At last the Asia Bibi case is making the headlines properly. Last month, a court near Lahore condemned her to death by hanging for ‘blasphemy’ – there had been some sort of argument between her, a Christian Pakistani, and her Muslim neighbours and fellow-workers and she was accused of being disrespectful towards Muhammed. Her family have been hounded while she has spent a year in jail, and even if she is eventually pardoned, there is a price on her head.
Two things occur to me: where are the voices of moderate and peaceful Islam condemning this barbarity, and the persecution of both Hindus and Christians (total 5% in Pakistan)? Christians here, and in Iraq, and in the Middle East generally are being targeted as a minority, even though they are its ancient inhabitants.
Secondly, how can we preserve our own tolerance and freedom? There was a worrying article in last week’s Economist that first rejoiced in the ‘Aunt Susan’ principle in the USA – that most people have a relative who is, say, a Methodist while you are a Jew, and so you know they are OK and ‘go to heaven’ alongside you – but then pointed out that this didn’t work for Buddhists and Muslims, whom nobody knows and nobody really likes. In fact, anti-Muslim feeling is growing, especially with Republican resurgence.
But what limits should there be to tolerance? I find it horrific that a Christian farm-worker who tried to speak of her faith should get the death penalty; yet I’m not sure I would want every religious opinion to be given air-space. But I’d ban extremist religious preachers on the grounds of incitement to violence rather than blasphemy.
It’s tempting to say “Let’s just rescue the Christians from countries where they are persecuted and give them a new, free home” – but the future lies in learning to live alongside those who are different. That is, if there are any ‘different’ people left alive.