Give Asia Bibi Asylum, Now
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you!
Nations are of course, like individuals, a proud and humiliating admixture of virtue and vice. Not that we should ever forget this, but some days seem to render the truth more starkly than others.
This past Sunday I observed a trifecta of memorial celebrations in London. As an American expatriate, Veterans Day was never far from my mind as I attended the somber commemoration of the centenary of the Armistice that ended (if only ostensibly) the violence of the Great War and the wider observance of Remembrance Sunday, the United Kingdom’s Memorial Day.
Following formal events, I enjoyed a walking tour of some of London’s war memorials under the guidance of Oxford professor—and Providence contributing editor, Nigel Biggar. As a Yankee (and of some Irish extraction), I’m cognizant that British history has its warts. Nevertheless, our memorial ramble was punctuated by the sculptured-steel testimonies to British mettle. There were monuments to the Royal Tank Regiment, Charles Gordon, the Chindits, Chinese Gordon, the men and women who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Gurkhas–those celebrated warriors from the Indian subcontinent who have served with the British army in combat from 1816 clear through to Afghanistan. That’s two centuries of courageous and costly service that, whatever else, suggests the Gurkhas thought Britain something worth fighting for. And (how could there not be?) there was the memorial to those few to whom so many owe so much. The men of the Royal Air Force, of course, by successfully defending the homeland, delivered the first major defeat to Hitler’s military forces, lifted Allied resolve, and kept the free world in the fight.
Taken together, the Day was a fine reminder that the British are well-capable of ‘stiffening their sinews and summoning up their blood’ when justice, order, and peace demand it.
Unfortunately, returning home and catching up with news reports that the British government has denied asylum to Asia Bibi was a shocking, if unsurprising, buzz-kill. Hearing the suggested reasons why is reason enough to cast into question whether something more than time has passed in the gap between those memorialized Brits who with ‘hard-favour’d rage’ helped shape and save the West and this current crop of British leadership.
Asia Bibi, as you probably know and we’ve written before, is the Christian woman from Pakistan who has been on death row there for the last eight years. Here are the facts as I understand them: Asia Bibi was born and raised in Ittan Wali, a modest hamlet in the Sheikhupura District of Punjab, Pakistan, about thirty miles outside of Lahore. She and her family were the only Christians in the village. In June 2009, she was harvesting berries with a group of female farmhands when she was asked to retrieve water from a well. She did so but stopped to take a drink from a tin cup she had found on the ground. A neighbor, who apparently had been having a property dispute with Bibi’s family, angrily insisted that it was forbidden for a Christian to drink from the same utensil used by a Muslim. A quarrel ensued, and a mob later came to Bibi’s home and beat her. Accusing Bibi of blaspheming the prophet, she was arrested, tried, and sentenced to be hanged. In prison, her life has been under constant threat by other inmates.
The case has attracted international scrutiny of Pakistan’s already controversial blasphemy laws, highlighting the extent to which such edicts can be used to exploit minority communities and to weaponize religious intolerance. The case has also lethally-inflamed tensions between religious groups and political authorities, resulting in the 2011 assassination of two officials—the governor of Punjab province and the minister for minorities—who had voiced support for Bibi and criticism of the blasphemy law.
Last month, Pakistan’s supreme court overturned Bibi’s conviction. But in the days since her release from prison, there have been mass protests, involving club-wielding mobs being violent and breaking things, demanding that Bibi’s death sentence be carried out. Members of Islamist political parties have called for the killing of the three supreme court justices involved in the appeal. So, while Bibi is technically free, she necessarily remains in protective custody. Efforts are underway to get her granted asylum and out of the country.
If asylum was made for anybody, it was made for her. And yet there are reports that Britain has declined to grant it to her. In light of the facts of Asia Bibi’s case, it would be inexcusable to refuse her a safe-haven. Indeed, if reports are true that the reason for the refusal is acquiescence to security concerns both at home and abroad, then the UK denial is not simply inexcusable, it is inexcusable cowardice.
To be sure, there is reason for concern. Over the last several decades, Muslim violence in the UK has ignited over perceived slights in novels and cartoons; it has been murderously cast against uniformed soldiers in the streets; and exploded into large-scale terrorist attacks, both attempted and successful. It has led to bullying and assaults—sometimes lethal—against Muslim converts to Christianity, Muslims from other sects, and critics of Islamic extremism. Undoubtedly, there’s every reason to believe that Bibi’s arrival in the UK might incite violence. Fears that UK consulate staffers in Pakistan or elsewhere would be in grave danger are equally legitimate.
But, really, so what? My walk in the memorial park drove home the fact that sometimes doing what is right carries risks. Opposing Hitler invited trouble. But it was a defining moment in which a nation had to decide—and act upon—who they were going to be.
This, like that, is just such a test case. Who will determine and shape UK domestic and foreign policy? Surely not the tyrants, not the mobs? Who are the kinds of people that will be permitted to live here? Surely an innocent woman, a mother of five, who has already suffered greatly and is under constant threat of death in her native land? It has been said that the UK government may be negotiating secretly to assist Bibi. Hopefully so. But it seems to me that there is no room for equivocation here. The UK must make things plain. They must publicly side with Bibi and against anyone, wherever they are, who would deny her welcome.
The optics are presently bad. Many believe that concern for security is taking undue precedence over both charity and a commitment to enforce the rule of law. To concede to the mob–or even merely to appear to–gives the mob every reason to believe that being a mob is a winning strategy. They must be disabused of that belief. This is one of those times in which national interest coheres perfectly with charity. It is in the UK’s best interests to crush the aspirations of any extremist who thinks that threats of violence can influence government policy. Tell them it cannot. Draw that line in the sand, now. Deeply. And enforce it.
Happily, and obviously, the mob does not enjoy universal support among their own. If this is a test case for the British government, it is also a test for British Muslims both inside and outside the corridors of power. Three prominent British imams have come to Bibi’s defense, drafting a letter to the home secretary requesting that Britain make it clear that Bibi is welcome. Whole communities of Muslim immigrants have backed the proclamation. They insist that anyone opposed to Bibi’s arrival holds a minority view:
We are confident that action to ensure Asia Bibi and her family are safe would be very widely welcomed by most people in Britain, across every faith in our society. If there are intolerant fringe voices who would object, they must be robustly challenged, not indulged.
The obvious shouldn’t need saying, but it is clear that there are many Muslims in the UK, whether new immigrant or native born, who believes—like those martial heroes memorialized in the London park—that Britain is worth fighting for. So a part of the test at hand is for everyone to figure out what it means to be a Brit—how to join in solidarity over a handful of commonly shared universal values—like freedom of speech, belief, and worship grounded in justice, order, and peace—while retaining essential particularities that make a pluralistic society the enriching joy that it ought to be.
But the Asia Bibi case is a test for more than the UK. Every free nation on the planet ought to be climbing over each other to get to the front of the line to invite her in. In my own country, President Trump has an excellent opportunity to prove that his immigration policy is not the moral horror that many claim, to prove that it can bear the requirements of discernment, justice, security, and compassion all at the same time. He should invite Bibi to the United States today. He should demand that she be allowed to come. Right now. He should send his jet to get her.
Of course, it might be that the reports are true, that certain nations really are more interested in avoiding conflict with the fringe extremists in their communities than in doing what is right. This would be a shameful concession. And dangerous. This past Sunday ought to have reminded us of the costs that freedom sometimes requires. The bullies—whoever they are—need to be stood up to early, or they become harder to deal with later. In many avenues, the free world appears to have already seeded precious ground it ought not to have. It’s time that people of goodwill—whatever their color, origin, or creedal beliefs—come together to take it back.
Christian realism recognizes that there are rarely easy answers to the intricate conflicts of our international world. This one, however, seems like an easy thing. Just as the presence of large numbers of caddisflies reveals the health of a stream, how we respond to Asia Bibi’s plight will prove the condition of our moral ecology.Whether we like it or not, it is time to draw that line in the sand. It may be that after it is etched we will see that sides have really been chosen—that some amongst us will choose to stand against us, to insist on hate over love, domination over freedom, injustice over justice, or their own security over another’s peace. It may be that something like a new battle for Britain has been forced upon us all.
We will prove ourselves able to copy those of “grosser blood.” We will have Asia Bibi on our side. We’ll be fine. The free world is still in the fight.
Marc LiVecche is the executive editor of Providence. He is currently in Oxford, serving as the McDonald Visiting Scholar at the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life at Christ Church, Oxford.