The email zipped across the globe from a Catholic nun of the Sisters of Loretto, living in rural Pakistan, to Sister Anna Koop, who was visiting their home order in rural Kentucky. The subject line: “Punjab: Christian Woman Sentenced To Death For Blasphemy."
Sent Nov. 11, the nun's message told the story of a Catholic farm worker, Aasia Bibi, convicted of violating antiquated blasphemy law propped up by Pakistan's Islamist political parties. Allegedly, when some women workers pressured Aasia to renounce her Christian faith and accept Islam in the summer of 2009, Aasia responded that Jesus had died on the cross for the sins of humanity and she asked them what Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, had done for them. Her crime, blaspheming the prophet, carries a mandatory death sentence.
Koop, a 72-year-old nun who signs her emails "Peace to you," was horrified by the news. Last year, she left the homeless shelter where she lives and works outside Denver to visit the four Pakistani nuns in her order living in Pakistan, and she feared not only for Aasia, a mother of five, but also the sisters in her order and the country's other estimated 2.8 million Christians, who make up about 2 percent of the population.
Last year, the Sisters of Loretto in Pakistan pooled their resources to give the archdiocese of Faisalabad a 21st century-style gift for the 50th anniversary of the archdiocese: a website, complete with a catchy jubilee sing-song in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan. A website message they wrote: “We Hope this online experience will touch your heart and soul.”
"There is so much violence directed toward Christians" in Pakistan, says Koop. "It's hard to know where that might strike next." She tapped away at her keyboard, sending emails around the world, trying to raise the alarm. On Nov. 17, Pope Benedict XVI called for Aasia's release in his weekly public audience, saying that Christians in Pakistan are "often victims of violence and discrimination."
The case of Aasia Bibi underscores the challenge of forging an Islamic identity in the 21st century that expresses a tolerant interpretation of Islam. The showdown is coming down to a sad clash of the nuns and the mullahs. And it's a battle in which the mullahs must lose. My mother grew up going to St. Joseph's Convent in the hill station of Panchgani, India, her brother going to St. Peter's, and there is something valuable we can learn about other faiths—and ourselves—just by living peacefully together.
And there is something divinely radical that connects rebellious women within Islam and Catholicism. We both face an imbedded patriarchy. Catholic women have had more advances than we have had in Islam, but we have it easier on one front: We don't have a Vatican. Last month, I spoke at the national conference of Call to Action, a Catholic group seeking reforms in the church. The title of my talk: "Bad Girls of Faith: The Daughters of Sarah and Hajar Standing Together to Reclaim the Feminist Tradition." Thousands of years ago, our common histories say that Sarah and Hajar (or Hagar as she is known in Christianity and Judaism) feuded in, essentially, a chick fight that was a precursor to the interfaith troubles we have today. My theory: We could see progress if we stood together now. Soon after, I got one of the emails sent out by Sister Anna, the nun running a homeless shelter outside Denver.
The survival of the blasphemy of laws in Pakistan is a window into just how medieval aspects of Pakistan continue to be, betraying at least one example from the life of the prophet Muhammad. In one hadith, or tradition from the life of Muhammad, it's said that when a man threw dirt on the prophet's face, he just ignored the smear.
What's more, by refusing to take on the Islamist political parties that back Pakistan's outdated blasphemy law, secular leaders from Gen. Pervez Musharraf to the current president, Asif Ali Zardari fail to live up to the moderate, tolerant vision of the country's birth.
The case of Aasia Bibi underscores the challenge of forging an Islamic identity in the 21st century that expresses a tolerant interpretation of Islam.
• Asra Q. Nomani: Let’s Profile MuslimsIn a presidential address on Aug. 11, 1947, the year Pakistan was forged out of India's independence from the British, the country's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, declared, "You are free. You are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the state."
He was a student of history and he said, "The Roman Catholics and the Protestants persecuted each other. Even now there are some states in existence where there are discriminations made and bars imposed against a particular class. Thank God, we are not starting in those days. We are starting in the days where there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one state."
The Aasia Bibi case isn't just one of outsiders speaking out against the blasphemy law. Ali Dayan Hasan, a Pakistani and the South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, calls the blasphemy law a "heinous law" that should be repealed, and notes that it's "become an instrument of coercion used to terrorize minorities."
It's time that Pakistan join the 21st century with the vision of its founder and set Aasia Bibi and itself free from the reign of the mullahs.
Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She is co-director of the Pearl Project, an investigation into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Her activism for women's rights at her mosque in W.V. is the subject of a PBS documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown. She recently published a monograph, Milestones for a Spiritual Jihad: Toward an Islam of Grace. firstname.lastname@example.org