By Murtaza Razvi
Pakistan’s blasphemy law reeks of medieval witch-hunting, especially as it specifically targets the already constrained minorities. Since its inception in 1984 under the dictatorial rule of General Zia-ul-Haq, it has remained controversial, and claimed 10 lives extra-judicially, including those of two judges who had acquitted the accused. There has never been a conviction so far in that the latest accused, Aasia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, is the first one. She has been imprisoned for over a year and sentenced to death by a lower court earlier this month for allegedly defaming the Prophet of Islam.
The law as it stands is no less than an instrument of oppression, and has been patently abused for personal score-settling. As with other so-called, and always controversial, Islamic Sharia laws that exist in Pakistan, the onus of proving innocence lies with the accused. This terrible feature utterly flouts the norms of natural justice. While civil society, rights groups, parliamentary committees and even the Federal Sharia Court and the Council of Islamic Ideology have recommended all but a repeal of the blasphemy law in the past, no government has had the courage to undo the blatant injustice that this and many other Sharia laws have dispensed. And now the possible granting of a presidential pardon to the convicted woman, Aasia Bibi, itself has become controversial, with right-wing elements demanding her execution.
The ongoing “war on terror” has drawn many new battle lines on the social landscape here, as hundreds of Pakistanis were picked up during the Musharraf regime and handed over to America without any due process. Many were held for months and years without trial in prisons in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay; those who did undergo trial were convicted and handed out very harsh sentences under the new US anti-terrorism laws, and not without controversy. The recent conviction and sentencing to 86 years in a US prison of the Pakistani doctor, Aafia Siddiqui, over charges that she had tried to kill American soldiers while in custody in Afghanistan, has become a sore point. It has created much resentment in Pakistan, and to an extent generated a certain vengeful and devious mindset that is looking to make a horrible example of anyone accused of a crime here, with the Islamists insisting that the accused be subjected to equally stern Islamic laws.
The masochistic urge to swiftly bring the accused to justice without any process whatsoever has manifest itself in recent years in its crudest form. Blasphemy accused and alleged thieves and robbers — including in one harrowing case in September, two teenaged boys in Sialkot — have been beaten to death by a raging mad crowd; others have been burnt alive in Karachi. In certain cases the police too were part of such gross miscarriages of justice, yet few heads rolled. In a country where Islamist terrorists strike with impunity on a daily basis against their Muslim targets, such as Sufi saints’ shrines and mosques, and US drones rain down bombs, often killing innocent people, a certain amount of brutalisation of the public psyche and the urge for revenge have combined to unleash a sinister disorder. The government has all but failed to check the lawlessness.
In the case of the blasphemy accused Aasia Bibi, it is said the charge brought against her has more to do with repugnant caste and race relations than with blasphemy. She had dared to touch the water drawn by fellow Muslim village women, who accused her of having polluted their water because she was a non-Muslim and deemed “untouchable” — even though no such distinction is admissible in Islam. However, under the controversial blasphemy law, the testimony of only two adult Muslims is required for the accusation.
Christians and members of the minority Ahmadiyya community, a large section of which believes in the continuation of Islamic prophethood beyond Prophet Muhammad, and all of whom were declared non-Muslim by an act of parliament under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1974, have borne the brunt of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Which is not to say that Muslims have been spared; blasphemy accused have had to flee the country to escape lynching.
The abysmal state of Pakistani society today, which is in the thick of social turmoil, owes much to the unholy mixing of religion, politics and statecraft in the post-1970 period. State ideology based on Islam being the premise of the foundation of this country since that time in particular has eroded all secular state and social institutions. In the case of the Ahmadiyya community, Pakistan even managed to create a minority when none existed amongst its Muslim population, with the sole aim of systematically persecuting the adherents of that faith. In that sense society is now reaping the bitter harvest of what was sown and then nurtured, whether actively or by tolerating bigotry in its many forms, by successive rulers — whether democratically elected or dictators.
The writer is an editor with ‘Dawn’, Karachi
Source: Dawn, Pakistan