Sultana's Dream

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Sultana's Dream
May 2011


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Blasphemy Law in Pakistan: Changing Context

Within the first two months of 2011, two prominent Pakistani politicians— Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer and the Minister for Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti– have been assassinated for their support to modify or repeal the blasphemy law in the country. A few days later, another less known citizen met a similar fate though the court had acquitted him of the crime of blasphemy.  These assassinations indicate a strong tendency among extreme orthodox Islamist groups in Pakistan to use their own criteria for judging innocence or complicity to blaspheme against Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). Though this is not a new phenomenon, it has been strengthened and encouraged by a constellation of forces and developments that grew out of the policies adopted by General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.

Having seized power in July 1977, General Zia sought to legitimise his rule by coopting religious clergy in his agenda to ‘Islamise Pakistan’. Primarily supported by the Jamaat-e-Islami, he introduced a series of laws in the country that circumscribed the rights of ordinary citizens in the name of creating a true Islamic state. The Hudood Ordinance (1979) focused on issues of rape, adultery, extra-marital relations, false accusation, theft and drinking alcohol. The Blasphemy Law, which had been part of Pakistan’s Penal Code (inherited from British rule), was amended to make defiling of Holy Qur'an punishable with imprisonment (295-B), of the name of the Holy Prophet with death (295-C), and of any other personage revered in Islam with three years imprisonment (295-A). Instead of establishing clearly verifiable evidence that these crimes had occurred, however, the amended law provided a lot of scope for individual and group perceptions as the basis on which others could be accused of blasphemy. It stipulated that ‘whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.’  Coupled with the conscious agenda of the Zia regime to re-engineer societal ethics and educational curriculum, these amendments turned into signifiers of Pakistan’s ‘true Islamic identity’. At the same time, the lax standards of verifiability rendered the blasphemy law open to abuse, manipulation and exploitation by groups and individuals.  The sheer accusation of blasphemy could get individuals arrested and subjected to investigations. Contrary to the common perception, this misuse of the legislations extended both to Muslim and non-Muslim citizens in Pakistan.

Although human rights groups in Pakistan consistently drew attention to these abuses and demanded that the law be repealed, political exigencies prevented Pakistani governments from responding favourably. Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, despite being elected as Prime Ministers twice in the 1990s, did not address the religiously sensitive issue due to the altered power structures that made the stability of their respect regimes conditional upon the ‘term of the President’s pleasure’. Keen to co-opt Islamist parties and groups to strengthen their positions, they turned a blind eye to the exploitation of the blasphemy law.  Importantly, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif further tightened the law by making the offence of blasphemy punishable by death in 1992. The process empowered and reinforced those unwilling to countenance an objective review of the blasphemy law.

New dimensions have been added to the national debate on the blasphemy law in the post 9/11 era. They have become intertwined with global debates on the nature of Islam’s relations with the West. Perceptions of Western guided agenda to weaken or subjugate Muslims and Islam have been popularised in Pakistan in the wake of American retaliatory attacks on Afghanistan and its invasion of Iraq in 2003. Specifically, the Danish cartoons issue, the furor over the remarks quoted by Pope Benedict that implied a criticism of Prophet Mohammad’s legacy, and the South Park episode depicting Prophet Mohammad wearing a bear suit have been widely perceived symptomatic of the West's inability or unwillingness to acknowledge the sacred space occupied by Prophet Mohammed in Islam. Any suggestions of amending local blasphemy law within Pakistan are, therefore, interpreted by orthodox sections in Pakistan as arising from either a lack of true Islamic knowledge, or a conscious participation in an international conspiracy to  divest Pakistan of its Islamic identity by pro-Western elements in the country. The extreme interpretations of any argument to repeal or amend the law assume a lack of respect for Prophet Mohammad by these misguided Muslims—an act of blasphemy in its own right and thus worthy of punishment. These reactions, it is important to emphasise, are not restricted to orthodox religious clergy.  Educated in the revised curricula since the Zia regime and exposed to the easily accessible religious information that has become a hallmark of Pakistani culture, a new generation of Pakistani youth has uncritically accepted the blasphemy law as embodying Pakistan’s Islamic identity. They eulogise those who oppose suggestions for an amendment to the law, and condemn those questioning the law.

Liberal, progressive and some orthodox sections in Pakistani society contest these views. While the modernists refer to the prevailing global norms on human rights, others provide a modern interpretation of Pakistan’s Islamic identity and argue for the country’s laws to reflect the true spirit of Islam.  Some from the orthodox end of the spectrum, such as Javed Ghamidi, also argue against the law with reference to the unqualified right to life for all human beings. However, in an international environment dominated by debates on Islam’s relations with the West, these sober views on the blasphemy law are frequently ignored or contested by the groups who support the current law in Pakistan. Muslim militant groups further complicate the scenario by presenting their views on an Islamic Pakistani state, and meeting out punishments for non-compliance.

The costs sustained by the liberal elements in these national debates became apparent in the last few months following the death sentence pronounced by a Pakistani court for a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, who was accused of blasphemy. As the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer sided with her, and the Minister for Minority Affairs, Shabaz Bhatti also argued against the blasphemy law, they were assassinated by a security guard and Pakistani Taliban respectively. Sherry Rehman who had introduced a bill for amendment of the law is also living in fear for her life. Javed Ghamidi was forced to flee Pakistan after being threatened for his views on the blasphemy law. The debate, however, has not ended and is being vigorously conducted in the cyberspace. The supporters of an amendment or repeal of the law are referring to notions of mercy in Islam, while others are drawing upon examples from early Islamic history to justify the death penalty for those showing disrespect for Prophet Mohammad.

The tension between these opposing views on the admissibility of blasphemy law is unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future.  Though the Chief of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), Maulana Fazlur Rehman suggested in early March 2011 that the misuse of the blasphemy law may be discussed, given the current uncritical acceptance among the vocal and militant  supporters of the law in its present form, securing an agreement among various sections of Islamist groups on any amendment will be extremely difficult. Possible killings of innocent supporters of amending the law or abolishing it by those who take it upon themselves to avenge the insults to Prophet Mohammad would also contribute to the problem. The likelihood of more abuses of the blasphemy law will continue for more years to come.

Samina Yasmeen