Shadow boxing with imaginary blasphemers in a ‘republic of fear’
Analysis and chronology of recent moves to amend the controversial,
man-made ‘blasphemy laws’ of Pakistan
By Nasim Zehra
Feb 3, 2011
The new aspect to Prime Minister’s announcement was that he had consulted Sherry Rehman and she had agreed to withdraw her Bill. As Sherry’s statement posted here indicates, this was the PM’s unilateral decision.
Sherry Rehman has also explained, such a move was unnecessary since the Bill was not even tabled. She also points out that while many parliamentarians were told about the bill beforehand, key people in the party had assured her they would support it especially if media built some consensus.
Sadly, the contents of the bill were never laid before the House. More people would then have known that the proposed amendments had to do with procedural changes that prevented misuse of the law.
What is truly ironical is that the same statement in which the PM announced the withdrawal of the Bill, he invited the various parties to come and discuss how to prevent misuse of the law – which is largely what Sherry Rehman’s proposed amendment bill is about.
How the government has handled this issue is not about an individual, of course, the fact remains that it was Sherry Rehman who piloted the initial Bill alongside initial government moves to amend it; later, the religio-political parties demanded withdrawal of her un-tabled Bill, and made this point a symbol of their victory. Therefore, some facts around Sherry Rehman’s moves need to be stated.
1. While human rights groups have been working on the misuse of blasphemy law for years, it was when the PPP led government announced a Committee to amend the laws that Ms Rehman tabled her bill. She shared it with all party leaders, and made it a point to inform the Chief Whip of the Government of her plans – and he did not ask her to hold off for a while. She consulted with several lawyers about the bill and did not submit it in secret. The proposed amendment created a wave of awareness that has finally led everyone (including the Council of Islamic Ideology, CII) to concede that changes are required to end and tackle its misuse. Even the religious parties have taken this position of reform repeatedly in various forums. All this contradicts the claims of those who now hold the view that the introduction of this bill was an ill-timed move.
2. The government blundered along making contradictory moves and statements on the issue of amending the blasphemy law ever since Aasia bibi’s conviction. They set up a Committee to review it and created a parliamentary subcommittee headed by Nafisa Shah. But with the first whiff of criticism by other groups, the Law Minister announced that amendment will take place “only over my dead body”! And so went the saga. On one hand the Punjab Governor criticised the law and lobbied for Aasia’s presidential pardon, on the other, the Law Minister and even the Interior Minister made statements countering their own government’s attempts. Instead of ironing out these stark contradictions, the departure of JUI from the coalition convinced the government that backtracking on the amendment would buy it survival security. Hence Sherry Rehman’s bill was not a victim of bad timing but in fact a victim of PPP’s bad politics.
3. Every backtracking move by the government emboldened those who equated amendment of the man-made law with ‘blasphemy’. Parties like PTI, PML-N and PML-Q have become actively engaged in street protests organised by the ‘religious right’ that are shadow boxing with imaginary blasphemers. Such farcical politics has few parallels, to which the government’s trajectory of contradictions and retreat made no mean contribution.
4. In pursuit of what the government believes to be its survival mode politics, the government and the party has practically abandoned Sherry Rehman. They have provided her some security outside her house but no government ministers have spoken in the parliament criticising the death threats against her. Almost no one has spoken for her at other public forums either. The government has not opted to be part of her defence in the Lahore High Court where there is a case demanding she be debarred. She is also involved, unsupported by the PPP, in trying to defend herself in a blasphemy case in Multan.
5. The big names of the legal community who led the lawyers’ movement have seem to have opted for selective commitment to rule of law by not taking a clear cut position to stand by Sherry Rehman — barring exceptions like Salman Raja and Hina Jillani. Should they not come forward to defend Sherry Rehman in the LHC and the Multan courts, as someone calling for the amendments to the blasphemy laws, to ensure that justice is upheld?
6.Against the backdrop of increasing cases of blasphemy being registered – against a student, a doctor and a DG khan imam and his son – Sherry Rehman stands vindicated on both the call for amendment and the timing of the call. She seems to have had a better political sense where it came to the dangers of ‘playing it safe’ and for opting for sheer expediency.
The government’s blundering over amending article 295 of the PPC will qualify as a textbook example of how ostensibly expedient politics takes nations down the road to hell. I pray that we are proven wrong but it seems that time will testify that led by the short-sighted politics of the PPP and of other parliamentary parties, Pakistan’s politics and State have weakened the essence and values of Islam, undermined parliamentary politics and strengthened the constituency of those who want to see Pakistan turn into a Republic of Fear. Such a heavy price to pay for political blundering and opportunism.
This is a slightly edited version of a post sent by the prominent journalist and television anchor Nasim Zehra to various email groups.