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Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law: Consuming Society from Within



By Dr. Sanchita Bhattacharya

Jul 14, 2014

The act of condemning an individual or a particular group for following 'certain religious practice' in the name of Kufr – blasphemy - has intensified the acts of violence in Pakistan.

In the latest blasphemy case the police in Jhang district of Punjab Province said on May 13 that they had filed blasphemy charges against a group of 68 lawyers. Reportedly the main architect behind the incident is Maulana Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, leader of the banned group Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, and the lawyers mostly belong to the Shia sect of Islam. Interestingly enough, Ludhianvi's group was banned in the year 2012 and is infamous for inciting sectarian and extremist violence with its stronghold in Jhang district.

Lately, in Pakistan the 'pretext' of blasphemy is devised not only to persecute the religious minorities but also prominent political figures, as has been evident in the case of Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti the then minister for minority affairs. Both were brutally murdered in 2011 for raising question on such violent acts.

During the year 2013, 19 cases for offences relating to religion were reported against 24 Muslim citizens. Five of the accused were charged under the blasphemy provision, 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC). In addition a total of nine cases were lodged against 14 Christian citizens on religious grounds. Nine Christians were also arrested in these cases. Four Christians, including two women, were arrested for allegedly sending blasphemous messages. While one was awarded life imprisonment. Three Christians were sentenced to death upon conviction in two blasphemy cases.

The partial data provided by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) further states that in 2013, there were 275 such cases in Punjab, followed by 14 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and two in Balochistan. Moreover, according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Annual Report of 2014 at least 17 individuals are on death row and 19 more serving life sentences [for blasphemy]. Many others have been charged and await trial.

As is well evident from the above mentioned data, the targets in these cases of violence are mostly minorities both within and outside the realm of "Islam" often preached by the clerics to instigate and cause divide in already fragmented Pakistani society. Pakistan is one of more than 30 countries that have blasphemy laws, which are usually enacted under the auspices of promoting religious harmony.

However, human rights groups say the law, instead of promoting communal harmony, is frequently used to settle personal disputes, disproportionately targeting religious minorities - Christians, Hindus, or members of minority sects of Islam. According to the 2013 Asian Human Rights Commission Report, the known blasphemy cases in Pakistan show that from 1953 to July 2012, there were 434 offenders of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, and among them 258 were Muslims (Sunni/Shia), 114 Christians, 57 Ahmadis, and 4 Hindus.

Attacks on religious minorities have been exacerbated by Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which have fostered a climate of religiously-motivated violence and persecution. Accusations of blasphemy have frequently resulted in the murder of both Muslims and members of religious minorities. Since 1990, at least 60 people have been killed outside the Pakistani justice system in cases relating to blasphemy, according to the Islamabad-based Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS).

In the initial phase of Pakistan as an independent state, there was no legal provision on religious discrimination. However, changes occurred during the military regime of Zia-ul-Haq (1978-1988) and accordingly, the Blasphemy Law was promulgated in 1985, and in 1990 the punishment of life imprisonment under this law, which sought to penalise irreverence towards the Holy Quran and insulting the Holy Prophet, was included.

 In 1992, the government went a step ahead and introduced death penalty for a person guilty of blasphemy (strangely under the democratic government of Nawaz Sharif), under Article 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code. The law is very dangerous as blasphemy related "crime" does not require proof of intent or evidence to be presented after allegations are made and does not include penalty for false allegation.

Making the situation worse legally, in September 2013 the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) ruled that there is no need to amend the blasphemy law but its misuse needs to be stopped. The CII is a constitutional body that advises the legislature whether or not a certain law is repugnant to Islam. Tahir Ashrafi, a member of CII and also chairman of the Ulema Council of Pakistan, said: “We will not allow anyone to touch this (blasphemy) law". Further in December 2013, the Federal Shariat Court ordered the government to delete life imprisonment as a punishment in blasphemy cases, stating that death was the only sentence in case of conviction and awarding any other punishment would be unlawful.

The blasphemy law, while purporting to protect Islam and religious sensitivities of the Muslim majority, is vaguely formulated and arbitrarily enforced by the police and judiciary in a way which amounts to harassment and persecution of religious minorities. The 2013 Asian Human Rights Commission Report further critically states that alleged incidents of blasphemy by religious minorities is often used to fuel mob violence, targeted sectarian killings, looting, burning of houses, burning of places of worship and holy books, land grabbing etc.

It won't be inappropriate to say that the prevailing blasphemy law is consuming Pakistani society from within. In a way, these laws provide legitimacy to commit heinous crime and human rights violation in a country that is ranked 157 out of 162 countries in the 2013 Global Peace Index.

It is an all-purpose tool in the service of intolerance. The law has often been used against religious minorities, but Muslims are paying the price as well. Unfortunately, there is hardly any possibility to repeal the law.

Dr. Sanchita Bhattacharya is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi