Now, a recent visit by a McClatchy reporter found that the Muslims of the area are fearful and bewildered, not only because their prayer leader was taken away, but because the man who gave evidence against him was the deputy imam of the mosque, Muhammad Zubair.
“If Zubair was telling the truth, where was that truth for the first 16 days of this case?” said Anjum Hanif, a Muslim resident. “They are doing all this now to put pressure on Muslims.”
The blasphemy law dates to the 19th century, when Pakistan was part of British-ruled India. But the statute was given teeth by military dictator Gen. Mohammed Zia ul Haq in the mid-1980s. Between 1986 and 2011, more than 1,000 cases of blasphemy were brought, according to the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a Pakistani Christian organization. Almost every case had flimsy or trivial evidence, and many believe even that was likely to have been fabricated.
Zia’s program of Islamization started a wave that continues to see the society become more religious and rigid in its attitudes, with blasphemy a particularly emotive issue for most Pakistanis. Repealing the law, which protects only Islam, is considered impossible. Reform, however, would make it harder to bring spurious allegations.
“Reforming the blasphemy law is always going to be very risky for any government,” said Cyril Almeida, a newspaper columnist.
That’s proven only too true for two members of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party. Last year, Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister for minority affairs, and Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, were assassinated after they criticized the blasphemy law. Taseer’s killing was publicly celebrated by some in Pakistan, while many believe that the majority of the population approved of the killing.
Few politicians see repealing the blasphemy law as possible. They note that the Pakistan Peoples Party’s largely secular parliamentary majority includes the conservative Pakistan Muslim League-Q, known as PML-Q.
“PML-Q won’t support the reform. Nor will the opposition. So, there aren’t the numbers to get this through Parliament. It is simple as that,” said a senior member of the Pakistan Peoples Party, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Still, some see the Rimsha case as a positive development in a country where Muslims make up 97 percent of the 180 million population. They also say reform might be in the interests of Muslims, noting that, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent advocacy group, 20 of the 26 most recent cases of blasphemy involved allegations against Muslims.