Pakistan Quran scandal fires up blasphemy debate

Clockwise from top left: Quran / US flag / A remembrance poppy / A Catholic cross © Getty Images

In Islamabad, an 11-year-old girl has been accused of burning Islam’s holy book. If guilty, she could be sentenced to death. Why are symbolic objects so powerful?

For three weeks, Rimsha Masih has been locked in an Islamabad jail. At just 11 years old, the young Christian faces charges that could mean life in prison, or even death. Crowds have protested in outrage at her supposed actions; her family and neighbours have fled, terrified of violent, vengeful mobs.

Her alleged crime? Burning the pages of a book. Rimsha is accused of deliberately setting fire to a copy of the Quran, the holiest object in Islam, that Muslims believe contains the true word of God. Under Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws, damaging the holy book – or any ‘sacred object’ – is strictly forbidden.

In the past, desecrating the Quran has had even more profound consequences. Last March, a controversial American evangelist publicly set fire to a copy – and provoked an explosive reaction thousands of miles away, in Afghanistan. Protests turned to riots, and vengeful attacks on a UN compound killed 24 people.

Many of the rioters vented their anger against another symbol. Echoing protesters from Iran to North Korea, some set fire to the American flag – a treasured emblem of US identity. In the USA itself, such desecration would be illegal: most states prohibit defacing the stars and stripes, and some even have laws against ‘speaking evilly’ of the flag. Some American schools confirm this symbolic importance every morning, by pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes.

In religion, too, objects play a crucial role in daily practice. The altar, chalice and crucifix occupy an exalted position in Christian churches, for example. And when Catholics eat bread and wine at Eucharist, they believe they are consuming, literally, the body of and blood of Christ.

Damaging this sacred wafer – or ‘desecrating the host’ – is a grave sin in Christianity. Recently, a US academic received death threats when he drove a nail through a Eucharist wafer, and photographed it smeared with a banana skin. In earlier and more gruesome history, thousands of Jews have been massacred under accusations of such grave blasphemy.

A blank page

Some think it is ridiculous to put such worth on books, flags and wafers. Investing so much energy and devotion into material things, they say, makes inanimate objects more important than the human and spiritual values they are meant to embody. It is foolish and irrational to give such respect to symbols.

Others disagree. These objects, they say, are important because the things they symbolise are of immense worth. When people attack them, they also attack the beliefs and ideas of the people that hold them dear. Respect for people means respecting material things.

You Decide

  1. Should it be illegal to burn a national flag?
  2. How might using symbols encourage people to come to a deeper understanding of their beliefs and values?


  1. Design a symbolic object that you think represents things you value in your own life.
  2. Write a letter to Pakistani authorities, appealing for Rimsha’s release.

Some People Say...

“Treasuring an inanimate object is completely irrational.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Can symbols themselves be offensive?
In schools and workplaces, religious symbols have proved controversial. In some public-facing jobs, for example, employers might think it is inappropriate for staff to proudly display their religion.
Have they done anything about it?
Recently, one employer in Britain attempted to ban Christian workers from wearing the cross – resulting in high-profile legal battles.
Doesn’t this increase tension between groups?
In the past, symbolic struggles have had a big impact on politics. In the Northern Ireland of The Troubles, fighting between Catholics and Protestants loaded religious symbols with strong emotions. Flags and colours were used to mark territory or signify allegiance – and disputes over their use often resulted in violence.

Word Watch

Her alleged crime
Rimsha’s case is a complicated one. Several weeks after she was arrested, evidence emerged that a senior Muslim imam may have planted the scraps of burnt Quran in her bag – in a bid to rid the neighbourhood of its Christian minority. Since, several members of Pakistan’s Islamic community have spoken in support of her and her family.
Treating a sacred object with contempt, or damaging it in any way, can be described as desecration. The word comes from the opposite of consecrate – which means to make something holy.
American evangelist
Pastor Terry Jones is among the most controversial and outspoken Christian figures in the US. He is a Senior Pastor of the Dove World Outreach Centre, a Florida Church with other 1,000 members, that has devoted its time to stirring up hatred toward gay people and Muslims. Jones has described Islam as the ‘religion of the devil’, and argues that the Christian bible is the only way to know God.
This Christian observation comes from the Biblical last supper, when Jesus told his disciples to remember him by eating bread and wine – telling them they were his body and his blood. In some types of Christianity, the bread and wine only represents the blood and body of Christ. In Catholicism, however, the food ceases to be bread and wine, and becomes the divine body and blood of Jesus.

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