Recent months have seen Pakistan’s blasphemy laws come under the spotlight once again. In January, five liberal-leaning bloggers and activists went missing under mysterious circumstances, with their disappearance strongly linked, in part, to their opposition to religious extremism. Though they have since been found alive and well, blasphemy accusations were leveled against them, in their absence, most notably from televangelist cleric and talk show host, Aamir Liaquat Hussain. As a result, some of them have had to flee from Pakistan in fear of their life.
In December 2016, another controversy related to the blasphemy laws unraveled, after rights activist Shaan Taseer posted a Christmas message on his Facebook page, asking people to pray for those imprisoned under the laws.
Religious hardliners condemned the move, calling it ‘offensive’ to Islam. One group, the Sunni Tehrik, even issued a fatwa calling for Taseer’s death, while also filing a case against him under section 295-A of the Pakistan Penal Code, for ‘hate speech’. The group pressed the police to register the charges under the harshest provision of the blasphemy laws, section 295-C (blasphemous comments against Prophet Muhammad), which carries the death penalty.
Six years earlier, Shaan Taseer’s father, Salman, then governor of the Punjab, was assassinated by one of his own security guards after demanding a government pardon for Aasia Bibi, a Christian berry-picker accused of making derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad during a heated argument with two Muslim co-workers. In many quarters, Taseer’s killer, Mumtaz Qadri, was hailed as a hero, underscoring the popularity of the blasphemy laws within Pakistan.
Given the risks involved, public debate on the blasphemy laws is rare. Their implications must, however, eventually be confronted. The laws have long torn away at the fabric of the country, giving voice and impetus to extremists, sanctioning acts of violence, provoking religious intolerance, undermining democracy, and fostering a culture of bigotry and hatred. The future of Pakistan is, as such, fundamentally entwined with these laws.
With so much at stake, five prominent experts on the subject share their thoughts on what lies ahead for Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and how debate on the issue ought to be framed.
Yasser Latif Hamdani, Pakistani lawyer and activist
The impetus for creating a debate on the blasphemy laws has to come from the state, which is a signatory to several international covenants that are wholly contradictory to the blasphemy provisions of 295-B (life imprisonment for defiling of the Quran) and 295-C. The first and most important question that needs to be asked and contended with is the definition of blasphemy. Assuming that there is a need for blasphemy laws in the country, the term blasphemy should be defined as narrowly as possible with a clear requirement of intent. The blasphemy law should, therefore, aim at only those wanton, deliberate and malicious statements that are calculated to deliberately offend the sentiments of a group of people with a clear intent to cause social unrest. Secondly, the question needs to be asked as to whether the blasphemy law is applicable to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Here, there is enough material from the Hanafi school of jurisprudence to suggest that blasphemy by non-Muslims cannot be criminalized. Non-Muslims should, therefore, be exempt from the operations of these sections altogether.
It is also time that the debate moved from simply substantive law to procedural law. All those accused must be given police security from the time they are accused to the end of the trial. It would be a good idea to designate courts in certain areas (such as courts in Cantonment areas of Islamabad or Lahore or Karachi) to hear all matters pertaining to blasphemy. These must be presided over by special judges fully trained to arrive at the truth of the matter undeterred by mobs or public influence or opinion.
Much will depend on what the Supreme Court decides in the matter of Aasia Bibi. It is an historic opportunity for the Supreme Court to right many wrongs and to stop the abuse of these laws in Pakistan.
Michael Kugelman, Senior Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC
Discussion about the blasphemy laws has long been a no-go area in Pakistan, and it remains so today. The country’s liberal sphere has shrunk in recent years, as intolerance has intensified across society. The result is a near absence of serious public debate about the law.
Those critical of the blasphemy laws face harassment and even death. Salman Taseer, the late governor of Punjab Province, was killed by his own bodyguard. When his killer, Mumtaz Qadri, was executed earlier this year, the streets swelled with thousands of Qadri’s mourning supporters.
This is not to say there are no brave Pakistanis bringing attention to the blasphemy law. In 2015, Dawn—a prestigious English-language newspaper with a liberal bent —published several articles by an activist named Arafat Mazhar. He argued that, according to Islamic jurisprudence, blasphemy is a pardonable offense.
Mazhar’s strategy is an ingenious one. In a nation with religious sensitivities, the best justification for reforming the blasphemy law is to resort to religious teachings. Invoking a human rights rationale—in effect, the blasphemy law invariably leads to innocents getting accused of, attacked for, and often times imprisoned for crimes they did not commit— is not enough. The best weapon to wield in a campaign to reform a religion-focused law is religion. This means that clerics and other religious figures need to seriously consider Mazhar’s argument—an admittedly tall order.
Sadly, repealing the blasphemy laws is nearly unfathomable, as is reforming them. One major litmus test, however, will be the fate of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman convicted in 2010 for having allegedly defamed the Prophet Mohammad during an argument with several Muslim women over a bowl of water. Taseer had taken up Bibi’s case shortly before he died, offering full-throated support.
Bibi has been on death row for six years. Pakistan has never executed anyone under the blasphemy laws, but Bibi could be the first. Her final appeal was postponed in October 2016, after a judge recused himself from the case.
Bibi’s execution would set a precedent that could send shivers down the spines of Pakistan’s vulnerable religious minorities.
But, there is some hope Bibi won’t be executed. The execution of Qadri suggests the Pakistani state is not against defying the powerful conservative and religious groups taking a hard line on the blasphemy laws.
Ultimately, however, we do not know what will happen. All we can hope for is that brave members of civil society, and, critically, religious leaders will build the space to allow for critical discussion of the blasphemy laws—and that the state and retrograde elements of society will permit this space to flourish.
Reema Omer, International Legal Advisor, International Commission of Jurists
Since their promulgation, Pakistan’s oppressive and frequently misused blasphemy laws have been routinely denounced by civil society activists and rights groups for violating basic human rights. In its judgment upholding Mumtaz Qadri’s conviction for the murder of former governor Salman Taseer last year, the Supreme Court held that people accused of blasphemy “suffer beyond proportion or repair” in the absence of adequate safeguards against misuse of the laws. The Gojra Commission made similar remarks in a report released earlier this year, on the 2009 blasphemy-related violence in the city of Gojra, Punjab.
The blasphemy laws misuse is not just a procedural one that can be addressed by penalizing those who bring false complaints. Rather, abuse is inherent in the logic, structure, and formulation of the laws. Their vague and over-broad language violates the principle of legality and makes them vulnerable to manipulation; they are fundamentally discriminatory against minority religions and sects; they are incompatible with the rights to freedom of speech, thought, conscience and religion; and their implementation raises serious fair trial concerns. Any efforts to do away with the laws’ “abuse” will necessarily have to address these overarching problems.
Efforts at even modest reform, however, have faced major setbacks because of coercive tactics used by extremist religious groups and the resulting “compromises” reached with the government. Earlier this year, Islamabad was held hostage for days by protestors threatening reprisals if the government made any attempt to amend the blasphemy provisions, particularly section 295-C of the Penal Code.
Despite these setbacks, a small number of parliamentarians and government officials appear willing to address the injustices of the blasphemy laws. Parliamentary bodies, like the Senate Functional Committee on Human Rights, for example, are preparing recommendations to stop the misuse of the blasphemy laws.
At a time when Pakistan is fighting against religious extremism in all its manifestations, government support for reform of the blasphemy laws will test its willingness to confront extremism, as well as its commitment to the rule of law and human rights.
One thing is clear, however: the state can no longer turn a blind eye to the injustices committed in the name of blasphemy. Maintaining the blasphemy provisions in their present form would be yet another capitulation to the undemocratic and unjust demands of religious extremist groups, a compromise that has cost Pakistan dearly already.
Saroop Ijaz, lawyer and Pakistani representative to Human Rights Watch
The blasphemy laws in Pakistan remain an instrument of intimidation, oppression, and often murder; at the moment, an accusation of blasphemy is a death sentence in itself. This relationship, between the blasphemy laws and violence is worth exploring in detail.
As the punishment for blasphemy became harsher and harsher, violence against those accused of blasphemy has spiked. This underscores two important points. First, when a state acts as a partisan actor in matters of personal faith, society will follow; impunity for persecution and attacks on the “blasphemous” also increase significantly. Examples of this abound across the region. For instance, after enacting anti-conversion laws, the Indian states of Maharashtra and Gujrat witnessed a higher rate of communal and religious violence, as compared with many states that do not have these laws.
Second, the justification for blasphemy laws is supposedly that it protects “religious sensibilities” and prevents people from engaging in vigilante justice. Empirical evidence not only shows this to be untrue, but also that the real effect of these laws is the exact opposite; they enable and encourage mob violence, rather than preventing it.
A candid, national conversation about these and other effects of the blasphemy laws will have to precede any reforms. After the Supreme Court decision in the Mumtaz Qadri case, there was an opportunity to have that conversation. But, religious groups were very quick to take the initiative and go to the streets to prevent it from happening. Similar past squandered opportunities in include that of Rimsha Masih, a teenage girl suffering from Down syndrome, who was charged with blasphemy. In future, the Pakistani government and civil society must be more alert, proactive, and courageous and speak about the issue, regardless of the opposition.
As for reforming the laws, this will require engagement at multiple levels. First, allies must be found in the religious community to highlight how the blasphemy laws do not reflect religious commandments. Second, reform efforts must move beyond ideology and expose the unfairness of these laws in terms of due process, non-discrimination under the law, the right to a fair trial, and other constitutional provisions. Third, it must be comprehensively demonstrated, through research, how an overwhelming number of blasphemy accusations are motivated by non-religious factors; it is, instead, issues of economic gain and personal enmity that have inspired blasphemy accusations against people of all faiths in Pakistan.
In the short-term, I am not optimistic about meaningful reform. I am, however, convinced that discrimination based on religion and sect, as is currently institutionalized in Pakistan, is incompatible with a modern, democratic state and society. With each passing day, this reality is becoming more clear. As democracy progresses, maintaining these laws will eventually become untenable.
Arafat Mazhar, co-founder and director of Engage, a non-profit, Pakistani organization that focuses on minority rights, blasphemy laws, and citizenship.
Section 295 – C of the Pakistan Penal Code is arguably one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in the country. Despite repeated efforts by human rights organizations to reform the law, these endeavors have been largely abortive, failing to garner enough support from all stakeholders. I believe that one of the primary causes of this failure has been persistent reliance by these organizations on a purely human rights framework to measure and critique the law. In doing so, these groups not only ignore the legal foundations of the law, the historical inaccuracies in its construction, and its current judicial interpretation. They also fail to adequately understand how the law operates outside the law books, and the moral authority that it holds for millions of people. Thus, the human rights framework, while absolutely necessary, principally (because it is alien) and practically (because it ignores significant aspects of the law) is largely inadequate.
In my view, any sustainable effort at reforming the law must engage with the Islamic legal tradition, from which gives the law its authority, and develop an intersectional framework that stands at the meeting point of human rights, the Islamic legal tradition, and the constitutional responsibilities of Pakistani citizens. In this way, we can perhaps forge a unique path forward, which not only satisfies Pakistan’s human rights commitments, but also mobilizes people at the grassroots level and speaks to their conception of the law and its function in society.