The price of blasphemy in Pakistan

Critics say controversial laws are ripe for misuse and abuse, with accusations often stemming from personal disputes.

Pakistan''s anti-blasphemy laws: Bloody Hell!
Calls for amendments to the contentious laws have been met with tough resistance and have regularly led to violence [GALLO/GETTY]

“You may belong to any religion, caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the state. In due course of time, Hindus will cease to be Hindus and Muslims will cease to be Muslims – not in a religious sense for that is the personal faith of an individual – but in a political sense as citizens of one state,” declared Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, in his first address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947.

But more than 65 years on, Pakistan is again generating headlines because of its controversial anti-blasphemy laws that some analysts say are far removed from the founder’s vision of the state.

The latest case, the arrest and imprisonment of an 11-year-old Christian girl for allegedly burning pages of the Noorani Qaida – a beginner’s guide for reciting the Quran with correct accent and pronunciation. It may be shocking, but there are about eight to 15 cases of blasphemy that reach the Pakistani courts every year. 

In most of these instances, it is Muslims – rather than Pakistan’s Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis – who have been charged.

With no definition of blasphemy in the Pakistan Penal Code, the country’s strict anti-blasphemy laws are ripe for misuse and abuse, and accusations often stem from personal and religious rivalries.

The punishment for those found guilty can range from a fine to death, but there has never been an execution of a person charged with blasphemy in Pakistan. Convictions often result in a prison sentence of at least three years. 

Mob justice justified

Despite a high rate of acquittal upon appeal, fear and confusion continue to surround the laws. The legal avenues for redress often go hand-in-hand with mob justice. When somebody is accused of blasphemy, they, their family and their community will likely be targeted.

Pakistan Penal Code Chapter XV (sections 295 – 298C):  Of offences relating to religion 
  • 295: Injuring or defiling place of worship, with intent to insult the religion of any class
  • 295-A: Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs
  • 295-B: Defiling, etc., of Quran
  • 295-C: Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of Prophet Muhammad
  • 296: Disturbing religious assembly
  • 297: Trespassing on burial places, etc.
  • 298: Uttering words, etc., with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings
  • 298-A: Use of derogatory remarks, etc. in respect of holy personages
  • 298-B: Misuse of epithets, descriptions and titles, etc. reserved for certain holy personages or places
  • 298-C:Person of Ahmadi/Quadiani group, etc., calling himself a Muslim or preaching or propagating his faith

In the latest instance, many of the Christian neighbours of the accused 11-year old reportedly fled their homes in the slum area of Islamabad where the Christian community is largely located – either for fear of attack, or after senior members of the Muslim community allegedly pressured landlords to evict Christian tenants.

The panic and exodus were for good reason. In July, a man suspected of being mentally ill and accused of throwing pages of the Quran onto a street was hauled out from police custody in southern Punjab by a mob of hundreds, beaten to death, and his body set ablaze.

Even after somebody has served a long prison sentence for blasphemy, they may still be victimised upon release.

Ejaz Akram is a professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences. He works closely with Pakistan’s Christian community, and won a Peace Award in 2007 for his work on interfaith dialogue.

“What comes with the mob mentality is that people would not even want to verify [the facts of a case],” Akram explains. “Mob psychology overrules
commonsense … Everything is seen as black and white [and] the most unintelligent with the loudest voice commands the mob.” 

In 2010, the English-language Express Tribune newspaper reported there had been 34 suspected extrajudicial killings of people accused of blasphemy between 1990 and 2010. Of those, 15 were Muslims, 16 were Christians, two were Ahmadis and one was a Hindu. They were either killed extrajudicially or found dead in prison under suspicious circumstances. Thirty-one of those deaths occurred in Punjab.

“Nobody has read the blasphemy law. Nobody understands which clauses were added when and why,” says Syed Zaid Hamid, a political commentator. “It has become a weapon that is being used in sectarian wars. Facts and figures show that it is used against Muslims as well. The real problem lies with the interpretation of the law.

“We are against the religious fanatics who exploit this law. There are fundamental flaws in it,” he adds.

General Zia’s law

Much of the anti-blasphemy laws currently in place in Pakistan today were the work of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the country’s sixth president, who ruled from 1978 until his death in 1988.

Zia overhauled the anti-blasphemy laws Pakistan had inherited from pre-partition India in a bid to create “an Islamic state governed by Shariah”, says Lahore High Court lawyer Hina Hafeezullah. 

That original law, dating from 1860, forbade “injuring or defiling a place of worship, with the intent to insult the religion of any class” and was amended in 1927 to further emphasise the importance of intention.

But between 1982 and 1986, Zia introduced a series of changes to Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws. 

The first amendment made defiling a copy of the Quran punishable by life imprisonment, another banned Qadianis and Ahmadis from referring to themselves as Muslims. But it was the 1986 change that made derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad punishable by death, or life imprisonment, that is popularly understood to be the Blasphemy Law.

Fewer than 10 blaspemy cases were filed between Pakistan’s creation and Zia’s final amendment. Since 1986 there have been an estimated 1,200 to 4,000. 

“There should be a proper discussion so people know what the laws are all about, how they can be used and when they should be used,” says religious scholar Sarfaraz Awan.

Polarising Pakistani society

Calls for amendments to the anti-blasphemy law have been met with tough resistance from Islamic parties, and regularly lead to violence.

Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal minister for minorities, were both assassinated last year for advocating a review – an act the religious right sees as blasphemous in itself.

Those who defend the law do so fiercely.

“A person who insults Prophet Muhammad must be killed. We cannot pardon [him or her]. Nobody has been sentenced if innocent and the law gives security to minorities.

– Syed Safdar Shah Gillani, a leader of the Sunni Itehad Council

“There are many other laws that are [also] being abused, so why is this one being picked in particular?” asks Maulana Fazal-ur-Rahman, a prominent right-wing politician and cleric. “Nobody talks about false witnesses who have helped put so many people in prisons [for other crimes] when they are not actually guilty.

“To insult Prophet Muhammad and other prophets is liable to death according to both the Quran and the Prophet’s teachings,” Maulana explains.

The argument is shared by Syed Safdar Shah Gillani, a leader of the Sunni Itehad Council, a religious group that prides itself on following the “Sufi practices of love, peace and harmony”.

“A person who insults Prophet Muhammad must be killed,” says Gillani. “Nobody has been sentenced if innocent, and the law gives security to minorities.”

But his confidence in the Pakistani legal system is not shared by all.

“When someone is arrested or convicted on false charges [of blasphemy], we are all silent,” says Asma Jahangir, a Pakistani lawyer and human rights activist.

“There have been attacks on my life twice. We are all under threat … We are walking on egg shells,” says Jahangir. “I doubt that the law will be repealed … you cannot even discuss the law. I don’t blame people if they don’t speak up [for fear of a backlash].”

Lawyer Hina Hafeezullah insists there is no need to repeal the country’s blasphemy law, nor amend the punishments prescribed. But, she says, the process of investigation needs to be significantly improved as many innocent people are convicted and many guilty set free because of the “inefficiency, inaptitude, apathy and perfunctory working on the part of police officials and the way they collect evidence”. 

“The blasphemy laws should be extended to cover all prophets and religions,” says Hafeezullah. 

Source: Al Jazeera