By Nasir Saeed
February 22, 2016
Pakistan’s blasphemy law has needed a review for a long time but, despite all the havoc and tyranny it has created, it has never been looked at seriously. However, the recent statement from Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani, the chairman of Council for Islamic Ideology (CII), has once again has attracted attention to the need to reform the blasphemy law.
The law has been criticised regularly by civil society, the international community and minorities who consider it the root cause behind their persecution. They have been demanding its repeal for a long time. We have seen how it has become a crime to even criticise the law or demand changes to it. Those who have refused to accept this have been threatened with death or have been silenced forever. We have lost two brave senior politicians to this mind-set: Shahbaz Bhatti and Salmaan Taseer. Years ago, the Lahore High Court (LHC) said the law needed to be reviewed and, more recently, the Supreme Court (SC) said the same.
The whole world seems concerned about the ongoing misuse of this law. Apart from the UNO and commonwealth, most parliaments in western countries have discussed Pakistan’s blasphemy law. In British parliament the issue has been raised at least a dozen times, including by Muslim MP Rehman Chishti. But where this law has to be discussed (Pakistan’s parliament), they still seem tentative and uncertain. Is it an inadvertent delay or fear of backlash? Religious scholars and critics have their arguments in favour and against but it is only the government that can bring this matter to an end.
Although this is a sensitive issue any delay to reforming the law will continue to cost innocent lives, lead to the exacerbation of the country’s bad human rights record and financial suffering to the victims of this law. But do we care about human life and all these things when it is in relation to non-Muslims? The chairman of CII has said that the council could seriously consider the matter and give its recommendations on whether the law is too harsh or soft, and whether it needs to be amended. But he has said the government of Pakistan should officially refer the law on committing blasphemy to the CII.
The CII’s willingness to address the subject is good news for Pakistan, as in the past it has always faced criticism internally and externally, but now is the time for it to take a step forward. This is the same chairman who, in 2013, refused to discuss this law and said “minorities will become unsafe if amendments are made to the blasphemy law”.
In 1994, in the High Court, ex-president Rafiq Tarar had to emphasise the same arguments on how if this law were not there or if 295C is struck down people would take the law into their own hands and kill culprits on the spot. But this law has not been able to prevent such incidents from occurring, so the argument stands nowhere and the purpose of having this law to deal with an offence through legal means has lost all credibility.
We have seen live coverage of Gojra’s ruination where eight Christians were burnt alive, Rashid Rehman, a human rights defender, was killed in his office and Fanish Maish was killed in prison in addition to a long list of others. However, the most shameful act committed by vigilantes was the burning alive of a Christian couple, Shama and Shahzad, in a brick kiln. The law and courts have both been failed to protect innocent people, especially those who belong to minority groups.
Despite the identification of the culprits committing hate crimes openly against minorities, in several cases no one has been brought to justice. This encourages further attacks and is also considered tacit approval from the government. Minorities have no trust in the police, courts and government. That is why they are leaving the country of their forefathers. Sadly, their own representatives are subservient to their party leaders. The lower courts are always hesitant to convict someone because of the pressure from Islamic groups and decision of the Sharia court. They are afraid to apply their own minds and diligence even in such cases where the accused person is mentally unsound.
In the past, the CII has expressed its own view that only a deliberate act of blasphemy can be punishable with death and also about the application of the blasphemy law to the non-Muslims. There is a need to clear any ambiguities over these issues. There is also a lot of difference of opinion among the clergy. It is an established reality that the blasphemy law is being misused in different shapes, not only to settle personal scores, build pressure on police and the lower courts, threaten lawyers and spread fear among minorities, but also to attack their churches and temples, and set on fire their colonies.
Since many religious scholars and politicians have admitted this fact in the media, what is holding us back from initiating debate? Debate over the blasphemy law is inevitable; further delay means more attacks on churches, more killings of innocent people and more burning of minorities’ settlements, which brings nothing but shame to Pakistan and Islam.
In the past, minority MP, (late) Mr M P Bhandara and Senator Sherry Rehman faced dire consequences for presenting a bill in parliament to initiate debate for its amendment. Shahbaz Bhatti was killed for demanding a change while Salmaan Taseer was murdered by his own security guard, Mumtaz Qadri, whose appeal is still pending in front of the president of Pakistan for clemency. But this time the government should proceed because there are so many reasons, including the CII chairman’s attitude and the Prime Minister’s (PM’s) own reiterated statement about a liberal and democratic Pakistan. The government’s action plan cannot be consummated as this law is being used to provoke hatred and incite violence.
I am not sure whether the CII will discuss this law or not, whether it will soften or harden the punishment or whether it will remain the same. But one thing I am sure about is that it is the government’s responsibility to bring this law into parliament to have a debate over it, even though The Milli Yakjehti Council (MYC) is already making threats. Pakistan’s own Supreme Court’s (SC’s) recent decisions demand it and since Pakistan is a party to most the core international treaties like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) it is under obligation to bring its law in line with these treaties. European parliament has recently released its report about the issues faced by Pakistan and it has shown some concern over the non-implementation of these treaties. It is also being said that this maiden report will determine the future of Generalised System of Preference (GSP) Plus status through European parliament.
Nasir Saeed is a freelance columnist