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Curse of the Blasphemy Law

September 3, 2012
Illustration: Anand Naorem

The detention of an 11 year old for alleged blasphemy is symptomatic of the naked abuse of power exercised by religious zealots, writes Dr Ayesha Siddiqa, in Tehelka.com

Let us roll a dice and guess who is more lucky: Abbas, tortured and burnt to death for allegedly blasphemy, or Rimsha who may survive death but will forever be scarred for being nearly sentenced to death on similar charges? Some will probably consider the young Christian girl lucky, compared to Abbas and scores of others who suffered under the archaic blasphemy law.

Some people in Pakistan and a handful of Pakistani scholars based in Western universities like Humaira Iqtidar, who are known for rationalising the religious right and jihadi organisations would explain the support extended by a few mullahs for Rimsha as a gradual secularising of the religious forces. Some mullahs consider sentencing an 11-year-old girl with Down’s Syndrome a travesty of justice. And, perhaps, it is this gradual realisation that would eventually bring sanity and, thus, secularise the society. However, there is no evidence to suggest that this defence is anything more than the imperative of ­survival. Unlike in case of Abbas, the judgment pronounced on Rimsha is likely to generate greater negative publicity for the mullah, on ­account of her tender age.

The mullahs argue that she must be forgiven as long as it is proven that she is a minor and suffers from a mental problem. Implying, they would have haunted and punished her were she even an hour older than what would legally qualify her as a minor. Considering the merit of the case, it is but utter hoopla. For instance, why would anyone risk a minor’s life and hand her pages from the Koran for desecration? Or where would a girl living in a minority-dominated ghetto find these pages?

Is it a conspiracy being hatched against Islam and Pakistan, as many right-wingers would suggest? So why not directly ­accuse the eleven-years old girl of working for cia or some other intelligence agency. Religious miscreants often tend to see a conspiracy behind their own misdeeds. In Abbas’s case, according to an available video, one of the many rabble-rousers is seen informing some journalists that Abbas had voluntarily committed blasphemy and that he was evil since “he had six passports, six id cards on him and there were almost signs of him not being a Muslim”. Let’s not yet get into the details of how such a discovery was made.

Incidentally, in Abbas’ case, the actual culprit in this case was a former soldier Ijaz Abbasi, a shopkeeper in Chani Goth in South Punjab, who he had left his bags with for safe keeping, while he went to attend to the call of nature. He returned to find Abbasi rummaging through his bags and stealing some of Abbas’s valuables. An argument broke out. Eventually, Abbas got so upset that he set his own bag on fire, giving Ijaz Abbasi an opportunity to accuse him of burning the Koran. After Abbas was handed over to the police, Ijaz Abbasi got in touch with local madrassas and mullahs to seek public support to punish the blasphemer.

Later, people like Maulvi Zubair Ahmed of one Ahl-Hadith masjid in the area, Maulvi Shakoor and Maulvi Manzoor Ahmed Nomani, both of Sipha-e-Sahaba mosques, and some other mullahs incited people against the Abbas. Soon, an angry mob of followers of some of these jihadi outfits pillaged the police station, tied and dragged Abbas behind a motorcycle and then burnt him. There were no protests despite the incident being reported in the local press. Chani Goth is known for being a centre of Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) influence. There are several villages that support the jem in the vicinity.

Before jumping conclusions it is worth stating that this debate is not about religion, rather the exercise of naked power. Interestingly, the Koran does not specify punishment for either a blasphemer or an apostate. Most Muslims have, in fact, grown up hearing the story of a Jewish woman in Makkah who threw garbage at the prophet almost every day as he passed her house. However, when she fell ill and stopped her practice, the prophet paid her a visit to enquire about her discontinuing the daily ritual. This is one of the stories of tolerance that a lot of Muslims in the Subcontinent may have heard.

Having said that, there are also instances when blasphemers were severely punished. In fact, blasphemy was legislated by the religious scholars of Islam and is not a part of the Koranic text. This explains what Islamic legal expert and former Chairman of Pakistan’s Islamic Ideological Council (IIC) Prof Khalid Masud claims, that blasphemy was a technical matter, but the way it has been applied has more to do with power than the scripture.

The selective use of Islamic history while framing the blasphemy law was very much linked with an Islamic empire, negotiating power that was in the process of building itself. These were times when a majority of non-Muslims, with whom the Muslim world was in a state of contestation, had to be challenged. The blasphemer (at times) and the apostate (at all times) had to be punished to stave off the risk of re-conversion to other religions.

According to the famous Muslim historian Tibari, the dhimmi or the non-Muslim scripturarian (like Jew and Christian) were to be exempt from blasphemy. However, different Islamic scholars like Imams Malik Ibn Anas, Al-Shafi, Ahmed bin Hanbal and Abu Hanifa have different interpretations. What is noteworthy is that their interpretations are influenced by their political and social milieu.

Historically, blasphemy and apostasy laws were implemented when Muslims ruled a non-Muslim majority and a certain discipline was to be ensured. Naturally, the law was misused many a times, like in Andalusia, where 70 were accused and convicted for blasphemy.

More recently, the blasphemy law in India, and later in Pakistan, drew its inspiration from the British blasphemy law imposed during colonial times. Masud is of the view that in Pakistan the law was framed during the Zia period as a quid pro quo between the military dictator and the religious right that was more interested in a law on apostasy, which would have allowed them to target the Ahmedis, who had experienced violent opposition during the early 1950s leading to a semi-martial law in Lahore. While introducing Islamic law, General Zia had left out riba (usury) and apostasy. The negotiated blasphemy law prescribed life imprisonment that was later turned into death sentence by some of the more rabid right-wing judges of the Federal Shariat Court.

Subsequently, the law has been not only misused, but also deployed strategically to target religious minorities for vested interests rather than religious reasons. In most cases the blasphemy law is used to gain control of real estate, as in the case of the ghetto where Rimsha’s family lived. The land mafia wants to evict the poor Christians to develop housing schemes, in the area.

Rimsha may get relief but others won’t, especially ­Muslims, who are tried under this law more than the religious minorities. The law must be changed but that is not likely to happen under any government, until a constructive debate is floated to understand the concept of blasphemy rationally and compassionately. The Muslims, especially in Pakistan, have to understand that Islam as a civilization is, now, well established and so they can do away with this law confidently. As mentioned earlier, blasphemy law is not religious but historically a politico-military tool that can be dispensed with if the Muslims consider the logic, forwarded by a great Islamic scholar Nasr Abu Zayd that “divine law must be interpreted in the light of changing circumstances”.

Masud believes that the law and its misuse can only be fought if the liberals engage with it more constructively, and if the investigations into such cases become more transparent. What must be added, though, is that such development has to be accompanied with sensitisation of the police force in order to train them in collecting evidence and by removing some deep-set social prejudices. For the moment, all of this is a non-starter.

Ayesha Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based columnist and the author of Military Inc

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