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There is no debate possible in the country in its present climate whether the blasphemy law should be repealed or not.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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Jinnah, Secular Pakistan & False Heroes

Source: Express Tribune

Source: Express Tribune

Often September 11 is a day when you could find people having a debate about secularism in Pakistan here and there. It is also the 9/11 anniversary, but let’s keep the conversation to secularism.

The death anniversary of founder of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah is considered a moment for this debate, primarily due to a speech he delivered on August 11, 1947.

However, the proponents of Islamic Republic who claim he was not secular do have a point. Ah, Islamic Republic, what an oxymoron.

The day every single secular bone in Mr. Jinnah was dead when he decided to join the cause of the Muslim League.

Call it the bigotry of Hindu leaders or the failure of Indian National Congress to suck up to the unreasonable demands of separate electorate, but that act should sum it up for anyone, if not the disastrous partition of 1947.

Needless deaths. Needless riots. Needless stupidity which has now become synonymous to the Indian people.

The supposedly secular Jinnah, who reportedly got furious over someone calling him the King of Pakistan, was perfectly alright with the dangerous slogan “Pakistan ka matlab kya, La ilaha il Allah” or “What is the meaning of Pakistan? No god but Allah.”

But a lot of people even claim that such slogan was a later invention, and there is no wonder not many would believe them.

And what of the forsaken millions of oppressed Muslim left to suffer at the hands of “Hindu imperialists”, who certainly would be seeing this as an opportunity for revenge for over five centuries of Muslim rule?

At another instance, you find him saying that the state of Pakistan would be an Islamic State modeled after the City State of Medina established by Prophet Muhammad himself. He has also referred to Islam as democracy. I know a lot of people would defend this statement, but this calls for a serious reality check.

In other words, Jinnah was one of the liberal Muslims who deemed the sort of state as the Medina to be a perfectly safe constitution for the non-Muslim community. The sort of liberal Muslims who are under the delusion that Islam provides safety to the non-Muslim communities through its message of universal peace.

Now Pakistani secularists, most of them with the center-left PPP and ANP have a dilemma. How to pitch secularism to an Islamic fundamentalist crowd, raised on admiring the merits of the Caliphate.

Perhaps in the world of cults and personality worshipers, what is missing in Pakistan for the failure of the secular movement is the lack of real heroes. Secular circles are usually seen hailing Jinnah and Bhutto as their leaders and heroes, while they should be the ones in the forefront to criticize them.

Source: ppp.org.pk

Source: ppp.org.pk

Why not openly endorse Jawaharlal Nehru as a secular leader rather than Jinnah, and why not discard an Islamic Socialist like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who signed the Second Amendment?

I know a lot of folks recognize atheist freedom fighter Bhagat Singh as a hero. I am all for choosing Benazir Bhutto as a relatively better secular and surely a liberal leader and I am glad that we have leaders such as Sherry Rehman and Bushra Gohar among us.

Though what is needed is a consensus on secularism. The left should not and must not have a monopoly over this issue. A secular right is badly needed in the sub continent.

But stick with the August 11, 1947 speech by all means to haunt Islamists. I actually respect the man’s acknowledgement of keeping religion separate from the state. However, his actions are hardly coherent with his words.

In any case, rest assured that Jinnah was no secular hero. Primarily, because of his politics under Muslim League as Muslims are not a nation or an ethnic group. It is a religious group and obtaining a state for it would mean giving up the secular cause and taking up a religious one.

As a matter of fact, the Indian Jamaat-e-Islami of the time would have offered some relative sanity if you were a Jinnah follower.

If only we would have the courage to admit that with such an artificially created religious demographic, Pakistan was wired to be an Islamic state from the very beginning. Little else would be expected from a political party thriving on the politics of discrimination and separate electorates.

While my opinion has changed about Muhammad Ali Jinnah over time, my view pertaining to secularism and logical political choices remains the same.

You don’t have to follow someone’s example to do the right thing. Jinnah was a politician, and therefore, his contradictions only make sense.

Just use your brain as secularism is the most reasonable, uncontroversial, universally acceptable and common sense social contract.

In the words of an acquaintance, former civil servant K. M. Cheema, the case for secularism must stand by itself.

Taseer Assassination: What Have We Learned?

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

                                                                                                                          – Voltaire

Source: AllVoices.com

A year ago, on this very day, the Governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer was assassinated by one of his guards. Allegedly, the guard killed Taseer for calling the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan a Draconian law and for advocating Aasia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian who is still under arrest on charge of blasphemy.

What have we learned from this shocking event so far?

Although nothing can make up for the loss of the person of Salmaan Taseer and his role in the Pakistani society as an entrepreneur and a leader but on the bright side it made a rift in the Pakistani society. Many among Pakistani people realized for the first time that the monster of religious fanaticism was getting out of hand, despite several incidents of violence against minorities over the years.

Why is Salmaan Taseer important? He was just another politician who was probably more hated than admired, so why his death should cause such an outcry?

The reason why Salmaan Taseer mattered, and still matters, is because as funny as he was in his witty speech, he ended up touching some of the most serious and sensitive issues in Pakistan. He was the only politician, apart from Sherry Rehman, who challenged the authority of the Blasphemy Law.

Furthermore, his actions and especially his death has strengthened the beliefs of many that the remedy to Pakistan’s rapidly multiplying religious fanaticism is nothing but a secular constitution and brutal state action against hate preaching, something which most Pakistani politicians would give anything to block, even the so-called Pakistani secular parties.

There are people who would tell you that we should carry on the mission of Salmaan Taseer so that his blood does not go wasted. I would just say that Salmaan Taseer is not among us any more to care a little bit about what we think or do about what he stood for in the months before his assassination.

It is a matter of survival and progress of the Pakistani nation if it chooses or not to adopt the values that Taseer advocated pertaining to the Blasphemy law and Asia Bibi. As long as Pakistanis keep discriminating on the basis of religion and persecute its minorities, they will continue to build their society on the foundation of hatred, discrimination and inhuman values and further threatening the lives of its very own citizens, regardless of their community.

What we learn from the Taseer Assassination is that we have a long way to go as far as attaining civil rights is concerned. We have also learned that none of that would have happened if Pakistan had a secular constitution. We can prevent many more assassinations of brave persons like Taseer who would stand up against religious fanaticism if only we make a few adjustments in our textbook ruling the state, so that at least the state would offer protection to the persecuted.

But what has changed since Taseer’s assassination? Nothing. Actually, his assassin was garlanded. Asia Bibi is still in prison and perhaps it is better this way unless she finds asylum in a safe place where her life is not threatened. The Pakistani state seems least bothered about the Blasphemy Law, the persecution of the minorities and religious fanaticism. It is up to the Pakistani youth and teachers to take on this challenge and to propagate humanitarian values in the society.

The actual motive behind Taseer’s assassination can be debated but not most people’s insensitivity. Actually why be shocked if the assassin of Salman Taseer is showered with petals and hailed as a hero. That is all what we have taught our people and expecting them to act otherwise would be just like expecting a field of wheat when you have sown the seeds of poppy. When religious beliefs begin to overshadow humanitarian values, far worse things can happen. So what have we learned?

Maybe said a thousand times before.

The answer lies in humanitarian education and a bit of courage to question the absurdities of religion.

The answer lies not in despising people, but connecting to them.

My Pakistani Person of the Year 2010: Sherry Rehman

Courtesy: The Daily Times

My Pakistani Person of the Year 2010 is Sherry Rehman for showing the courage to go against the convention of not daring to speak against the Blasphemy Law prevalent in the country. She was the only MP brave enough to move a private member’s bill proposing to amend the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan and to repeal the Death Penalty.

She is the first person to do so in the constitutional history of the country.

The law is currently being reviewed by a Parliamentary Committee.

It takes some balls, I tell you.

 

Happy New Year.

A Brave Beginning At Least…

November 25, 2010 was a historic day in the history of legislation in Pakistan. One of the more sensible MPs finally took the initiative of proposing amendments in the Blasphemy Laws of the country. It was none other than Sherry Rehman who took the brave initiative after contributing a brilliant article to the Express Tribune.

I congratulate Sherry Rehman for breaking the ice and touching this “taboo subject”. She surely deserves a pat on the back and this is what PPP should be doing. The Governor of the Punjab, Salmaan Taseer also deserves applause for his efforts after Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, was  sentenced to death for blasphemy by a local civil magistrate. I am only disappointed that there is silence from other political parties like MQM, ANP and PML-Q, and also PML-N. I even expect some sense from the JUI-F and the JI.

While I completely agree with the opinion in the legal circles that the President is talking about using his right of pardon prematurely, since the case can move on to the higher courts, and with the decision of the LHC of directing the President to abstain from using the right until the hearing of the petition against it, I was really disappointed to learn that some lawyers maintained that the law did not permit the President to pardon the person who had allegedly committed a blasphemy because it did not pertain to the crimes against the State, and pertained to a crime against Allah and His Prophet. If that is our law, we need to change it.

But the real divide is this.  The secular school of thought maintains that the blasphemy laws should be repealed because it is not an offense in the first place, at least not worthy of a death sentence, if any at all. The right wing, in this case, the religious political parties representing Islam, think that the blasphemy law is more like an article of faith and that any amendments are unacceptable. Though mentioning this was totally unnecessary, but anyway.

While both the groups keep on loathing each other and have no patience to listen to and appreciate each other’s viewpoint, we will not be able to move a single inch towards making any progress in this regard. As a matter of principle, I oppose any blasphemy laws, but since it concerns the feelings of such a large majority of population, I would at least go for softening the “punishment” instead of letting the brutal death penalty stand, which is why I think this bill is important.

We should actually be starting a debate about abolishing the death penalty altogether, or minimize its implementation in the courts. We should at least make the judges think twice, or thrice, before inking such a verdict, especially when it is a blasphemy that you can never prove in the court of law unless it is published in some way, apart from the account of witnesses.

You can simply make the religious groups understand why death in general, and in the case of Asia Bibi in particular, should not be enforced by telling them what Prophet Muhammad would have done in this regard. Rauf Klasra wrote a very good piece on that in Urdu, which you could read to get a very good idea about that viewpoint. We must upkeep the basic human rights in any case and supersede any other laws which lead to their violation.

Courtesy: Reuters

While I cannot help but think about the poor and innocent children of Asia Bibi who are anxiously waiting for their mother to return to them, I can never imagine, as far my understanding of Islam and the life of the Holy Prophet is concerned, that the Prophet would have meant any harm to the woman in the first place. It was contrary to his values, since he even pardoned Hind, the wife of Abu Sufian, a Meccan Lord, who had murdered his uncle Hamza in the most brutal manner.

Had Prophet Muhammad been a man who approved of murder, violence and killings, then he would have done otherwise, and there are countless other examples, such as the Amnesty on the Conquest of Mecca. And yes, I think that despite those Islamic laws of stoning to death on adultery, the conditions of the enforcement of which are actually so strict, that it is near impossible that anyone could be condemned to death for that offense, let alone approving of it.

Unfortunately, the religious groups are not able to understand this simple fact due to the overzealous nature of their politics. Supporting death for committing blasphemy is clearly a political matter instead of a religious one, and I have reasons to believe that the leaders and scholars who understand Islam know it themselves. Whether they want to go for the change or not is another matter.

But don’t forget, they are not the only ones to be blamed for this. The supposedly sensible politicians and the elements in the civil, judicial and military bureaucracy have also played their due role in the creation and approval of these laws. They did not consider the possibility that these laws could possibly be misused, as they are misused most of the time.

Not only the “minorities” or the non-Muslims in Pakistan are at risk due to the abuse of the law, but even Muslims themselves are not safe from it. You could accuse anyone of committing a blasphemy that you hold a grudge against and the crowds would rage and come roaring to get that person. The people need to develop some patience, and both the secular and religious groups need to come together to discuss the issue to reach a sensible solution.

I know that even if we get the text book right, vigilante violence is a problem that will remain very much there as far as the accusations of blasphemy are concerned, but it is important to get the textbook right. That is why I advocate a Secular Constitution for Pakistan. However, as far as making the general public realize is concerned, only Humanitarian Education is a solution, which is unfortunately, not a priority at all in the plans of the Government of Pakistan.

The secular circles of the country should be happy that someone at least made a start towards bringing an amendment to the law, something which people were even afraid to talk about earlier. I am anxiously waiting to see how the MPs vote on this, especially the members of the PPP, the MQM and the ANP, you know, the supposed secular political parties in Pakistan.

 

Maybe someday this could possibly lead to the abrogation of these laws.