Towards a review of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws

March 12, 2011

rehman malikAfter two assassinations, Pakistani politicians are finally beginning to address tensions over the country’s blasphemy laws.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik said in an interview politicians should be able to reach a cross-party consensus on preventing the misuse of the blasphemy laws, as proposed by Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, head of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) religious party. ”Its misuse is being, of course, taken into account and the party leaders are going to sit together as proposed by Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman … and I hope this matter can be thrashed out, whenever this meeting takes place.” 

Two senior politicians, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, were assassinated this year after they called for amendments to the blasphemy laws, which critics say are often misused to settle personal scores.  The row over the blasphemy laws has become one of most incendiary issues in Pakistan, highlighting the dominance of the religious right which has been able to bring out thousands into the streets to protest against any changes to the laws.  Taseer’s self-confessed killer, Mumtaz Qadri, was celebrated as a hero by many.

Fazl-ur-Rehman, who quit the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)-led government in December after a row over the sacking of one of his ministers, has been a vocal defender of the blasphemy laws. However, Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper quoted him as saying last week that “if a law is being misused against minorities we are ready to discuss this.”  In a follow-up commentary, Dawn called it “a climbdown from his customary hardline position”.

The row over the blasphemy laws was only part of a growing trend  towards extremism in Pakistan, it said. “However unwittingly, the JUI-F leader has also provided the key to the only conceivable way out of this frightening situation. The clear and present danger of extremism can only be countered if all parties, particularly those whose focus is spreading religious ideology, work together on a consensus that taking the law into one’s own hands, regardless of the issue at stake, is unacceptable.”

Interior Minister Malik said Fazl-ur-Rehman’s proposals would be likely to gain support, without giving details. “Everybody, I think will follow him in this connection.”

The intervention of Fazl-ur-Rehman, who despite his pro-Taliban credentials has had good ties with the secular-leaning PPP, appears to have coincided with an improvement in relations with the ruling party after the December falling-out.

Interior Minister Malik said, ”he has always favoured and taken the side of the Pakistan People’s Party … He is a great friend of mine, he is a great friend of the president, he is a great lover of democracy so you can draw the inference that there is nothing wrong.”

It remains unclear how far politicians would be willing to go in order to prevent misuse of the blasphemy laws, which carry the death penalty for those convicted of insulting the Prophet Mohammad. Some argue that it would be enough to ensure that the cases of those accused of blasphemy be heard by  higher  courts better qualified to interpret the laws fairly and less likely to be swayed by the mob pressure which can be used to get convictions in lower courts.

Others argue that the actual wording of the laws needs to be amended if they are to be fairly applied. The original blasphemy law, introduced in British India in 1860, imposed a prison term of up to two years for any damage to a place of worship or sacred object carried out  “with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defilement as an insult to their religion…”

The current provision in the Pakistan Penal Code, as amended in 1986, both introduces the death penalty for insulting the Prophet, and drops the concept of intent.  According to Section 295-C of the Penal Code, “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 Muhammed (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life and shall also be liable to fine.”

This omission of the need to prove malicious intent has opened the door to some of the more absurd accusations of blasphemy, many of which are made against Muslims — like a student accused of blaspheming in an answer on an exam paper, or a doctor who threw out a business card from a salesman named Mohammed. It is unclear whether the misuse of the laws can be stopped without the reinsertion of the notion of intent in some form.

When I asked Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman about the blasphemy laws — during an interview in London in November before the issue became so bitter and so deadly — he answered somewhat mildly that, “if there is a law, it has to be implemented, but when there is misuse of the law, it can be challenged in the courts of law.”  He added that, “any aberration of the law can be changed through an act of parliament.”

Both he and the government have ruled out making any changes to the laws.

The attempt to find a political consensus on the subject could however be an important first step towards injecting some sanity into the approach taken towards the blasphemy laws.

(File photo of Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik) 




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