Time to review the blasphemy law

Nasir Saeed

The recent statement from Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani, Chairman of Council for Islamic Ideology (CII), has once again attracted attention to the need to reform the blasphemy law.

The law has been criticised regularly by civil society, the international community and minorities that have been demanding its repeal.
We have seen now it has become a crime to even criticise the law or demand changes to it. Those who have refused to accept this have been threatened with death, or silenced forever. We have lost two brave senior politicians -Shahbaz Bhatti and Salman Taseer.

Years ago the Lahore High Court had said that the law need to be reviewed, and recently the Supreme Court said the same. But now Maulana Sherani’s leniency and willingness have given a new hope. The whole world seems concerned about the ongoing misuse of this law. Apart from the UN and commonwealth, most parliaments in western countries have discussed Pakistan’s blasphemy law. In the British parliament the issue has been raised at least a dozen times, including by Muslim MP Rehman Chishti.

But where this law has to be discussed (Pakistan Parliament), they still seem tentative and uncertain. Is it an inadvertent delay or fear of backlash? Religious scholars and critics have their arguments in favour and against, but it is only the government that can bring this matter to an end.

The CII Chairman has said that the council could seriously consider the matter and give its recommendations on whether the law is too harsh or soft, and whether it needs to be amended. But he has said the government of Pakistan should officially refer the law to the Council.

The CII’s willingness to address the subject is good news and now is the time for the country to take a step forward.

It is the same chairman who in 2013 had refused to discuss this law and said “minorities will become unsafe if amendments are made to the blasphemy law”. In 1994 in the High Court, former president Rafiq Tarar had to emphasise the same arguments that if this law is not there or if 295C is struck down people will take the law into their own hands and kill the culprits on the spot.

But this law has not been able to prevent such incidents, so the argument stands nowhere and purpose of having this law to deal with an offence through legal means has lost credibility.

The law has been failed to protect innocent people, especially those who belong to minority groups.
That is why they are leaving the country of their forefathers. Sadly their own representatives are subservient to their party leaders.

In the past, the CII has expressed its own view that only a deliberate act of blasphemy could be punishable with death, and also application of blasphemy law to the non-Muslims. There is a need to clear any ambiguities over these issues.

There is also a lot of difference of opinion among the clergy. Many religious scholars and politicians have admitted this fact in the media that the law is being misused in different shapes, not only just to settle personal scores but to build pressure o police, threaten lawyers and to spread fear among minorities.

In the past, M P Bhandara (Late) and Senator Sherry Rehman faced dire consequences for presenting a bill in the Parliament to initiate a debate for its amendment. Shahbaz Bhatti was killed for demanding a change while Salman Taseer was murdered by his own police guard, Mumtaz Qadri, whose appeal is still pending before the President of Pakistan for clemency.

But this time the government should proceed. Because there are so many reasons including the CII’s chairman’s attitude, the Prime Minister’s own reiterated statement about a liberal and democratic Pakistan. The government’s action plan cannot be consummated as this law is being used to provoke hatred and incite violence.

I am not sure whether the CII will discuss this law or not, whether it will soften or harden the punishment or whether it will remain the same. But one thing I am sure about is, that it is the government’s responsibility to bring this law into the parliament for a debate. Since Pakistan is a party to most of the core international treaties, like ICCPR, ICESCR and CRC, it is under obligation to bring its law in line with these treaties.

The European Parliament has recently released its report about the issues faced by Pakistan and it has shown some concern over the non-implementation of these treaties. It is also being said that this maiden report will determine the future of Generalized System of Preference (GSP) Plus status through the EU Parliament.