Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been used against Muslims as well as against members of minority faiths such as Asia Bibi.
Asia Bibi languishes in a Pakistani jail while her daughters weep over their mother’s tragedy and their imminent loss. Her alleged crime? Disrespecting the prophet Mohammed and insulting the religion of Islam. As much as this sounds like a scenario from the Middle Ages, it happens routinely under Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy laws.
These laws came into effect in their current form under the military dictatorship of General Mohammad Ziaul Haqq. Inspired by a puritanical and punitive brand of Islam, the General introduced amendments to existing blasphemy laws by increasing penalties for certain offences. The law had existed in the subcontinent since colonial times. However, it underwent the kind of transformation that rendered religious minorities especially vulnerable to accusations by a Muslim majority that has become increasingly fundamentalist.
As it stands, the law prohibits blasphemy against any recognized religion. However, it is often invoked when Islam is allegedly under attack by members of minority faith communities.
The most troubling sections of the blasphemy law revolve around alleged blasphemy against the prophet Mohammed. This carries the death sentence and can be accompanied by fine if the charge is considered serious enough. Thus far both Muslims and non-Muslims have been charged with the offence of blasphemy.
There is great potential for abuse of such provisions. Foremost, the possibility of misinterpreting intentions and gestures is immense. The law states that if someone insults “by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representations or otherwise, promotes or incites, or attempts to promote or incite, on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities”, that person shall be fined and punished with imprisonment for a term of up to five years. This leaves the field wide open for anyone to accuse another of having insulted their religious sentiments.
A case in point is that of Dr. Younas Sheikh, who was accused of disrespecting the prophet simply because he stated the historical truth that the prophet’s parents were non-Muslim as they died before the advent of Islam. His book, “Satanic Cleric” also invited criticism for pointing out that stoning to death for adultery was not a Quranic punishment.
The blasphemy law can also be abused by those who wish to exact vengeance on an enemy or to settle old grievances. All one needs to do is to accuse one’s enemies of having committed blasphemy, and the accuser can be guaranteed their enemies will not sleep easy.
Almost everyone who knows the implications of the blasphemy law also understands that it is brutally unjust. For this reason, some high-profile politicians have attempted to oppose it, but have paid dearly for their opposition. The governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by a member of his own elite guard for defending Asia Bibi. A few months later, the minister for minority affairs, Shabaz Bhatti, was shot dead. Sherry Rahman, who started a campaign to introduce amendments to the law, also received death threats. Rahman did not even suggest repealing the law. She merely proposed including “mens rea” or intent to commit blasphemy in the current stipulations. Presently, the law does not recognize intent as a factor in determining culpability in blasphemy cases. One can be accused of blasphemy even if one has not intended to commit such an act.
The blasphemy law as it is being applied in Pakistan today has tremendous potential for abuse. While religious minorities are at greatest risk, Muslims with a slightly different understanding of Islam are also vulnerable to its pernicious applications. In a country that aspires to be modern and democratic, archaic laws such as the blasphemy law must be repealed. The state must not police the religious beliefs of its citizens. Nor must the clergy class be allowed to determine which interpretation of Islam is acceptable to the masses. The blasphemy law must go.
Farzana Hassan is a Toronto author and past president of the Muslim Canadian Congress.