians accused of blasphemy were poisoned or killed in the jail”. If Pakistan cannot be pressured into either pardoning Asia or scrapping the blasphemy law, she may not even make it to the gallows. Unfortunately, this is a much more likely possibility than her actually completing her appeal. Which only highlights the urgency of her plight and that of Pakistan’s persecuted minorities.

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“All options are on the table” – Is the West considering action against Asad through NATO?

Given the recent chemical attack on civilians in Syria, there have been renewed calls for intervention against the Asad regime. France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabio said “something must be done”. The UK’s William Hague, “we can’t allow the idea in the 21st century that chemical weapons can be used with impunity”. Finally Barack Obama when asked about Syria in a CNN interview stressed that the “core national interests” of the U.S. are now involved in Syria’s civil war, “both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region.”.

The question is, what happens next? When asked, the US, France and the UK all seem to be reading from the same script: “all options are on the table” which is international relations speak for either “I am bluffing to force you to negotiate a settlement” or “I’m getting ready to do something so don’t be surprised when I do”. The “Options are on the table” line has been used in the past by Obama himself only months ago on Iran. Nothing has happened there. But then given the recent activity of hyperactive diplomacy from secretary of state John Kerry and other foreign ministers, it’s likely the West really is gearing up to do something. Even without a UN mandate.

With Russia almost certain to continue to veto any UN based military intervention, the West seems intent on some kind of military response short of a direct invasion by ground troops. Looking at the countries currently making the biggest noise about the unacceptability of the use of chemical weapons, that’s the US, France, Britain, Turkey and Poland, they all have one thing in common: they are all NATO members. The possibility remains open of a series of military strikes against Asad’s chemical and missile sites through the old anti-Soviet alliance. This makes sense given that Russia will not allow action through the United Nations and secretary of defence Chuck Hagel himself has said “if there is any action taken it will be in concert with the international community and within the framework of a legal justification”. This all suggests action through NATO and is likely going to have broad support amongst NATO members.

As the calls for a humanitarian intervention grow louder, those nations calling for military action will be furiously trying to build a broad consensus both from within and without the military alliance. However, any move will have to be led by the United States. Whilst secretary of state John Kerry continues his current bout of high powered diplomacy to build support for a military strike, he has spoken to 8 foreign ministers since news broke of the chemical attack. Obama will have to wait for congress to come back from recess on September 6th and will likely get congressional approval on any action on Syria.

With movement of US naval assets in the mediterranean getting poised for any potential action, expect a strike on Syria come October.

What’s wrong with Pakistan?

Malala Yousafzai was given the Tipperary International Peace award this week in Ireland. The Pakistani teenager had been writing an anonymous blog for the BBC chronicling the difficulties of being a girl and trying to get an education under the Taliban. When her identity was revealed, the Taliban boarded her school bus and shot her point blank in the head. Miraculously, she survived. You may think winning an international peace prize, being nominated for the Nobel peace prize and giving a speech at the United Nations would be a cause for celebration. It was nearly universally so. Except in Pakistan of course.

When Malala’s story broke world news back in October 2012 after the Taliban’s attempt on her life, she initially received enthusiastic support from Pakistan’s establishment. She even got a visit from President Asif Ali Zardari himself. Imran Khan, cricketing hero of the nation and leader of Pakistan’s most popular opposition party tweeted of her courage. However, things took an awry turn when the schoolgirl was held up as a heroine by those dreaded enemies of your average Pakistani: the West.

It didn’t take long for social media, news sites, religious leaders and even the head of Pakistan’s largest Islamist party to unleash a torrent of conspiracy theories about the young schoolgirl. It was obvious, according to these conspiracy theorists, that Malala was either a CIA agent or the entire shooting was staged by the United States as an excuse to continue drone strikes. Despite the fact that the Taliban themselves claimed the attempt on Malala’s life on several occasions, the conspiracy theorists blundered on. The letter written by the Taliban leader Adnan Rashid was obviously a fabrication by the Americans. Because Malala was making a name for herself abroad, the venom with which she was attacked by everyday Pakistanis was ruthless and unforgiving. It was also both sad and sobering in the way it showed how far the conspiracy theory rot had infected the Pakistani psyche. Because she had been hailed as a hero by the West, Pakistan treated her as an enemy.

The reaction from Pakistanis to Malala is indicative of a larger problem within Pakistan: the conspiracy theory. The problem is that Pakistan is a young country and faces a much larger and better off rival in India. Pakistani leaders over the decades have resorted to the most base of human instincts to galvanise the population and to shore up their own power through those great refuges of the scoundrel: patriotism and religion. The result has been a Pakistan that has slowly abandoned the secular, pluralist vision of its founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Since then, the country has drifted further and further towards Islamism with the result being a Pakistani identity shaped by its opposition to all things non-Muslim, non-Western and most of all: non-Pakistani. Combined with poor literacy rates, a tightly controlled media and a disillusionment with Pakistan’s faltering position in its rivalry with her large neighbour to the East, Pakistanis don’t understand how the world around them works. A retreat into jingoistic Pakistani nationalism or Islamism becomes comforting and appealing.

However, it is this retreat that is further undermining Pakistan’s ability to recover from its malaise. Pakistanis not only continue to ignore the threat of Islamism, but support it wholeheartedly as the only legitimate protest against US drone strikes and a perceived encroachment of Western values and freedoms. Meanwhile, these very Islamists commit daily acts of terrorism not only at home, but abroad. Never mind that that domestic terrorism has killed close to 50,000 Pakistanis since 2001. Pakistani US drone strike kill estimates don’t even approach a tenth of that. Bomb blasts by Islamist militants that kill Pakistanis erode confidence in the country’s ability to protect the fruits of any foreign investors looking to put their money into Pakistan. Why invest in a country where your customers or your investment might get blown up?

Attacks by Pakistani Islamist militants abroad strain relations with potential trade partners. India should be Pakistan’s largest trade partner but total trade with her larger neighbour sits at a poorly 2.9% of Pakistan’s total trade due to years of bad relations. This is partly caused by Pakistan’s support of Islamist militants in India. This includes Lashkar-e-Taiba who carried out the 2008 Islamist attacks in Mumbai, thus further robbing Pakistanis of jobs and investment. All of this destabilises the country further, harms economic growth and creates an even better climate for the Islamists to further their cause. They create more conspiracy theories, which in turn provides more support for the Islamists, leaving the country seemingly constantly on the verge of economic collapse, balkanisation or Islamist takeover.

Pakistanis reject notions of secularism, freedom, democracy, tolerance, pluralism and universal education as Western plots or the work of unseen CIA agents and not as the basis of a healthy, functioning society. So long as this is the case, the country will never emerge from its current quagmire. Currently, Pakistan is known for little more than as a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism, an exporter of terrorism, a really bad place to be a woman and finally, a place where girls cannot get an education. So long as Pakistanis look for answers to their problems in conspiracy theories and not the real culprits of their fall, the Islamists, their lot will not improve.

If Pakistan is to become a globally respected, vibrant, functioning democracy, Pakistanis must first stop resorting to conspiracy theories to explain the ills that have befallen them and face the real enemy. Islamist parties preach an ultraconservative brand of Islam and threaten to plunge the country back into the 7th century. In the 70 or so days that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been in office, Pakistan has suffered just as many terrorist attacks. Either Islamism will end Pakistan, or Pakistanis will choose to end Islamism.

If Al-Queda are in Syria, why would we arm the rebels?

Oh dear.

The Syrian rebels have just pledged allegiance to Al-Queda. Or at least, Al-Nusra have. This is no small thing as they have been described as “the most aggressive and successful arm of the rebel force”. The ideological disposition of some of the rebels should be no surprise to anyone that has been paying attention to the conflict. Syria may be seen as a microcosm of the current Cold War being played out by Saudi Arabia and Iran for the heart and soul of the Muslim world (perhaps more on this in another post). The ideologies are not Soviet Communism vs. US Capitalism in this case: it is Iranian Shia’ism and Wahhabi Sunnism. This is relevant because in any conflict, it is the extreme ends of the ideological spectrum that come out to fight during times of civil strife (think communists and nazis getting into street battles in Germany after WWI). And the Salafi types of Al-Nusra represent the ideological extreme of Sunni Islam.

This of course raises the inevitable question of whether the US and her NATO allies should be arming the rebels. Many will question the wisdom of arming rebel groups in a country which has become a hotbed of fundamentalist Islamic militancy. Not least because everyone remembers what happened the last time the US practised “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” in a certain south Asian country: it eventually ushered in the totalitarian government of the Taliban. Of course, before the electorate begin calling for arming of the Syrian opposition, serious questions need to be asked about what a post-Asad Syria would look like and whether we could prevent replacing one repressive regime (Asad) with another totalitarian one (Al-Nusar’s Islamic State of Syria). This concern should not however, stop the United States from intervening.

With over 70,000 people now dead since the beginning of the conflict, the drumbeat for more aid to topple Asad seems to be getting louder. Yet, Obama has ignored the advice of the the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon who strongly advocated vetting, training and arming selected opposition groups which have been seeking US support since the conflict began. The key words are ‘vetted’ and ‘selected’.

In learning from the past, the US could be more discriminate in who it hands its weapons to. Turkey may also have an interest in this as they are currently supplying the rebels with military hardware and so may prove to be a very powerful ally in the region. Saudi and to a lesser extent Qatar on the other hand, may consider it in their best interests to strengthen the most extreme Sunni groups in the rebels. In this case, Al-Nusra. Let us not forget that the brand of Islam espoused by the Wahhabi clerics in Saudi and that of Al-Queda affiliated groups is virtually indistinguishable.Therefore the best option may be for the USA to take over from Saudi and Qatar who cannot be trusted to not supply the most extreme groups like Al-Nusra, and to supply moderate groups like the Free Syrian Army instead who have distanced themselves from Al-Nusra saying “We don’t support the ideology of al-Nusra,”.

There is hope while more moderate forces in Syria may be empowered which can then supplant Al-Nusra as Syria’s premier rebel fighting force, topple Bashar Al-Asad and usher in the era of a new democratic Syria which will no doubt have fundamentalist groups in a parliament, but who will not be ruling the country wholesale via force of arms. The beginning of that is taking a proactive role in arming selected moderate factions and not leaving it to the Saudis who would strengthen the already powerful hand of the likes of Al-Nusra, thus repeating the mistakes that the US committed in Afghanistan by allowing Pakistan to decide who should get the weapons. Ultimately allowing the totalitarian Islamic regime of the Taliban to proceed to take Afghanistan back to the medieval ages.

And that is not an option.

There is hope yet.

Goodbye from The Wayward Soldier.

What the hell is an Islamist anyway?

I don’t like the term Islamist. I don’t use it. Never have. And I’m not about to start now. Why? Well I’ve never been sure of the origin of the word and always thought it was sort of made up. Instead, I’ve tended to prefer fundamentalist. Anyway, I never got round to actually reading up a definition of the word until today. For those of you not in the know, Islamist is a term (used ubiquitously now it seems) for Muslims who believe Islam to be a political ideology and who are actively involved in that ideology.

Why all this talk about a simple word? Because Rush Limbaugh got so upset yesterday that he wrote an article called “AP Stylebook Eliminates the Term “Islamist” (it doesn’t really.) What Associated Press actually decided to do was to revise their use of the word:

Islamist An advocate or supporter of a political movement that favors reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam. Do not use as a synonym for Islamic fighters, militants, extremists or radicals, who may or may not be Islamists. ”

This is of course to differentiate between activists in a political Islam that is violent and one that is not. Which all sounds very reasonable. In fact, they used the term today to do just that. Though in this case, violent with rocks seems to be a little different for the AP than say, violent with grenades which we can only hope is also different from violent with miswak or violent with scarf. AP used the term in the linked article for “ultraconservative Salafis” who pelted the Iranian diplomat’s residence with rocks which apparently does not encompass “extremists or radicals”. Odd that. Which is funny because the Salafis I’ve met did not like the label Salafi.

Dramatisation:

“You can’t call us that!”

“Why not?”

“Because we’re Muslims! Just Muslims”.

But then neither did they like the label Wahabbi. I’m not the only one who has noticed this:

In fact, one would be hard pressed to find individuals who refer to themselves as Wahhabis or organizations that use “Wahhabi” in their title or refer to their ideology in this manner

Oh, and even Islamists don’t like the term Islamist. And thus we’ve come full circle: what the hell is an Islamist/Salafi/Wahhabi anyway?

Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual mentor of Hizbullah…found Islamist unacceptable.

Oh, I’ll just keep using the term fundamentalist like I always have.

Fadlallah later revised his position…”I object to the word fundamentalism,'” he told the same English-language periodical six months later,””

Oh drat…

What can we learn from all of this? Well, nobody really likes to be called anything. Least of all the Islamists the Salafis the Wahhabis or the fundamentalists.

Goodbye for now from The Wayward Soldier.

Oh and apologies for the last post. The “statement” from Stop the War Coalition is almost certainly a fake as it appears nowhere on their goddarn website. Always lovely to have you first post the subject of a fake as you just wanted to get out a response early even after doubting the veracity of the document. I will promise to send StWC a basket of muffins and some puppies.

Not really. I wouldn’t even do the same for myself.

Is The United States to blame for the Korean crisis?

The UK’s Stop The War Coalition, well known for having organised the popular campaign against the invasion of Iraq in 2003 has released a statement effectively blaming The United States for the ongoing tensions and absolving all other parties of responsibility (except perhaps South Korea). The statement starts out saying the nuclear tests carried out by the regime are “a product of a long term increase in sanctions and other measures against the North Korea” and goes on to mention Operation Eagle Foal, the annual military exercises carried out by both The United States and The Republic of South Korea where “40,000 US and South Korean troops have been deployed in the region in the last few weeks, backed up by US submarines, battleships and bombers”.

The implication here seems to be that US military activity on the peninsula is entirely at the whim of an overbearing superpower instead of being a welcomed force by say, the South Koreans. What is not mentioned here is that despite some dissent, the United States remains overwhelmingly popular in South Korea and seems to be getting even more so. With Pew telling us in 2010 South Koreans had a 79% “favourable” opinion of The US (18% “unfavourable”). The BBC found very similar results in 2011 with 74% responding with “mainly positive” (19% “mainly negative”). In both polls, only three countries rated the United States higher. Gallup in 2011 asking their opinion on U.S Leadership got a 57% “approve” (18% “disapprove”) with only five countries rating the United States higher. It’s clear here that StWC cannot simply write this off as US “imperialism” given the Americans are guests in that country. We could surmise here that US military presence in South Korea (despite some hiccups) has not only failed to dent the public’s view of the United States, (like say, in Saudi Arabia) it has given them an image of a dependable friend and ally as a bulwark against North Korean aggression.

Knowing that, one has to wonder how Washington is supposed to respond to threats of “pre-emptive” nuclear strikes, wiping out the island of Baengnyeong and declaring “a state of war” with the South which StWC plays down as “North Korean complaints and counter-measures”. The statement goes on to criticise Secretary of State John Kerry for having “threatened that the US would not allow North Korea to develop nuclear capacity and that it would ‘defend and protect itself and our treaty ally the Republic of Korea” (though I’m not sure what exactly that entails, as North Korea already is a nuclear power unless I’m missing something).

In more sobered foreign policy terms, The US will not want to look weak and will want to reassure their ally that they intend to stand by their promise that “The United States is fully committed to the defense of the Republic of Korea, and we stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the face of DPRK provocations.”

StWC finishes off by calling on “the US to stop stoking the tension, end its provocative military exercises, drop the sanctions and seek dialogue rather than confrontation in the region”. StWC fails again to mention that these are US-ROK military exercises in the host nation, not unilateral US military exercises. Of course the US could have done things differently negotiating in the past but right now, Pyongyang’s rhetoric is designed to garner a response and they got one. Probably not the one they were looking for one might add, as the Kims have a history of using aggressive posturing as a means by which to secure aid from the US and the South.

Anti-Americanism notwithstanding, it is strange but perhaps not surprising that StWC has decided to defend a totalitarian regime about as close to Orwell’s dystopia as one can imagine.

The above should not be read as a wholesale endorsement of military action against Pyongyang. Iraq in 2003 was a very different time and a very different situation not the least of which because the latest round of sanctions against North Korea were passed via a unanimous 15-to-0 Security Council vote. It truly is a leap of logic of the StWC to wholesale blame the United States for the recent outbreak in rhetoric. If the North wanted aid and an end to sanctions, making threats to try to secure a better negotiating position should be seen for the cynical, dangerous move that it is and not the “North Korean complaints” that StWC is happy to call it. Also, it was the South that stopped that flow of aid in the first place. A Korean decision, not a US one.

The fact remains that successive South Korean governments have depended on The US as an ally, opinion of the US is highly favourable among the electorate and after the sinking of the Cheounen, South Koreans are looking for reassurance that the regime will not be able to allowed kill South Koreans without provocation again. Hence the $10 million B-2 spirit dummy bombing run.

What will happen next? Most likely a climbdown from Pyongyang and a cooling of the current heat. A Cold war is certainly better than a hot one. Which reminds me of Kim’s very large friend to the North. But that’s a story for another time…

In the meantime, expect more from The Wayward Soldier in the future.