It felt like déjà vu. After the supreme court in Pakistan rejected a challenge to the acquittal of Asia Bibi on blasphemy charges, conflicting reports of her release and departure from the country started to hit the airwaves.
The nation watched with bated breath, fearful of a repeat of the events from last year when violent protesters held Pakistan hostage in the aftermath of the landmark supreme court verdict that overturned the death sentence.
The riots had been led by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a political party made up of religious extremists dedicated to punishing blasphemy, who called for the justices to be killed and for army officers to commit mutiny. These weren’t peaceful protesters marching for their rights, these were fanatics destroying property and making death threats.
After Imran Khan, the Pakistan prime minister, went on the air to strongly rebuke the armed protesters and warn them against clashing with the state, it seemed to signal that a line had finally been drawn in the sand in a country where religious hardliners are normally given a free pass to do as they please, often at the expense of other citizens.
However, many were disappointed to learn that despite the tough rhetoric, the government had been in negotiations with the group. An agreement was reached, with one of the conditions being that the government should take legal measures to put Bibi’s name on the exit control list. The review petition filed against the supreme court’s judgement was another. It read like a surrender on the part of the government.
At a time when Pakistan’s economy was on the brink and the government struggled to secure financing, the cost of the armed protests, estimated by one government official to be $1.2bn (£900m), was indefensible. Yet no one was held to account back then.
Emboldened by the lack of any meaningful action being taken against them, the TLP and other hardline religious outfits began making announcements of taking to the streets once more if things did not go their way.
This led to legitimate questions about the effectiveness of the government’s policy. As the old adage goes, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Even back then, there were members of the government who knew that nothing good comes from appeasing extremists. Shireen Mazari, Pakistan’s minister for human rights, tweeted, “It is unfortunate we don’t study history – appeasement historically never works as Chamberlain’s Munich appeasement towards Nazis showed.”
As Mazari noted in subsequent tweets, appeasing violent non state actors to “avoid bloodshed” not only undermines the concept of peaceful protests as a democratic right, it sets a dangerous precedent and leaves state institutions vulnerable – with the government appearing unable to enforce the rule of law.
There were signs that the government was finally beginning to heed their own minister’s advice. Likely spurred on by the 2018 attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi, to avoid any further loss of confidence from international investors, the government launched a crackdown against the TLP after the organisation had called for another mass rally on 25 November.
On this occasion, Khadim Rizvi, the radical preacher at the helm of the TLP, was also taken into “protective custody”.
Almost immediately, other hardline religious organisations began to distance themselves from the TLP and the planned rally. The day came and went without further incident.
This demonstrated that the state is perfectly capable of taking action when motivated, and illustrates the drastic impact even the smallest step it takes towards asserting its writ can have.
In a similar fashion, the government launched a division-wide crackdown in several cities last week, arresting over 55 workers of different religious parties after calls to hold a protest demonstration against the dismissal of the review petition by the supreme court.
No major disruptions were reported in the aftermath – something that would have been unthinkable even just a few months ago.
Kanwal Shauzab, the parliamentary secretary for planning, attributed the absence of protests to improved management and social media monitoring by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led government.
The prime minister’s supporters would have you believe that this was the plan all along. Khan was playing chess, while his opponents were playing checkers. They credit him for defusing a volatile situation with the protesters last year without any bloodshed.
After all, those responsible for the chaos are in jail, while Bibi is now free. His critics have a less favourable view, likening him to a stubborn, bumbling fool who had to be forcefully dragged kicking and screaming to an obvious conclusion.
To deny the magnitude of this achievement would be extremely disingenuous. Both the supreme court and the government need to be lauded for staying the course in the face of immense opposition. I don’t see any other political party in Pakistan with enough leverage or goodwill with all the requisite stakeholders to have successfully pulled this off.
However, the bravery and perseverance of Bibi, her family, and her legal team should not be overshadowed. The grave injustice done to her is one that could never be made right.
In any other country, an innocent woman languishing in jail for almost a decade over a “crime” she never committed would have been cause for outrage.
In Pakistan, however, just the fact that she was released is seen as a silver lining. Forget rightful compensation, not succumbing to extremist pressure and merely letting her leave the country would be considered quite the feat.
My heart prays that the reports of her safely reuniting with her family in Canada are true. She deserves nothing less than a happy ending.
In compelling the state to re-evaluate its long-held toxic policy of appeasement of religious extremists, she leaves behind a nation that might not be appreciative today, but owes her a significant debt of gratitude nonetheless.
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