The recent killing of prominent activist Sabeen Mahmud in Karachi is a chilling reminder of the rapidly shrinking space for open dialogue in Pakistan. So a push for deliberation on the country’s highly contentious blasphemy law may surprise many.
But it is happening.
Arafat Mazhar, a young researcher from the eastern city of Lahore, has launched a campaign to use Islamic legal reasoning to demand an overhaul of the blasphemy law, which can result in a death sentence for those convicted.
Outside the justice system, meanwhile, at least 60 people have been killed in cases related to the blasphemy law since 1990, according to Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies.
Though “angry and hurt” at the news of Mahmud’s assassination, Mazhar told Al Jazeera he feels motivated to continue building a bridge with hard-line conservatives in Pakistan to change the acrimonious law by “bringing them [to] the table rather than antagonising them”.
Before her killing, Mahmud – who also championed for intellectual engagement – said she was “fascinated” by Mazhar’s campaign. “It is an incredible step in the right direction,” she told Al Jazeera several weeks before her assassination.
“It takes generations to change mindsets. But there should at least be a space to reform the law and to have a discussion or debate over it,” she said.
The blasphemy law mandates the death penalty for anyone who defiles the name of the Prophet Muhammad as a divine decree – a concept perpetuated by right-wing hardliners and religious political parties.
“When political forces are the only ones using the religious symbol, it is very easy for them to manipulate the narrative and misguide the masses,” Mazhar said.
His campaign is based on the belief that the inclusion of a divinely ordained and unpardonable death sentence as the only possible punishment for blasphemy in Pakistan’s legal framework is wrong.
Mazhar’s claim is backed by research on the history of Hanafi deliberation on the issue of blasphemy. Hanafi dogma is one of the five major Islamic schools of thought, and is widely followed by Muslims in Pakistan.
When political forces are the only ones using the religious symbol it is very easy for them to manipulate the narrative and misguide the masses.
Now, by using classical Islamic reasoning to interpret the law, Mazhar is championing for change.
The great divide
Mazhar is not the first to challenge the blasphemy law.
Javed Ahmed Ghamidi, a reformist scholar, has also criticised it saying it’s not in accordance with the Quran. But he has left Pakistan, fearing for his life.
Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti were both assassinated within two months of each other for asking for the law to be reformed.
After Taseer’s killing, Pakistan Peoples Party MP Sherry Rehman was forced to withdraw a bill she presented in parliament seeking reform. She was later threatened and charged with blasphemy under the same law she had hoped to change.
Critics also say the contentious law continues to be used to settle personal scores.
But Ilyas Khan – director general of research at the Council of Islamic Ideology, a constitutional body responsible for advising parliament on aligning laws with Islam – defended the legislation.
“Anyone who wrongly accuses someone of blasphemy or becomes a false witness in the blasphemy case can be penalised under the existing provisions of the criminal law,” Khan told Al Jazeera.
Khan said deliberation is a continuous process and the council may look into the blasphemy law again should the need arise. But for now, the council is unanimous in its views.
“In cases of blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad there should be a mandatory death penalty and there can be no pardon based on repentance if the act of blasphemy is proven in the court of law,” he said.
Human rights groups, however, have reiterated calls for reform or repeal of the blasphemy law.
They say it violates international human rights – an approach seen as “secular” by conservatives, resulting in more acrimony and resistance.
According to a 2014 policy brief by the United States Commission On International Religious Freedom, Pakistan tops the world as the country with the highest number of people incarcerated under blasphemy charges.
At least 19 people are serving life sentences and Asia Bibi, a 50-year-old mother of five found guilty of blasphemy is one of 17 people currently on death row.
Governor Taseer was actively seeking a pardon for her before he was gunned down. Hopes for Bibi’s acquittal diminished further when the Lahore High Court reinstated her death sentence last year.
“In cases filed under the blasphemy law, the courts are under so much pressure that it is impossible to do justice,” said IA Rehman, secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
“Whenever such cases are heard there are mobs that surround the courts, and sometimes the defendant is even murdered,” Rehman told Al Jazeera.
In this hostile landscape, what chance does Mazhar’s approach have?
He said he believes a fairly good one.
Campaign against death
Mazhar said reform will come from the grassroot level.
“If we successfully start engaging authority figures from the ground rather than imposing change from the top, then I think we can build foundations for some changes,” he said.
The campaign couldn’t be better timed. With the recent lifting of moratorium on death penalties in the country, an effort to seek such concessions will bring hope for some such as Asia Bibi.
Mazhar is working in rural Punjab, an area notorious for mob violence in cases of blasphemy. He said he has already won over some religious scholars who are endorsing his initiative.
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Fuelled by a crowdsourcing campaign, his team expects to spearhead the “Fatwa Drive” into other parts of the country and approach foreign scholars as well.
“Together, the moral authority of these opinions can be used as a force for legal and popular reform in much the same way that fatwas from independent jurists functioned for much of Islamic history,” Mazhar said.
Before being gunned down, Mahmud said she feared Mazhar’s campaign will face violence.
“When push comes to shove, no one is going to listen to any of this. That is how a mob functions,” she said. “The biggest challenge they will be up against is fear.”
Mahmud said she anticipated funding for Mazhar’s campaign would speed up as Pakistanis recognise the importance of using legitimate Islamic channels to change the deadly law.
“I would invest in their boldness, their bravery, and the fact they are putting their lives on the line for tackling something so complex and problematic. That in itself is worthy of support,” she said.
Follow Sarah Alvi on Twitter: @sarah_alvi