Pakistan – Tolerance and Blasphemy Laws
By Ali Salman Alvi (Software Engineer by profession, a writer and peace activist. Twitter: @alisalmanalvi)
This article was published on Saturday, September 29, 2012 in Daily Times
Over the years, attempts to amend the statute have aggravated rigid opposition from religious parties and invited threats of bloodshed from militant groups
Our history is witness to the fact that on the planet earth we have no competitor when it comes to self-torment and making an exhibition of ourselves, thanks to our unparalleled expertise in shooting ourselves in the foot. No foreign agency — be it RAW or MOSSAD — has the potential to inflict even an iota of the damage we can inflict on ourselves, that too, quite voluntarily. Just when the world thinks we have hit rock bottom, we shock it by stooping to new depths of insanity. Be it the barbarous public lynching of two brothers in Sialkot that left us with our heads hung in shame or the deplorable murder of the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer by his own security guard and the subsequent glorification of the killer as a hero of Islam, we never cease to stoop low. In July this year, a mob of more than 2,000 enraged people snatched a mentally unstable man accused of burning pages from the Holy Quran from police custody and burnt him alive in Chanighot area of Bahawalpur. I feel sorry for the psychiatrists who try to look into the reasons behind our intolerant behaviour of going violent on little things since this mental disorder of ours is not only incomprehensible, it is rather incurable. How did torching that man strengthen Islam? What purpose has it served? Where is this frenzy driving us? What message are we sending to the world? We better figure it out sooner rather than later.
In the latest development in the Rimsha Masih case, the investigating officer has submitted an interim charge sheet before a trial court claiming that the complainant, prayer leader Khalid Jadoon Chishti, was in fact guilty of tampering with the evidence by adding Holy pages in the bag Rimsha had been carrying. There was no evidence or witness to prove that the blasphemy-accused girl was seen desecrating the Quran. It is high time that a serious effort was made to stop the abuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan.
Blasphemy is an extremely susceptible issue that needs to be handled with great care. No Muslim even of the weakest faith can disregard the sacrilege of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) or the Holy Quran. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan has a staggering 97 percent Muslim population while Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and other minorities comprise the rest. Yet, looking at the rate of blasphemy cases being registered, presumably, Islam faces almost all threats, existential in nature, from the land of the pure. In a country where minorities are already facing almost all kinds of challenges, why would any sane person dare to commit blasphemy? If the person charged with blasphemy is rather fortunate, police would arrest her or him; otherwise, mob justice is served to the accused.
Laws are made on the basis of creating order and promising peace where governance is challenged, whereas statistics suggest that the blasphemy law has only polarised our society. As per a group of Pakistani Christians, only seven cases of blasphemy were registered in all in un-partitioned India and Pakistan from 1927 to 1986. The National Commission for Justice and Peace says that in the last 25 years, 1,058 cases of blasphemy were registered. Of the accused, 456 were Ahmadis, 449 were Muslims, 132 were Christians and 21 were Hindus. Several sections of Pakistan’s Criminal Code comprise its blasphemy laws. During Ziaul Haq’s regime, another addition to the blasphemy statutes was legislated in 1986. Section 295-C reads: “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.” Section 295 has gradually become a handy legal mace to settle measly personal scores, threaten rival families for pecuniary gains and practise myopic versions of Islam, predominantly in small towns and rural areas. Judges in the lower courts usually come under pressure to convict the accused charged under the statute.
Azam Tariq, the slain head of the outlawed Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, now working under the deceptive label of Ahl-e-Sunnat wal-Jamaat, wanted to expand the blasphemy statutes to another level by including the defiling of the companions of the holy Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) as a punishable offence. In a bill he submitted in the National Assembly, known as the Namoos-e-Sahaba bill, he proposed death or life imprisonment for any person who by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the companions of the Holy Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). The bill was, quite understandably, aimed at persecuting the Shia community that has its own set of inveterate views about a few of the Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH)’s companions (the bone of contention between two major sects of Islam, i.e. Shias and Sunnis), lawfully. Thankfully, the bill was never taken up by parliament for voting.
Legislation when it encompasses any aspect of a particular religion requires extra care and vigilance. Religion always ignites passion, emotions, whereas laws require evidence, proof and witnesses. Religion always creates torrential ripples of disagreement if ideologies tend to differ whereas laws are made to hold society in unison. Minorities’ exodus through any form is questionable in a republic that upholds the rights of its citizens. Polarisation of society on a large scale can cause a civil war and wars fought on/over religion have no end because they are beliefs of various individuals. Thus laws should be such as to allow cohesively all religions to flourish peacefully.
Over the years, attempts to amend the statute have aggravated rigid opposition from religious parties and invited threats of bloodshed from militant groups. When Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto was the prime minister of Pakistan, she tried to amend the blasphemy statute as it was being misused to intimidate religious minorities, but she could not succeed in doing so. Even General (Retd) Pervez Musharraf, a secular military dictator, could not amend the blasphemy laws, anticipating an imminent and severe retaliation. For the same reasons, major political parties are found reluctant to correct the law. Realising the political difficulties of amending it, I ask the authorities and the judiciary to build safety measures around the inherent faults of the blasphemy statute, particularly Section 295-C of PCC that attracts capital punishment. While the castigatory part of the statute is lucid, the definition of blasphemy remains vague and open to an individual’s interpretation.
In 2010, Article 10 of the constitution was amended to introduce the clause of due process into the criminal justice system. The amendment provides that a person charged with a crime is entitled to due process. This due process clause applies to the blasphemy statute as well. Pakistani courts must not apply the blasphemy statute disregarding due process and basic fundamental rights of life, liberty and freedom of religion, protected under the constitution. I am not proposing that Pakistan should allow the defiling of the Prophet (PBUH) but blasphemy cases need to be thoroughly investigated and the first and foremost priority should be to establish the genuineness of the charges filed under the blasphemy satute. I submit that Section 295-C must be reserved only for malevolent attacks on the Prophet (PBUH) and even in such cases, it should not be construed and applied in a manner repugnant to due process and Article 227 that reads: “All existing laws shall be brought in conformity with the Injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah.” Religious minorities enjoy certain undeniable rights under Article 227, which no other law can take away.