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European Muslims' support for Asia Bibi falls short

November 16, 2018

Islamic organizations in Germany and Britain have expressed support for the Pakistani woman who was recently freed from a blasphemy death sentence. However, experts say more Muslims should oppose the idea of blasphemy.

Pakistan Asia Bibi 2010
Image: Reuters/A. Karim

In a letter to German authorities, the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZDM), said that Berlin must offer asylum to Asia Bibi, a Pakistani-Christian woman woman facing threats to her life after being acquitted of blasphemy.

The ZMD, which is a major association for German Muslims with up to 20,000 members, hailed the Pakistani Supreme Court's October 31 verdict to overturn Bibi's 2010 death sentence.

Aiman ​​Mazyek, the council's chairman, also invited Bibi to an inter-religious dialogue in Germany.

"We would also welcome very much if the Catholic Church supports our plans for an inter-religious encounter with Bibi," said Mazyek.

Read more: Opinion: Asia Bibi exposes a failing Pakistani state

In Britain, Islamic clerics have joined in calls from former foreign secretary Boris Johnson to help Bibi.

Earlier this week, three British Imams - Qari Asim, Mamadou Bocoum and Usama Hasan - signed a letter to Home Secretary Sajid Javid, demanding that the British government must take a clear stance about Bibi and "welcome a request for sanctuary here."

The letter added: "We are confident that action to ensure Asia Bibi and her family are safe would be very widely welcomed by most people in Britain, across every faith in our society… If there are intolerant fringe voices who would object, they must be robustly challenged, not indulged."

It said that "freedom of religious expression" is one of the most important values in Britain.

Asia Bibi's lawyer: 'The West must support me'

Bibi still under threat

Bibi's lawyer, Saif-ul-Mulook, told the German daily Bild am Sonntag on November 11 that Asia Bibi "would be happy if she could leave for Germany with her family."

Bibi is reportedly still in Pakistan after her release from jail last week.

Despite her acquittal by the Supreme Court, Bibi remained in prison due to Islamist protests, spearheaded by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) party.

Bibi's was one of the most high-profile blasphemy cases in Pakistan, with international rights groups and Western governments demanding a fair trial in her case. In 2015, Bibi's daughter met with Pope Francis, who offered prayers for her mother at the Vatican.

Read more: Asia Bibi's blasphemy verdict: Islamists protest across Pakistan

Bibi was arrested in June 2009, after her neighbors complained she had made derogatory remarks about Islam's Prophet Muhammad. A year later, Bibi was sentenced to death, despite strong opposition from national and international human rights groups.

Blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan, where 97 percent of its 180 million inhabitants are Muslims. Rights activists have demanded reforms of the controversial blasphemy laws, which were introduced by the Islamic military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. Activists say the laws have little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas.

Several European countries are willing to take Bibi and her family in, but it is unclear when she would be allowed to leave the South Asian country.

An 'opportunity' to counter extremism

Although, the message of solidarity from Europe's Islamic organizations is commendable, some analysts say their emphasis on religion ignores the most important aspect of the Bibi case: fundamental human rights.

Adeel Khan, a researcher at the University of Cambridge and specialist in Islamic education, says that until British Imams do not talk in terms of inviolable human rights and freedom, they are at odds with secular activists.

"Bibi has fought valiantly for her rights and against the injustice she has faced. To ignore aspect of her case is a breach of her dignity, her rights and her struggle," Khan told DW.

Read more: Opinion: The West must demand changes to Pakistan's blasphemy laws 

The expert admitted that the support of Islamic groups matter a great deal, however, it falls short.

"In the words of Sara Khan, a British Muslim activist, this could be an opportunity to send a clear message to extremists that our country will stand up for our values. It is this owning of collective human rights values that is needed from British Imams today, and nothing less should be acceptable," Khan emphasized.

Khan also said that Britain's Islamic organisations and clerics that are supporting Bibi do not represent all British Muslims. "Radical Muslim preachers cannot express their views in public openly anymore. But their resentment is growing," Khan said. 

Pakistan under pressure to repeal blasphemy laws

Berlin and the EU must act

Siegfried O. Wolf from the Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF) warned that Germany's ZMD support for Bibi should not be overestimated.

"There are many factions within the organization that makes it difficult for them to make a clear position on a number of important religious issues such as the application of Sharia law in Germany," Wolf told DW.

"We must not ignore that the issue of deteriorating human rights and Islamic radicalization go hand in hand. They must be addressed simultaneously - those supporting Bibi must mention it in their discourse," the German South Asia scholar added.

Read more: Opinion: Bibi verdict avoids Pakistan's blasphemy problem

A number of German political parties have expressed solidarity with Bibi and urged the government to use all diplomatic means to secure her freedom.

"The federal government must act now. That would be a sign in support of the freedom of religion and human rights," said Green party chief Katrin Göring-Eckardt.

Wolf said the German government needs to take up Bibi's case with Pakistani authorities urgently.

"Berlin should work with its other European partners at the EU level to respond to Bibi's plight collectively. The European bloc has some options to pressure Islamabad; for instance it can force Pakistan to improve human rights by conditionally suspending the South Asian country from its preferential trade GSP-plus agreement," he added.