Negotiating the impossible

Nasir Saeed

A blasphemy case has been registered under sections 295, 295 C, 298 C and others against the owner of one of Pakistan’s biggest media groups, Mir Shakilur Rehman, anchorwoman Shaista Lodhi, actress Veena Malik, her husband Asad Khattak and other people, creating a new state of affairs. Perhaps this is the first time that such high profile people have been charged under the blasphemy law. These are all very serious charges with the most severe punishment ranging all the way up to the death penalty.

Normally, in such cases, the police immediately arrest the accused, and if they fail, then the local imams use their leverage to provoke or remind Muslims of their religious duty, using mosque loudspeakers. The emotionally charged religious mob then takes the law into their own hands and begins the process of vigilante justice, which sometimes ends in the accused person being lynched. If the accused is a Christian then the whole locality comes under attack, their churches are ravaged and whole towns can even be set on fire. Even those who are not involved are punished. However, the situation in this case is quite different and intriguing, and everybody is watching it cautiously as this case can be a game changer.

The incident occurred on May 14, 2014 during a morning show hosted by Shaista Lodhi. People complained about some objectionable clips aired on her show and as soon as she realised her mistake she apologised on air but it was too late as it has become a burning issue for some people. It is being seen not as a normal crime but a crime against Islam, which carries a severe punishment.

Because of public pressure, an FIR (first information police report) was registered on May 17 in Margalla police station, Islamabad and, according to reports, a similar case has been registered in several police stations but nobody has been arrested yet. This is very unusual in these kinds of cases but since all these people are very high profile, law enforcement agencies and the government are both hesitant about taking any action.

On the contrary, this is the first time I have seen the polarisation between the ulema (clergy) and politicians. Some are insisting that action be taken while others are insisting on accepting the apology made by Shaista Lodhi. I wonder why some of those who are insisting on accepting the apology, including hardliners who have been vociferously suggesting death only as a penalty for the blasphemer and never believe in a pardon, are now being such hypocrites. No doubt they will find some Islamic reference to justify their stance.

The situation is becoming more complex and many zealots cannot understand what action they should take. Keeping in view such a situation, I cannot predict anything but my personal opinion is that the apology should be accepted. However, it does not seem that easy as Sahibzada Hamid Raza, the chairman of the Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC), has submitted a petition in the Supreme Court while the SIC’s ulema board has also issued a fatwa. There are several others who are not willing to accept the apology and are determined to not let this issue go at any cost. They want the implementation of the law to run its course.

Hamid Raza and several of the ulema believe no one has a right to a pardon, and if pardoning these people is so important because of their social status, then everyone who has been languishing in prison for years must also be pardoned. I think this is a principled stance and I am in favour of everyone being pardoned as the majority of these victims are innocent and they have been falsely accused to settle personal scores. If we look at history, many have been acquitted by the courts as they were found not guilty. In the majority of cases there are no witnesses and no evidence.

However, this case is unique — if started it will be challenging for the courts but will be equally simple as the witnesses and evidence is readily available. However, will this case ever be started, and if started, will it be decided according to the law? I have some doubts as Pakistan has double standards regardless of law or religion.

Some Christians are comparing this case with Aasia Bibi’s and are commenting on different blogs and websites that if these people are charged under 295 C and can be pardoned, then why not Aasia Bibi, a poor Christian woman, who had a bounty on her head and has been on death row since 2010? No one could dare to speak up for her; it was only Salmaan Taseer, the then governor of Punjab, who had the courage to try and get her justice. He was openly threatened with his life but he refused to be silenced and then, on January 4, 2011, he was shot dead by his own guard. The message was clear: opposing the religious right and supporting alleged blasphemers can make you a target. Instead of condemning the horrific act, Islamic parties and groups led thousands of people in a protest, while several demanded Aasia’s execution. Now we have this ludicrous situation with several religious and political leaders insisting on accepting an apology for the same offence.

I wish for at least moderate politicians taking a stand against the tyranny of the blasphemy law. We all know that Salmaan Taseer had not committed blasphemy in any way but was only punished for standing by a poor Christian lady who comes from nowhere and was falsely accused of blasphemy.

The blasphemy law is continuously being criticised by the international community for its widespread misuse and for endangering innocent people’s lives but the government is not paying any attention. Undoubtedly, the law needs overhauling as the wording of 295 C is: “use of derogatory remarks etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet: — whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life and shall also be liable for fine.”

I remember the case of Dr Naushad Valiyani who was arrested on blasphemy charges following a complaint by a medical representative after his business card was thrown into a rubbish basket. Even then I had warned of such consequences if the law remained the same or if safeguards were not introduced. I wish the government had paid attention to the suggestion of Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi, who suggested the same punishment for false accusers. According to the present wording, and using Dr Valiyani’s case as an example, a majority of Pakistanis have committed blasphemy at least once and many have done so unknowingly on several occasions.

It is not too late to learn from these cases and gather together a team of legal experts, ulema and human rights experts to reach an acceptable conclusion before it creates a crisis in the country. No one is safe and no one knows who is going to be next. The majority of Pakistanis are potential blasphemers, especially those who use Mohammad (PBUH) with their name. The time has come to change the law and further delay means further damage. The worst is yet to come.

Courtesy: Daily Times, Pakistan