By Zeeba T Hashmi
October 09, 2015
This is a country where a lot is dedicated to hero-worshipping. But the heroes here are no better than villains in conscientious minds; it all becomes clear then why nobody is bothered by their dead conscience. It is in Pakistan where a collective mindset can turn a helpless victim into a villain and a tyrant to be considered a praise worthy, courageous soul. Here, we are dealing with the kind of religious fanaticism that does not tolerate anyone challenging its hegemonic might. We silently keep witnessing how the clergy, which have been emboldened by the laws and amendments to the Constitution introduced by General Zia ul Haq during his draconian reign in Pakistan, have formed a powerful lobby for advocating their version of puritanical Islam.
Indeed, there is a very strong voice coming not just from the religious right wing but also from political persons who openly support Mumtaz Qadri for killing Governor Salmaan Taseer over his alleged ‘blasphemy’. It is quite ironic to note that the PPP, the political party to which Salmaan Taseer himself belonged, came into an alliance with the Sunni Tehreek, a group that is a strong supporter of Mumtaz Qadri, to campaign for the general elections in 2013. It merely shows how different stakeholders play their roles to their advantage in this religious fervour. The grisly murder of Salmaan Taseer indeed opened a new wave of debate on the controversial blasphemy laws in Pakistan, which, according to Salmaan Taseer, are an exploitive tool used against the weak and, therefore, he advocated for the need to amend it. This came with an adverse reaction from the hardliners who equated Taseer’s line of thought with blasphemy itself.
Salmaan Taseer was in fact ostensibly prosecuted in the media by television anchors who wished to gain more popularity by playing righteous judges for their audiences and ratings. It was one such talk show that inspired Mumtaz Qadri to kill Taseer in the name of religion. Not a single television station or its anchors were ever held accountable for outrightly playing God by calling Taseer a kafir (infidel). There was only one television channel thst blacklisted its anchor and expelled her, only after some people complained of the criminal manner with which she implied Taseer to be a blasphemer on her live talk show. This did not change anything as that particular anchor was hired by another channel to run her talk show like before. For the media, nothing is more profitable than playing the religious card to appease its audiences. Yes, their greed is limitless and they refuse to take any responsibility for the dangerous consequences.
The debate on the blasphemy laws began at the start of this decade when Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman, was charged with alleged blasphemy after she got into trouble with a group of enraged Muslim women who objected to her drinking water from their container. Based on mere heresy, Aasia Bibi, a mother of five children, was quickly sentenced to death by a sessions court, convicting her of a crime that she has persistently denied. The protestors against Aasia Bibi had threatened the authorities and the judiciary of taking matters into their own hands if she were freed by the court. This left the judges and the defence lawyers extremely susceptible to mob rage, as we have witnessed in almost all blasphemy cases where defence lawyers are easily coerced, threatened or even murdered for their work, as we have seen in Rashid Rehman’s case who was killed last year in Multan while defending a blasphemy accused.
In an environment that is extremely hostile for law officials to work in, there is no way to figure whether the verdicts of the court are neutral. In an appeal petition submitted to the high court to overturn the death sentence, Aasia Bibi had requested the jury to consider the investigation deficiencies in her case, especially the fact that there was a major lapse between the time when the actual event took place and the time the investigations were initiated by the police. In October last year, despite the fact that the key witnesses failed to show up during the court hearing, the Lahore High Court (LHC) upheld the death sentence for Aasia Bibi. It was in July this year that the Supreme Court (SC) suspended her sentencing until the decision on the appeal is reached.
Some right wing intellectuals are trying to convince us that Aasia Bibi should be sentenced as the law demands it, the same way as Qadri has been sentenced. Though decisions of the court must be respected, one should not be refrained from questioning the victimisation of the accused during a process of the law that is controversial and biased due to its religious nature. On one hand, we have the case of a man, who himself admitted to the killing of a man in cold blood for the sanctity of his faith, for which his defence lawyers have been filing plea after plea seeking to overturn the death sentence previously awarded to him, and also to drop all the charges of terrorism against him. The SC finally gave its verdict, upholding the death sentence and maintaining terrorism charges against Qadri, a welcomd precedent set by the SC that nothing is above the law.
But pressure is mounting. So far, around 70 protestors favouring Qadri have been arrested outside the SC and more religious backlash is expected against the verdict. On the other hand, there is a defenceless woman who has been charged with a crime she has been repeatedly denying and has been given the death sentence on religious grounds by both the sessions court and the high court. Here we see two religiously motivated crimes carried out by two different people, which amount to capital sentence according to the law. But is this justice equal for both these crimes? Nothing besides our conscience and empathy can decide. What we empathically find wrong in the laws should be reconsidered by lawmakers and its wisdom should be reinterpreted. The moral question we should all ask is whether the mere use of speech should constitute the laws facilitating the madness of bloodshed or whether the laws should be used to protect the sanctity of life against its transgressors. There is a need to understand the difference between a blasphemer and a murderer. Unless this difference is realised, Qadris will continue to be the heroes here and Aasia Bibis the villains.
The writer is a freelance columnist and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org