Did Britain refuse asylum to Asia Bibi? Some questions

There's a story doing the rounds from the Huffington Post which I've seen widely shared. It's about Asia Bibi, and the claims by the chair of the British Pakistani Christian Association, Wilson Chowdry, that Britain has decided not to offer her asylum in the event of her being allowed to travel abroad.

World Watch MonitorAsia Bibi – also known as Aasiya Noreen – is appealing her death sentence for blasphemy.

It's no reflection at all on Wilson Chowdry – who is a doughty campaigner for Pakistani Christians and deserves huge respect for his work – to say that this story raises certain questions, or rather its reception by many Christians does.

Chowdry told HuffPo that he had been 'led to believe' that 'the UK government had concerns that her moving to the UK would cause security concerns and unrest among certain sections of the community and would also be a security threat to British embassies abroad which might be targeted by Islamist terrorists'.

Cue outrage among campaigners for Asia Bibi's freedom, both British and foreign. 'How on earth could we let ourselves be browbeaten by these fanatics?' was the cry. We should be ashamed of ourselves for giving in to terrorists. Was this the kind of country our brave boys fought for? (It was Remembrance weekend, after all.) We should be honoured to receive her, and it's only because our government is so weak, cowardly and generally useless that we have caved in.

The trouble is that there is absolutely no evidence that this story is true. Of course I believe that this is what Wilson Chowdry told HuffPo and that he said it in good faith. But the government has not confirmed it. No one actually knows, unless we know who told him and how they know. It may be true. It may not.

What's more interesting, though, is the traction it's got from so many people who are prepared to believe the worst of our government – and just to be clear, if it turns out to be true, it would be the worst. It would be one thing to tell Asia Bibi and her family, 'There might be safer countries for you to live in, but you're most welcome here'; another thing entirely to say, 'You can't come.' In the latter case, everything the retweeter army says would be true – however counter-intuitive it is. (Let's not forget that Malala Yousafzai, another Pakistani woman targeted by fundamentalist terrorists, was welcomed to the UK and has lived very happily here; the parallels are not exact, but they should make us hesitate before assuming Britain is frit.)

Why, then, are so many people so keen to believe it? Partly, I'm sure, it's because of our generalised disgust and disillusionment with a government that seems incapable of meeting the minimal standards of competence required of any legislature.

But there's a darker side. HuffPo's story plays to a wider narrative, a story told by people with a particular agenda. In that narrative, Islam is a violent and alien force intent on conquest. In some countries, like the UK, it's the enemy within, getting its way through useful liberal idiots and naked intimidation. In others, like the US, it's (largely) the enemy without, to be kept that way by a huge wall. A caravan of Middle Eastern jihadis is on its way through Mexico right now; best vote Trump, that will help. Well, no, no and no. It shouldn't really need saying that 'Muslim' does not equal 'terrorist' or even 'terrorist sympathiser', but it does.

Put these two narratives together – the notion of a weak, incompetent and defeatist government intimidated by a powerful fifth column of religious fanatics – and you can see the story's attraction. But it's a pity those so keen to like and share it don't pause for thought before doing so. No one can seriously doubt the truth of its first element; the second, not so much.

So does the story really add up? I beg leave to doubt it, and pending the truth being established either way – which it may never be – I suggest we all remain firmly on the fence.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods

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