Blasphemy, law and violence in Pakistan

Paul Bhatti (R), Pakistan's Minister for National Harmony, speaking at New York Encounter 2013 about his decision to continue the work of his assassinated brother Shahbaz Bhatti for universal religious freedom in Pakistan, despite threats to his life.Paul Bhatti (R), Pakistan's Minister for National Harmony, speaking at New York Encounter 2013 about his decision to continue the work of his assassinated brother Shahbaz Bhatti for universal religious freedom in Pakistan, despite threats to his life.

I was trained to believe that the law was a tool for social justice and positive change. As a law student, I viewed the law as a weapon to fight against oppression, marginalisation and discrimination. The reality, it seems, is very different. Like any other tool, the law can be manipulated into being used in many ways, whether in the path of civil liberties and human rights or the way of the oppressor and perpetrator of violence. A particularly stark example is blasphemy law in Pakistan.

Blasphemy is defined as the act of insulting, showing contempt or lack of reverence for God or things considered sacred. The British, as India’s colonial rulers, introduced laws criminalising blasphemy in the Indian subcontinent. Historians suggest that the main reason for this were the increasing communal tensions between Muslims and Hindus. The blasphemy laws were used as a tool by the British to advance their political interests.  Pakistan inherited these laws when it gained independence in 1947. The effect of the law prior to 1947 can be gauged by the numbers: from 1851 to 1947, when India remained under British colonial rule and religious tension was at its peak, there were only seven blasphemy related incidents. But blasphemy laws truly came into their own in 1987.

In 1977, military dictator General Zia-Ul-Haq overthrew a democratic government and assumed power in a military coup. As part of a general policy of islamisation of law and society, General Zia ‘islamised’ the blasphemy laws in 1987. The blasphemy laws are now enshrined in section 295 A, B and C of the Pakistan Penal Code. They read as follows:

“Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of the citizens of Pakistan, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations insults the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, or with fine, or with both.” (Section 295-A)

“Whoever wilfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur’an or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.” (Section 295-B)

 “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.” (Section 295-C)

As should be evident from these sections, the law is unclear and open to abuse. What constitutes “religious feelings” or an insult? This is compounded by Pakistan’s crumbling, corrupt criminal justice system. Witnesses, lawyers, police officers and lower court judges can be bribed, and trials are a mere farce in those scenarios. That is, if you get to trial. To be accused of blasphemy is in itself a death sentence; the law, trial and legal punishment is secondary. Vigilante justice prevails in this sphere.

The period from 2010 to the present has been exceedingly bloody. This period has seen mobs attacking churches, torching houses, and killing those accused of blasphemy in a wave of violence that has engulfed Pakistan.

In 2010, Asia Bibi was sentenced to death by hanging on a charge of blasphemy. She was the first Christian woman to have faced this punishment. Her family has been persecuted and has had to flee the village they called home. In January 2011, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was murdered in broad daylight by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri. He was murdered for his support for Aasia Bibi and condemnation of the blasphemy laws. In March 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister for Minority Affairs, was assassinated. In 2012, Rimsha Masih, a girl aged 12, was accused of blasphemy. She was the first female child accused of the crime. In 2014, Rashid Rehman, a lawyer, was shot dead for defending those accused of blasphemy.

The impact of the law is alarming. According to Engage Pakistan, since 1987 there have been 1,335 accusations of blasphemy, showing an increase of 17,500% over the years prior to the islamisation of the laws. The impact has been the institutionalised persecution of minorities. The law is used to target Ahmadis, a sect of Muslims, Christians and Hindus. There have been 702 cases registered against minorities, which equates to 52% of total cases against  groups representing at most 4% of the population of Pakistan. There has been a huge spike of cases from 2010 to 2014, with over 90 cases in 2014 alone. Since 1987, there have been 57 extra-judicial killings in the name of blasphemy, as compared to 2 such killings before 1987.

Within a theocratic state structure, the laws are surrounded and strengthened by a phenomenon of religiosity, extremism and violence. This then begs the question: does the law propagate violence? Does the law provide a tool for institutionalised, legalised discrimination and oppression? Has the law heightened religious tensions? And if all of the above is true, what is the state’s role in this?

I argue the state is complicit in the phenomenon. As I write this article in Karachi, websites documenting the persecution of minority groups under the blasphemy laws, particularly Ahmadis, are blocked. The standard message reads: “The site you are trying to access contains content that is prohibited for viewership from within Pakistan.” Banning us from these sources of vital information will not silence the truth. The truth on the ground is that the police do not arrest perpetrators of blasphemy-related violence, the state does not prosecute those inciting violence and the lower court judiciary is reluctant to decide blasphemy related cases. Any attempts at reform, the most recent being in 2010, are met with death threats to parliamentarians. The cycle of fear and violence continues. The state’s duplicitous role continues to allow violence all while, along with the police, losing legitimacy when faced with it. If the state is complicit in the phenomenon, can civil society play a positive role?

The handful of civil society members who believe in a secular Pakistan and a reform of the blasphemy laws are afraid, and hence, so far, ineffective. Religious parties appear to have much more street power. A case in point is the trial of Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of Salman Taseer. After the murder, over five hundred clerics voiced their support for Qadri. During his trial in 2011, three thousand of his supporters gathered outside court. In October 2011, Qadri was sentenced to death by an Anti Terrorism Court in Islamabad. This sentence was appealed. During the appeal hearing in 2015, 90 lawyers and 300 supporters gathered outside court. Prosecutors are unwilling to prosecute Qadri, they fear for their lives and recognise that the police is unwilling to protect them. Despite all odds, the Islamabad High Court on March 10th 2015 courageously upheld the decision.

So there is hope. There is hope that there are enough of us, students, lawyers and members of civil society, to counter these extremist forces. There is hope that the law can still be used as a positive tool. There is hope that lives can be saved, if the police were to step up. There is hope against hope, because more violence is not an option. For the sake of Aasia Bibi, Salman Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti, Rimsha Masih, Rashid Rehman and countless other victims of blasphemy-related violence in Pakistan, there must be hope.