Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law

By Farwin Fousdeen


Policing Belief.. The Impact of Blasphemy Laws on Human Rights – Pakistan is a Freedom House Publication which examines Pakistan’s notorious, headline hype worthy blasphemy laws. The Report cited by UNHCR and Refworld, weighs the validity of the blasphemy law against each one of fundamental articles enshrined in the ICCPR, to which Pakistan became a signatory in June 2010; 44 years after the Covenant was opened for signature.

The country scores dismally on each weigh-in, from freedom of expression, to freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman & degrading treatment. The report concluded; “the country is unique in the severity of abuses arising from the application of its blasphemy laws, and in the frequency with which the laws are invoked to prosecute individuals and justify vigilantism. The overall effect is a serious erosion of the rule of law itself, with police and courts seemingly at the mercy of Islamist extremists and other extralegal forces. Basic injustices are meted out not just to religious minorities and Muslims with dissenting views on Islam, but also to ordinary people whose personal disputes, opinions, or weaknesses make them ready fodder for the broader conflicts that trouble Pakistani society.”

It is a rhetoric Pakistanis have been hearing for decades.

However, nothing it seems will change. Rejecting Pope Benedict’s call, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani reiterated his government's refusal to amend the blasphemy law in January this year, while noting that it was his predecessor, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who "introduced this law in Pakistan”.

Divisive legislation

Pakistan’s blasphemy law is contained in Chapter XV of the Penal Code and deal with a variety of offences including desecrating places of worship, outraging religious feelings, defaming the Prophet and defiling the Quran. While defiling the Quran, is punishable with life in prison, defaming the Prophet courts the death penalty.

Interestingly, the first provision of the blasphemy law - section 295 – which, deals with places of worship, grants protection to all places of worship, regardless of religious significance. Introduced before the Indo-Pak Partition, during religious riots; the law is just in content.

It is the subsequent promulgation of Sections 295 B & C - apostasy and defiling the Quran – and the body of case law that followed, which lent Section 295A its religious and divisive undertones. Over the years, the Blasphemy Sections of PPC has accumulated a vast body of case law, seething divisions and crippling a state that has desperately failed at nation building.

After all, a law that stipulates that all alleged cases of defiling a copy or a portion of the Holy Quran does not require proof of intent and should be tried by a ‘Muslim judge’ (Section 295 C of the Penal Code) in a multiethnic society, is fundamentally unjust. Such a law fulfils anything but the requirement of the legal system, i.e. pursuit of justice.

Petty Crimes, chubby numbers…

In April 2007, police jailed five Christian men on allegations that they had desecrated pieces of paper that bore Prophet Muhammad's name. Almost two years later, they were released, when some maulavis (religious scholars) agreed to issue a fatwa declaring that the accusation of blasphemy was unsound. (International Religious Freedom News, January 2009).

In January, this year a magistrate remanded a 17-year-old boy on charges of blasphemy. The intermediate board of education alleged that the student had written insulting comments about the Prophet during an exam over eight months ago. He was released upon confessing to the ‘sin’.

Clearly, Pakistan’s body of case law and police records on blasphemy are voluminous.

Policing Belief refers to data compiled by local NGOs and cited by U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report 2006, placing the number of people accused of blasphemy in Pakistan between 1986 and April 2006 at 695. (Of those, 362 were Muslims, 239 were Ahmadis, 86 were Christians, and 10 were Hindus).

A May 2005 report of The Evangelization Station records a similar number and concludes that “Fifty percent of the people charged were non-Muslim (3% of the national population). Twenty of those charged were murdered”.

Pakistan’s Dawn Newspaper reported that some 5,000 cases were registered between 1984 to 2004, and 964 people were charged with blasphemy (Mansoor Raza, “Unholy War” June 2010).

Mountains and Molehills

The recent case of Asiya Bibi threw Pakistan’s blasphemy laws into a fresh crisis. Asiya Bibi a farmhand was “charged under the blasphemy law after a June 2009 altercation with fellow farm workers who refused to drink water she had touched, contending it was unclean because she was a Christian.” (Human Rights Watch).

Asiya Bibi’s case was compounded and international outcry ensued following the related death of Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab Province. Taseer, a wealthy businessman and key ally of President Zardari, was gunned down by 22 bullets by his official security guard, Mumtaz Qadri. Taseer sought presidential pardon for Asiya Bibi invoking Article 45 of the Pakistan Constitution, which empowers the President “to grant pardon to any sentence passed by any court, tribunal or other authority." In court Qadri, pleaded guilty to murder and claimed that he committed the crime only because Taseer opposed the Blasphemy Law.

In the wake of the trial, over 40,000 people marched in support of the Blasphemy law (Deccan Herald), while hundreds of others protested outside Rawalpindi jail where Qadri was held. “Hundreds of lawyers – made famous by the Black Coat Revolution that restored Pakistan’s Chief Justice – showered him (Qadri) with rose petals while he was in police custody. Two hundred lawyers signed a pledge vowing to defend him for free. Significantly, Qadri is a Barelvi Muslim belonging to the Dawat-e-Islami, and 500 clerics of this faith supported his action in a joint declaration. They said that those who sympathized with Taseer deserved similar punishment,” lamented essayist and political analyst Pervez Hoodbhoy.

Uncontested Vigilantism

Pakistan’s blasphemy law does not target minorities only – Taseer’s case in one example. This law is on a witch-hunt against Muslims with dissenting views too. The U.S. State Department Report places the number of accused Muslims at 362 out of a total of 695. Add to this the 239 Ahamadis that the Pakistan state apparatus refuses to acknowledge as Muslims. (Ordinance XX promulgated by Zia Ul Haq prohibits Ahamadis from calling themselves Muslims, although they are a heterodox community which shares the same creed.)

Blasphemy-vigilantism is Pakistan’s real scourge. Taseer was just one among the many who ‘met their fate’ at the hands of vigilantes, who eventually went free because they were only ‘carrying out Allah’s will’. In addition to enjoying local support, these vigilantes are also elevated to the status of heroes. (Some activists threw rose petals at Qadri).

In a 1993 case, three Christians were accused of writing blasphemous remarks on a wall of a mosque, even though two of them couldn’t read. The three were found guilty and sentenced to death in Trail Court. On appeal presiding Judge Arif Iqbal Hussain Bhatti, acquitted them on the basis that the accused didn’t know Arabic and couldn’t have written the alleged remarks. Two years later, Judge Hussain Bhatti was assassinated in his chambers. In court, the killer claimed that he committed the crime because the judge acquitted the three people accused of blasphemy.

The Way Forward

For years now, the blasphemy law regime has been the point of furious debate among Pakistan’s ‘liberal elites’ including British educated Salman Taseer, journalist and politician Sherry Rahman, nuclear physicist and political analyst Pervez Hoodbhoy, head of the Foundation for Pluralism Mike Ghouse and Human Rights activist Asma Jahangir. Joining this small chorus are local and international organizations.

Their arguments against it have always been the same; the country's blasphemy laws are unduly harsh, they are regularly exploited by extremists to target and discriminate against minority groups, and misused by others to settle petty disputes or exact personal vengeance, and therefore should be repealed.

Clearly, this is reasoning with little appeal to the mullah-led masses. The only panacea must come from within – just as much as Islam is used to justify the law and its application, Islam must be a basis on which it is countered. What the country needs right now are scholars; scholars who will speak up and incite masses against it.