Pakistan’s misused blasphemy law

In Lahore’s Shahdara Town, a young Pakistani Christian named PatrasMasih has been accused of blasphemy and booked under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code. This happened after a mob which had been whipped into a false religious frenzy by the Barelvi religious party Tehreek-e-Labaik-Ya-Rasool-Allah (TLYRA, the main party behind the ongoing blasphemy protests) threatened to burn down the houses of the Christian community in the town.
Masih was accused of posting a sacrilegious photograph. The young man was taken into custody by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), which normally looks after electronic crimes. In a video statement, his cousin SajidMasih has accused the FIA of having forced him to have sex with PatrasMasih.
It seems that in our mad dash to establish ourselves as the most intolerant people on the planet, there is nothing Pakistanis will not do.
Section 295-C criminalises the blasphemous statements against Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and states: “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.”
A subsequent judgment in the Federal Shariat Court in the 1990s made it clear that only a death sentence would be sufficient punishment. One of the egregious cases of misuse of this law is that of Aasia Bibi, who has now been in jail for over 8 years now. It was the Bibi case that led to the tragic assassination of Governor SalmaanTaseer, who questioned the blasphemy law. The protests by a religious party last November ended with the demand that Bibi should be hanged forthwith. Interestingly, the government signed off on it, even though her appeal is pending with the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
To be fair, Pakistan has not actually executed anyone under this law in the 32 years it has been in force. But even an accusation is often enough to get you lynched by a mob. This is where the problem with blasphemy law actually lies. It does exactly the opposite of what it is supposed to have been put in place to do.
Last year, young Mashal Khan was brutally lynched by his fellow students at the Khan Abdul Wali Khan University. Some of them have finally been sentenced, but others have gone free and have been welcomed by their communities as heroes. MumtazQadri, Taseer’s assassin, was also garlanded by lawyers of the Islamabad and Pindi bars. The Supreme Court of Pakistan did uphold the death sentence for Qadri, who was subsequently executed. But there is now a shrine dedicated to him on the outskirts of the federal capital.
Apologists for the law say that it has been put in place to ensure that people are not killed by a mob, and that the state can fairly judge any person accused of blasphemy. On the contrary, experience tells us that while there were less than 10 cases of blasphemy before this law was passed by the parliament convened by the Islamist military dictator General Zia ul-Haq, it has risen to a few thousand since then.
The blasphemy law in the subcontinent originated in the inter-communal conflict in Punjab. Rajpal, a printer in Lahore, had published a book called ‘RangilaRasul’, which had incensed the Muslim community across sectarian lines. Ultimately, this led to the murder of Rajpal by Ilam Din, who was subsequently championed by people like Allama Iqbal and M.D. Taseer (ironically Governor SalmaanTaseer’s father), who were no religious bigots themselves.
Those who argue that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws were introduced by the British miss a key point. The section 295-A, introduced pre-Independence, was a law that sought to maintain communal peace. And Pakistan, with an overwhelming 96 per cent Muslim majority, is under no threat of inter-communal violence. But General Zia’s 295-C blasphemy law is based on a misguided understanding of Islamic law and history, and is not part of the British colonial project.
ApaNisar Fatima—a woman legislator in the parliament and the mother of the current interior minister Ahsan Iqbal—had started the campaign against lawyer Asma Jahangir, calling her a blasphemer. It was in this context that Fatima had presented this law – 295 C- in parliament in 1986. There were several issues with the law, including the fact that it had no direct reference to mens rea, a position clarified by later jurisprudence, and also that there is no real intellectual basis for its application on non-Muslims in the Hanafi Madhab, which is followed by the majority in Pakistan. However, it was driven through parliament, and we are now stuck with it.
Now, the debate is no longer about the legal and procedural considerations, or even about the issue of whether the law is compatible with Sharia law. It has moved on.
Barelvis, the low Church of Islam as it were, have been radicalised in a way that they were never before. Taseer’s murderer was a Barelvi himself. The rise of the Barelvis, and the fact that their political party obtained the third-highest number of votes in Nawaz Sharif’s own constituency, have now made the issues of blasphemy and finality of prophethood emotionally charged issues.
Imran Khan, who had spoken out bravely against Taseer’s assassination in 2011, is now touring the country telling people that the West is conspiring against Islam, and wants to make Muslims leave the religion. He claimed that these conspiracies have been on since time immemorial, starting with Dante’s Divine Comedy.
No political party is willing to touch the issue or revisit the blasphemy law. Politicians are scared, and not the least because of the principal contradiction in Pakistan’s political system – an overdeveloped deep state with an excessively strong civil-military bureaucracy, and weak political institutions. Any deviation from the mainstream narrative would enable the deep state to mobilise public opinion against them.
As a consequence, the most marginalized and weakest sections of our society continue to suffer at the hands of a law that is neither Islamic nor just.
(Yasser Latif Hamdani is a lawyer and a visiting fellow at Harvard Law School.)

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