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Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 17:30 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 17:30 | SYDNEY

Bad spelling, murder and blasphemy

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7 October 2011 11:15

Alicia Mollaun, a PhD candidate at the Crawford School at ANU, is based in Islamabad.

An accusation of blasphemy in Pakistan is the kiss of death. Anyone convicted of 'insulting Islam' gets a mandatory death sentence. Even being seen to be sympathetic towards alleged blasphemers – say, by standing up for the basic human right to a fair trial — makes you a marked man. 

Blasphemy cases have headlined the news in Pakistan in 2011. In January, the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was gunned down by his own bodyguard outside a café (that I, and many others, have frequented) in a shopping area popular with expatriates and Pakistan's elite. Taseer was shot 27 times. His crime? Supporting the reform of Pakistan's archaic blasphemy laws.

Taseer's assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, was sentenced to death on Saturday. Protests against his sentence erupted in a few cities, including Islamabad. Crowds gathered, property was burned, banners unfurled. 

In sending Qadri to the gallows, Pakistan's judges faced a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' scenario. Sentencing Qadri to death makes him a martyr in the eyes of millions of Pakistanis, and makes a marked man out of the Justice presiding over the case. On Monday, dozens of furious lawyers – that's right, educated people – smashed windows and ransacked the Justice's office in protest. I doubt the Justice will be able to return to his job, and will likely have to go into exile somewhere to ensure his own security. But not sentencing Qadri would have sent the message that assassinating someone in the name of God is a.o.k.

A couple of weeks ago a 13-year-old Christian girl was expelled from school for bad spelling. In an Urdu exam, the girl accidentally dropped a dot on the Urdu word naat (a devotional hymn to the prophet), inadvertently turning it into lanaat, or damnation. 

I asked my Urdu teacher about this and he wrote both words out for me, explaining the girl's error. Her mistake was including an extra dot in the word, so small that it could have even been mistaken for a blemish on the piece of paper. Her punishment? A beating from her teacher, expulsion from school and the relocation of her entire family, who will live in fear of retribution over a misplaced dot.

What accounts for such madness? The heady mix of religion and politics in Pakistan, where the legitimacy of political leaders is often derived from their piety, is a dangerous combination. No one in the government has had the courage to speak out against the blasphemy laws, and the few that have, live in fear of death at the hand of the next person who decides to kill 'in the name of God'. It seems Pakistan's 1986 blasphemy law is here to stay, preventing minorities from speaking freely, getting an education and living without fear.

Photo by Flickr user Malik Braun.

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