Why can’t blasphemy law be revised?
nasir saeed
Nasir Saeed

Several religious scholars believe that non-Muslims cannot be awarded the death penalty for blaspheming

In the recent months we have seen relentless misuse of the blasphemy law. Within a month, three false blasphemy cases have been reported in different cities of Punjab — first in Mandi Bahauddin against Imran Masih for having an objectionable video on his phone; in Gujrat against a Christian seamstress, Sonia Gill, who was sitting on a banner bearing sacred Islamic names; and in Faisalabad against a Christian man, Usman Liaquat, for allegedly posting some comments on social media about eight months ago.

The most positive thing I have noticed in these cases is the diligence of the police, who have started the investigation but not registered an FIR immediately despite being under pressure from local groups. I have observed in the past few years that the police have become very careful and sensitive in blasphemy cases, as they have realised that mostly accusations of blasphemy are levelled because of personal grudges and petty disputes. People consider it an easy, quick and inexpensive way to settle their personal scores and teach a lesson to their opponents. I wish that before misusing this law as a tool, the accusers would give some to the devastating effect it has on the life of the person they wish to harm.

If watching an objectionable video on a phone is a crime for Imran, why does the same rule not apply to his accusers, and if Sonia committed blasphemy by sitting on that banner, then why did Haji Muhammad do? We can ask the authorities what arrangements they made or directions they issued to politicians and businessmen regarding what they would do with such a banner once their campaign ended. What steps have been taken to ensure these banners are not left just on the streets? Such banners, pamphlets, newspapers and other similar pieces of papers can daily be seen in the streets and on rubbish heaps. Shouldn’t it be asked what precautions have been taken to prevent innocent people inadvertently becoming victims?

Our government and politicians have failed to understand the scope of the misuse of this law and how to deal with this on-going phenomenon despite there being several devastating instances on record.

I am not sure it is intentional, or inadvertent, or fear of religious groups on this issue. Sadly, government’s silence has solidified the idea that the blasphemy law is a divine, untouchable law. But it is common knowledge that this law is manmade and was first introduced by the British government in 1860, and then amended by military dictator, Zia-ul-Haq, first in 1982 by the introduction of 295-B, and subsequently in 1986 with 295-C — the most stringent section. In 1991, the sharia court amended it again by introducing the mandatory death penalty. Although nobody has been officially executed, there is a long list of people who have been killed by vigilantes, and even by the police, while being detained.

Because of government’s lack of interest, we have now reached the stage where even discussing this law is considered blasphemy. Although Justice Asif Saeed Khosa of the Supreme Court of Pakistan said criticism of the blasphemy law did not amount to blasphemy, government is still reluctant to bring this law into parliament despite losing two high-profile politicians, Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti. I think the best way to honour the sacrifices of Taseer and Bhatti would be for the government to stop submitting to hardliner ideology of clergy, and bring this matter in parliament to have a debate and amend it appropriately.

Pakistan is not the only country that has this law in it penal code, but Pakistan seems to be the only country that seems most zealous about it. The misuse of the blasphemy law continues to grow, targeting minorities disproportionately. As soon as someone is accused of blasphemy, people, frenzied, take the law into their own hands, and start to rampage worship places, torch houses and hurt or kill innocent people, taking away their constitutional right to a fair trial.

The recent trends are terrifying, as now burning a person alive is becoming commonplace, and sometimes, the accused is asked to convert to Islam. I fail to understand whether these people consider burning a person alive is a religious punishment or a new hobby, and how the perpetrators can pardon someone if the accused converts to Islam while by doing so they are committing a crime themselves. However, the most important issue is how do they think they can get away with these crimes without being punished? Undoubtedly, it is a failure of government and the judicial system.

Only a few western countries like Austria, Poland, Ireland and Malta still retain this law. Norway repealed this law last year, while in Ireland and Malta debates have been held in parliament, and campaign groups are free to continue their campaigns against this law without any fear. Pakistan’s Civil society and minority groups, especially Christians who consider themselves a main target of this law, have been continuously voicing their apprehensions, but it is all falling on deaf ears of politicians and government. I don’t know what they are waiting for. Perhaps more bloodshed, louder cries or other horrific incidents like Shanti Nagar, Gojra or Joseph Colony to occur.

The international community has expressed its concern over the on-going misuse of the blasphemy law on several occasions, and very recently, US Senator Marco Rubio, former Republican presidential candidate, criticised Pakistan’s blasphemy law, saying it continues to “encourage” violence and marginalisation of religious minorities in Pakistan. He also cited the March 2011 killing of Shahbaz Bhatti saying “five years have passed but Pakistani government has failed to bring his murderers to justice and have failed to reform the blasphemy law that continues to encourage violence, murder with impunity, and the marginalisation of religious minorities.”

Rubio is not the only critic of Pakistan’s blasphemy law, but in the past US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, several western politicians and religious leaders have made efforts to divert our government’s attention to this festering issue. British Muslim MP Rehman Chishti even secured a debate in the House of Commons, and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that Pakistan be granted status of CPC (country of particular concern). But it all appears to be in vain.

On May 27, European parliamentarians launched a declaration on religious freedom in Pakistan and demanded the release of Aasia Bibi. In 2014, the European parliament debated and adopted an urgent resolution on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws saying, “The number of occurrences that the blasphemy laws have been used or cited by local authorities and police has made it clear that the law is being used as a tool for revenge, intimidation and corruption,” but our politicians and government are not paying any attention. Our government has signed several international treaties and conventions, and is under obligation to answer to the international community. But instead of being clear about the situation, government makes different excuses.

Several renowned Pakistani Muslim religious scholars including Javed Ahmed Ghamdi and Dr Khalid Zaheer believe that no worldly punishment has been mentioned in the Holy Qur’an for blasphemy. Several religious scholars also believe that non-Muslims cannot be awarded the death penalty for blaspheming. I don’t think reaching some consensus and stopping the misuse of the blasphemy law is impossible, but it is obvious that government’s lacks the will.

Despite all the disillusionment, I am still optimistic that one day Pakistan’s government and politicians will wake up from their slumber and realise their responsibilities. However, I hope it is not too late by then, and until then we have to continue our struggle.