What Purpose Does the Blasphemy Law Actually Serve?

Source: The Nation

We all know that the blasphemy law is supposed to punish the offenders who desecrate the good name of God and the Prophet, or commit a similar offense against religion. And there is really no doubt that blaspheming against holy persons and entities is indicative of a lack of sensitivity and regard toward religious communities. However, people like to debate whether the offense warrants penalties as strict as death and life imprisonment or even any at all.

There is no debate possible in the country in its present climate whether the blasphemy law should be repealed or not. However, fortunately, many of the people, including some very smart mainstream religious scholars from both Sunni and Shia traditions agree that there are margins of improving the law. In other words, many people concede that the law is being abused or that there is a possibility of abusing it to settle personal scores. This is keeping the next-to-none debate of amending the law alive, where it is important to keep in mind that most people are not willing to compromise on the prescribed penalty.

That is still progress nevertheless. To the common religious conservative citizen, the law must be about penalizing the blasphemer and it becomes a matter of the “rule of law.” However, this is merely an instrument of asserting the political authority of a community. It is basically a reminder of who is in charge, or what is in charge, relevant in this case. There is a reason why blasphemers happen to only target Islam in a country of more than 200 million.

But even if you are in the “amend-not-repeal camp,” I wonder with these motives behind it, people who matter would actually be willing to even agree on any changes to the law. We all know how Senator Sherry Rehman was threatened when she tried proposing her amendments. Even if the majority agrees on such an amendment, the small but forceful minority would see to it that they have their way. There obviously is little hope but to try convincing people to improve the law. However, banking your hopes on that also points toward a fundamental misunderstanding of why the law exists in the first place.

So, if you missed the memo, initiating discussion of the misuse of the law also becomes an offense to the authoritarian religious conservative. That is a fine line to tread on as slips like the late Governor Taseer calling it a black law could cost you dearly. But even if you are super careful and respectful, you are still challenging the very authority that the blasphemy law formulated under Zia is designed to keep, instead of offering an equal opportunity of complaint to all.

While this may have prevented an average citizen from the fanaticism of the minority religious communities, it has made those communities very prone to damage. Especially the helpless individual citizens from those communities who always end up paying the highest cost. It is simply their misfortune that their fellow citizens want nothing to do with knowing their troubles.

The blasphemy law under Zia was passed under the threats of clerics and it is maintained by similar vows. It was a comprehensive push against the secular side of the state, which had since grown weaker by the day. And since the penalties are as per the prescription of the Sharia according to most scholars, amending how the law is enforced would be a push against the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic against secular entities, if not about upholding the word of God. After all, the JI Emir complains that Pakistan is not an Islamic State.

Even when common citizens or scholars agree on the problems with the law, the blame often goes to the secular law enforcement instead of the violence it is encouraging. Vigilantes are arrested alright, but this is seen unfavorably in general, thanks to legends like Ghazi Ilm Deen. However, the act of vigilante violence is disapproved by conservative elites who prefer the victims to hang after a trial. This is why we must have the blasphemy law. Even though they choose to ignore how free our judges are in terms of passing the verdict in such cases and how it encourages religious extremism.

While Mashaal Khan’s tragic killing has opened a window to start this conversation, it is not as if the other side is giving even an inch other than tolerating slightly dissenting comments and pieces in the media. That too, because let’s admit it, Mashaal’s death was too brutal for even most blasphemy law supporting religious conservatives in Pakistan. But the underlying problem remains the same and only time will tell if the ice would break.

We do make a lot of fuss about the blasphemy law and its abuse. While there has been a sharp rise in cases registered since the amendment under Zia, the secular judiciary has refrained from passing many harsh verdicts. Call that denying justice, it hardly matters as hate speech like “Off with the head of the blasphemer” dominate every town in Pakistan. It is almost an article of faith.

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We are at a point far from arguing or talking reason. Perhaps we would be if the intent were just to penalize the offenders.

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.
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The Foreign Hand Excuse

Karachi-Bus-Attack-news_184842_l

What do we need to absolve the usual suspects within the country of their responsibility? Just let someone utter these words that our ears always long to hear:

Foreign hand was involved.

Let us not doubt the words from our foreign office, for we don’t have the access to the information to either take their word for it or deny it. However, what is certain is the instantaneous told-ya knee jerk reaction deviating attention from the real problem that such statements trigger.

Incidents such as the Karachi bus attack targeting the Ismaili community, and other similar religious terrorism that has been going on for years, have much deeper root causes than just the foreign hand.  We better not shy away from the problem of religious extremism at home.

It is no secret that religious terrorist organizations run amok in Pakistan, despite scores of them being banned by the federal government, and quite a few of them targeted by law enforcement. Considering the power of religion in the contemporary Pakistani society, any government would think twice before even planning to initiate an operation against such culprits.

However, I cannot help but applaud the incumbent Information Minister Pervez Rasheed for his courage to speak against religious seminaries. A statement that has apparently attracted fatwas against him.

Not even the serving government officials are safe from fatwas. This only goes to show the perpetually threatening force of religious extremism and terrorism in Pakistan. An undemocratic entity that enjoys legitimized status in the Pakistani society. Considering how true they are to their faith, you can hardly blame them.

Even if we suppose that factors such as foreign intervention were behind the Karachi bus attack, it is not the foreign intelligence agencies that declare Shia infidels. It is not the foreign agencies that would publicly condemn them to death in sermons. The sectarian hate movement against the Shia is very indigenous, and if someone would advocate its foreign influence, it would only inconveniently point fingers to certain allies in the Middle East. But let’s just call that a vague conspiracy theory.

Until the Pakistani state takes the responsibility for not acting against religious political parties and sectarian terrorists, it would never be able to overcome the problem of terrorism. Even if foreign powers are exploiting such anti-state weaknesses in Pakistan, it is such elements of the Pakistani society that are at the heart of this problem.

Another thing that is at the heart of this problem is the faith of the people guiding them toward such belligerent behavior. Simply attacking religion of freedom by issuing draconian decrees regulating the time of the call to prayer would not suffice. The government should never hesitate to tread upon the religious freedom whenever it is threatening the individual liberty and security of the people. This is where sectarian terrorist groups must be proactively crushed.

It is true that having a secular constitution is not a guarantee to prevent the flourishing of religious fundamentalist terrorism. The growing Islamist terrorism against rational Bangladeshi bloggers is a demonstration of this notion.

Nevertheless, the government must promote religious tolerance instead of puritanism, but if it is finding it hard to do so, it can at least crack down on extremism for establishing law and order. Egypt is doing so, albeit with an undemocratic show of force.

Until and unless we stop apologizing for religious political parties in the name of choice and democracy, we would keep on falling in their trap of totalitarianism. And will remain tangled in the obsession with homogeneity and purity, which were apparently or allegedly the basis of creation of Pakistan, which continue to extend and evolve.

It is time to nudge the law enforcement operation to a slightly different, uneasy direction.

This post was originally published in The Nation blogs.