No to Blasphemy Laws

This piece was originally published in Daily Times on November 23, 2010

It is nothing much, just one more conviction under the Blasphemy Law of Pakistan. This time, it is a woman. Aasia Bibi gets her fate written by an Additional Sessions Court in Nankana Sahib, District Sheikhupura. We have, it seems, successfully saved the honour of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).

A simplistic, popular argument in favour of the faulty black laws of blasphemy has been that, as committed Muslims, we cannot let blasphemers get off scot-free. And since the law of the land asks for capital punishment for the crime of blasphemy, it is obligatory to pursue such cases with public vigilance. To an ordinary thinking mind, this increasing insecurity about the honour of Islam, the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and Holy Quran looks ridiculously misplaced. Ever since the blasphemy laws were promulgated in the Indo-Pak subcontinent, they seem to have instigated violence against religious minorities.

Blasphemy accusations were regularly levelled against the Sufi mystics before and during Mughal India. In most of these cases, orthodox schools of religious thought used blasphemy as a pretext for settling other scores. One can see it in the case of Sufi saint Sarmad Shaheed who was beheaded by Aurangzeb, Baba Bulleh Shah who was thrown out of his native Kasur on charges of blasphemy, and even Rahman Baba who was accused of being an atheist and had to defend the conspiracies to oust him from his village, Hazar Khwani, in Mohmand district of the then Peshawar province.

It, however, remained largely an activity of the royal courts to invoke blasphemy against Sufis or political opponents. The scourge of popular vigilantism entered Indian society after the 1860s Blasphemy Law inclusion in the India penal code. There was no looking back after this, especially after Pakistan came into being. The first major case of blasphemy that got public attention and a permanent imprint on the Muslim mind was that of Ilam Din (called Ghazi and Shaheed simultaneously). Ilam Din, as the legend goes, was an ordinary Muslim son of a carpenter and irregular mosque-goer. It was the oratory of the clerics Maulana Ahmed Saeed Dehlvi and Amir-e-Shariat in a protest meeting against the publication of a profane book against Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) that instigated the carpenter’s son to get up, hold up the dagger and stab the publisher to death. This act of murder without any conviction by a court of law (the matter was still sub judice) was hailed by all and sundry, including the entire range of Muslim political leaders. Ilam Din is still revered for this “valour”, “act of piety for sheer love of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH)” and for being “a matchless warrior”, as Dr Sir Allama Iqbal was quoted as saying at Ilam Din’s funeral in the Encyclopaedia of World Muslims.

After Pakistan came into being, we had to rely on the excessive use of Islamic symbolism to justify our existence as a separate entity from parent India, and to avoid a further breakdown through the generous provision of religious adhesive to an otherwise multi-ethnic, multi-cultural federation. The Islamisation of laws was an easy tool to adopt that outlook. It was no later than the early 1950s that pogroms against the Hindu population started in Khulna and other parts of East Pakistan, but also the fierce attacks on Ahmedis and Christians in West Pakistan. The existing Blasphemy Law provided an easy solution for pushing minorities against the wall. What is most troublesome is that even in those days popular vigilantism was allowed to let go unchecked, rather it was patronised.

Aasia Bibi’s case is not the only shame Pakistan has had to suffer; we have many such cases to our credit, especially after 1992 when 295-C was further amended to make death the obligatory blasphemy sentence. A cursory look at the data amply shows a sudden surge in blasphemy cases post-1992.

Section 295 of the Pakistan penal code prohibits “injuring or defiling a place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class”. Section 295-A forbids “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”. Section 295-B puts a bar on “defiling, etc, of the Holy Quran”. Section 295-C forbids the “use of derogatory remarks, etc, in respect of the Holy Prophet (PBUH)”. There is an additional Section 298 that forbids “uttering words, etc, with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings”. Three more sections, Section 298-A (use of derogatory remarks, etc, in respect of holy personages), 298-B (misuse of epithets, descriptions and titles, etc, reserved for certain holy personages or places) and Section 298-C (person of the Ahmedi group, etc, calling himself a Muslim or preaching or propagating his faith) make a further mockery of every principle of justice and equality in a modern state.

The basic problem with these sections is that none of them qualifies and determines the variables like “deliberate” and “malicious” attempts of profanity/defamation. In the backdrop of this ambiguity, the absolute unwanted character of these legislative provisions has not only suppressed the religious minorities manifold, but also given rise to uncontrollable public vigilantism and violence in society.

According to a recent report by the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), a total of 964 people had been charged under the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan from 1986 to 2009. Out of these, NCJP says, 479 were Muslims, 340 Ahmedis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus, and 10 others. It may be noted that none of the blasphemy convicts have been executed so far, but 32 people charged with blasphemy have been extra-judicially killed. No serious enquiry into their murders has yet been seen. Many of these murders have either been committed in the custody of police or in front of authorities. But powerful religious groups manage to go scot-free in every murder, thereby strengthening the view that the life of minority citizens has no value and depends on their conduct under sheer suppression by a furious majority.

One is amazed at the audacity of the advocates of blasphemy laws, who think of themselves as vigilant guards of not only the Almighty, but religious personages as well, thereby creating an illusion that God and the Prophet (PBUH) might not be able to deal with the blasphemer and would need the help of Tehrik-e-Khatam-e-Nabuwat and the like. In my view, they themselves are the biggest blasphemers.

It needs to be strongly voiced in every public sphere today that Pakistan, with a majority Muslim population, does not need blasphemy laws. The presence of these laws hints at Muslim insecurity as well of lack of confidence in our own selves. Let us not make laws for the already powerful majority. A blasphemy law without a strong blasphemy libel law is merely a tool of suppression. It is not 295-C that is the problem, it is the way we have written our statute and the way we are shaping our worldview that has become the problem. Root it out before it roots us out. Pakistan cannot afford any more shame.

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