Guestview: The infliction of the blasphemy law in Pakistan

December 13, 2010

asia bibi 1

(Photo: Protesters demand release of Asia Bibi, in Lahore November 21, 2010/Mohsin Raza)

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone.  Naeem Shakir is a Lahore-based human rights activist and advocate of the Pakistan Supreme Court.

By Naeem Shakir

The religious minorities in Pakistan are once again awe-struck over the death sentence passed against a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, for committing blasphemy. The fear and scare such tragic events create and spread amongst the minorities goes down their spine and dampens their spirits as citizens of Pakistan. They wonder for how long they would be persecuted for having a faith different from the Muslim majority. Each time it has been found that the blasphemy law was used either for religious persecution or for settling personal scores or grabbing land.

In Asia Bibi’s case, the complainant was a local clergyman Qari Mohammad Salam. He was neither present at the place of occurrence nor personally heard the blasphemous words allegedly uttered by Asia Bibi. Muslim women who worked with Asia Bibi in the falsa fruit fields of a local landlord informed him on June 19, 2009 that on June 14, Asia uttered blasphemous remarks about the Prophet (PBUH) and the Quran. The two sisters admitted in evidence that a quarrel took place regarding drinking water that Asia brought, which was declared as ‘unclean’ and they refused to drink it. The complainant stated that she confessed her guilt before a religiously charged mob.

bibiThe evidence is full of contradictions. In her statement before the court, Asia Bibi said, “The two female witnesses conspired with Qari Salam and got a false, fabricated and fictitious case registered against her.” She offered to take an “oath on the Bible that she had never passed such derogatory and shameful remarks against the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and Holy Quran.” She further stated, “I have great respect and honour for the Holy Prophet as well as Holy Quran.” Despite her forceful denial, she was convicted unjustly.

(Photo: Asia Bibi in an undated photo handed out by family members on November 13, 2010. Standing left to right is Bibi’s brother Ramzan, Asia, brother Yunus and son Imran)

In this highly sensitive Islamic society that is under the immense pressure of Talibanisation and militarised as well, who amongst the minorities would dare utter words that would attract charges under the blasphemy law? The zero level of socio-religious tolerance has arrested the process of polemics for many decades now in our society. Academic discussions are undertaken very cautiously even by Muslim scholars and intellectuals. However, the Muslim clerics freely continue blaspheming the symbols and personalities of other religions from the pulpit but no law comes into motion.

The argument that, in the absence of this law, people would take the law into their own hands and would kill the blasphemer without trial is adopted by Islamic scholars and some members of the superior judiciary, especially in the case of Christians and other minorities. Those killed without registration of a case, without trial, in jail or in police custody are numerous now. And it is a matter of record that no one has been convicted for taking the law into his/her own hands.

It was through the Pakistan Penal Code (Amendment) Ordinance 1982 that the military dictator General Zia ‘modified’ the first amendment relating to religion after the partition of India. A new section, 295-B, was added that the punishment for committing blasphemy, for defiling, damaging or desecrating the Quran, was life. There was another amendment effected by the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 1986, whereby section 295-C was introduced to punish for blasphemy against the Holy Prophet (PBUH).

ziaIn 1991, the Federal Sharia Court declared the punishment of life imprisonment un-Islamic and only capital punishment was retained. This is the precise history of the blasphemy law as introduced by the military regime of Zia-ul-Haq without any debate or discussion. Capital punishment apparently did not prove a deterrent, as after its introduction a spate of cases under the new blasphemy law were registered. This law is so vague that it is very easy to use it for punishing anyone against whom one holds some grudge.

(Photo: Supporters display pictures of General Zia-ul-Haq in Islamabad on August 17, 1996  to mark his 8th death anniversary/Muzammil Pasha)

The fact is that this law has been used as a tool of oppression and repression. It has been used to take revenge, settle personal scores, grabbing property and for religious persecution. It has, resultantly, enhanced socio-religious intolerance and has sharpened the baneful sentiment of religious prejudice. This law also negates the sunnah (practice) of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), who on numerous occasions forgave those who opposed him or tried to blaspheme him.

Trials under this law are never conducted under established principles of criminal law. The courts are always under pressure of the Muslim clergy, who along with religious zealots throng the courtroom and display banners and placards demanding death to the accused. The verdicts are made in an environment that is hardly conducive for any judicious dispensation. Although the convicts have been mostly acquitted by the superior courts, the record shows that after their release they are obliged to leave the country for fear of being killed. Therefore, the problem is much deeper than just the blasphemy law per se.

qureshi(Photo: Maulana Yousef Qureshi, who offered a $5,800 reward for anyone who kills Asia Bibi, in Peshawar, February 17, 2006/str)

The clergy wants to retain it for use against ‘the other’ whenever desired. Religious militants demonise anyone they think should be taught a lesson. But the callous approach by the rulers who otherwise engage in the rhetoric of providing justice to the people is not understandable. Why do they not take steps to educate the people of Pakistan that this law was never made to serve Islam but to overawe people? The impression spread by the clergy that the country’s blasphemy law is divinely ordained and cannot be discussed must be dispelled. In fact, our rulers are more concerned with their constituency that encompasses the religious lobby as well. Therefore, they lack the political will to do justice.

The state has reached a defining moment to decide whether to allow its citizenry the right to profess and practise their religion or not. The blasphemy law is not a balanced legislation as, prima facie, it trespasses the domain of other creeds and faiths and refuses to recognise these as sacred. The law inflicts the domination of the majority. Independent and democratic forces are of the opinion that its repeal would serve Islam, humanity and the cause of justice. This aspect of the law needs to be considered in the light of the provisions of the constitution, which should prevail over all laws, including the law relating to blasphemy.

Society disintegrates where rulers do not have the political will to bring an end to injustice and oppression. Progressive and democratic forces along with media must come forward to launch a strong movement against all discriminatory laws, including the blasphemy law. The presence of the law on the statute book perpetuates injustice and brings a bad name to the nation.

This article originally appeared in the Daily Times and is reposted with permission.

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