Asia Bibi’s close collaboration with a journalist appears to be at an end By Casey Chalk
The name Asia Bibi – the nickname of Pakistani Catholic Aasiya Noreen – became internationally synonymous with religious minorities unfairly persecuted for their faith during Bibi’s many years in Pakistani prison. In 2010, after a verbal altercation between Bibi and several of her Muslim neighbours over drinking from the same vessel, Bibi was convicted of violating Pakistan’s blasphemy law and sentenced to death by hanging.
In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI publicly called for Bibi’s exoneration and release. French journalist Anne-Isabelle Tollet, now editor-in-chief of CNEWS, the second most-popular news network in France, published multiple books about Bibi’s struggle, and is widely credited with keeping Bibi’s story in the global headlines. After years of international pressure, Pakistan’s Supreme Court in 2018 acquitted Bibi. In May 2019, Canada gave Bibi and her immediate family asylum.
One would then think that the release of Bibi and Tollet’s third book together – the French version was published in January and released in English in September – would be a case both for sombre meditation on the plight of persecuted Christians across the globe, and celebration that in this one case, justice was served. Yet Bibi upended this happy narrative during an August 31 interview with Voice of America Urdu. In that exchange, Bibi criticised the book and Tollet, while downplaying the threat posed by Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code, the law exploited by Pakistan’s legal system to condemn Bibi to death ten years ago.
Discussing the new book, titled Free at Last: A Cup of Water, a Death Sentence, and an Inspiring Story of One Woman’s Unwavering Faith, Bibi declared: “I wasn’t involved in its drafting. I don’t know when she [Tollet] wrote it, whose story is it and who guided her for the book. I absolutely do not agree with this book because it’s not my autobiography.”
Bibi went on to claim that although Tollet was critical of the blasphemy law, “I do not accept anything against the law or my country.” She added: “Absolutely, the law is good, but people misuse it.”
Tollet, for her part, was understandably perplexed by Bibi’s recent remarks. In her own September interview with La Croix, Tollet said she was “speechless” and that she “does not deny a line” of the book, whose byline is shared with Bibi. According to Tollet, Bibi’s remarkable about-face is explained by a desire to return to Pakistan, where her father lives. She alleged that Bibi is being “badly advised” by people who suggest she renounce the book in an attempt to return to Pakistan. There is some evidence for what Tollet says. During her interview with VOA, Bibi said: “If God allows, I will return to my country.” Moreover, Tollet can certainly claim to know Bibi well. During the campaign to promote the same book in France, Bibi had sung quite a different tune.
In an interview with French daily La Croix, on February 24, 2020, Bibi explained her desire “to help those accused of blasphemy and detained in Pakistan … As Anne-Isabelle Tollet did for me, I want to help liberate these Pakistanis.” She called on Islamic leaders to make it “no longer possible to spend 10 years of your life in prison for being accused of blasphemy”.
In February, Bibi confirmed that she was seeking asylum in France in order to live closer to Tollet, the only reporter to have met Bibi during her stay in Canada under something akin to the FBI’s witness protection programme. Moreover, much of the book’s content already appeared in a previous book authored by the two: Blasphemy, a Memoir. First published in 2011 while Bibi was incarcerated, Tollett explains in the preface that the “manuscript was read to Asia in prison by her lawyer in a series of visits … To show her enthusiasm she [Bibi] asked her lawyer to sign every page of the book, as a mark of her total approval.” Indeed, in that book Bibi declares she is “full of anger against the blasphemy law,” and states she has “no confidence” in Pakistan’s justice system.
Both books portray a terrifying ordeal for Bibi: she was assaulted by a mob in her village, and for many years in prison she suffered verbal and physical abuse at the hands of prison guards and inmates. Two prominent Pakistani officials who came to her defence – the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, and Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti – were assassinated because of their position on Bibi and the blasphemy laws. On one occasion, a Taliban commando broke into the prison in which Bibi was staying in an attempt to kill her. Numerous times, thousands of protestors incited by prominent Muslim clerics who demanded Bibi’s death marched through the street’s of Pakistan’s cities.
Bibi describes the trauma she experienced in prison. Many nights were marked by weeping and nightmares. She refers to prison life as a “hell” defined by “torture and humiliation.” At some points she even contemplated suicide.
Experts in trauma have suggested that Bibi’s comments need to be understood in this context.
“This woman has gone through a decade of trauma, continually,” notes Stephanie Chalk, an adjunct professor of psychology and counseling at James Madison University and Marymount University who specialises in trauma research. “She may be fantasising about a time that was safer. Pakistan prior to everything she experienced represents that safety.”
Pakistan’s blasphemy law originated during the British colonial era to stem sectarian violence. It was rarely enforced until the 1980s military government of General Zia-ul-Haq, whose regime added five new clauses. All specific to Islam, these clauses criminalised offences such as defiling the Quran, insulting the prophet Muhammad and using “derogatory” language against certain religious figures.
Since 1990, at least 77 people have been killed in Pakistan in connection to accusations related to blasphemy. There are currently in the country about 80 convicts on death row or serving life imprisonment terms for committing “blasphemy”, according to the US Commission for International Religious Freedom. Recent “offences” have included throwing a business card of a man named Muhammad into the garbage, spelling errors, the name of a child, the design of a place of worship, burning a (non-religious) talisman, and sharing a picture on social media. Most Muslim countries have blasphemy laws, though Pakistan is one of only a few Muslim nations – alongside Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia – that punishes it by execution.
It’s unclear how Asia’s Bibi’s decadelong battle with Pakistan’s blasphemy law will end. Her brother-in-law was murdered in Pakistan in May of this year, some claiming because of his connection to Bibi.
In a separate interview with Catholic charity organisation Aid to the Church in Need on 1 September, Bibi seemed to backtrack from her controversial interview with VOA the previous day. Appearing to criticise Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law, Bibi stated: “Today there are some groups who are exploiting the existing laws.” She added: “I hope that these laws can be changed in such a way as to prevent any abuse of them.”
Certainly the many Pakistanis currently suffering punishment under Section 295 C of Pakistan’s Penal Code would agree.
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