Anne-Isabelle Tollet was the first foreign journalist to alert the international community about the Asia Bibi affair. After discovering, through the Pakistani woman, the iniquity and excesses of Pakistan’s “anti-blasphemy legislation,” she doggedly followed the evolution of her case, setting up the Comité international Asia Bibi (International Asia Bibi Committee) devoted to her cause.
After nine years of struggle to be free, Asia Bibi published the story of her imprisonment in cooperation with Anne-Isabelle Tollet. The latter spoke to ACN:
Has the Asia Bibi affair deeply divided Pakistani society into two camps and left a lasting mark on attitudes in her country, like some kind of “Pakistani Dreyfus affair”?
Yes, completely. It’s a contentious issue. I should however point out that in my opinion, Pakistanis are not evenly split, 50-50, over this case. The vast majority of Pakistanis are happy that this innocent woman avoided the hangman. Radical Islamists who cry out for revenge are in the minority. But they make a lot more noise than the others. And we cannot blame the silent majority for not speaking out. People know that radicals are ready to do anything. They kill, they attack families … This is why it was necessary for foreign media to seize the affair so as to change Asia Bibi’s fate.
But didn’t international media exposure put her in harm’s way?
Without the media to spread the word about Asia’s case, she would be dead by now, most likely murdered in prison. It is true though that we journalists, by focussing the media spotlight, turned her into a symbol for extremists to attack. One had to be skilful … to know how to remain silent when it was inappropriate to press her case too much. This is the thrust of the letter we wrote to Pope Francis, asking him to only intervene together with his Muslim peers.
Does Asia Bibi realise that she has become a symbol?
She became aware of it after leaving prison and was flabbergasted. How could I, a modest farm worker, not to mention a Christian, become a world-famous personality? For her, it was also a burden forcing her into hiding. However, her case has been useful to Pakistanis to deal with the anti-blasphemy legislation. And she has become a symbol of moral rectitude. Although she could have been released on the day of her arrest had she converted to Islam and abandon her family, she remained true to her faith.
Is there then a “Asia Bibi jurisprudence”?
Absolutely yes. The anti-blasphemy legislation has not gone. At present, there are in fact other Asia Bibis in Pakistani jails. It is very hard for a Westerner to grasp the idea of what this legislation represents. It is a constant threat and can be used at any time to settle a dispute. The number of people reportedly imprisoned as a result of this legislation seems paltry compared to reality. I don’t think we can get reliable numbers, but since the Supreme Court’s verdict acquitting Asia Bibi on 29 January 2019, accusing someone can backfire on the accuser, and that should significantly curb the use of this legislation.
In terms of the media, Pakistani journalists now readily refer to Asia Bibi when a new case hits the headlines. They have realised the importance of the issue and it is increasingly hard to sweep blasphemy-related cases under the carpet.
What attitudes do Christians have towards the Asia Bibi affair?
Christians represent a tiny minority: three million people out of a population of more than 200 million. They know they are an easy target for extremists, who also go after Muslims suspected of being too moderate. For this reason, Christians cannot openly rejoice at Asia Bibi’s release. However, they have closely followed the case as it unfolded and its outcome has brought them great hope.