By Kunwar Khuldune Shahid
October 08, 2015
Amidst all the dillydallying that the much touted National Action Plan (NAP) has personified, yesterday’s Supreme Court (SC) verdict against Mumtaz Qadri’s appeal was an epoch-defining statement of counterterrorism intent. Not only did the three-judge bench, headed by Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, scrap the plea against Qadri’s death sentence, it also crucially accepted the government’s appeal against Islamabad High Court (IHC) dropping the terrorism charge over the murder of Salmaan Taseer in 2011. Mumtaz Qadri is now officially a terrorist on the verge of being judicially executed.
The verdict comes merely two and a half months after the apex court suspended Asia Bibi’s death penalty. And by taking potentially capricious cases in its stride, the judiciary has resoundingly taken up the gauntlet that the creation of military courts had thrown at it.
Taking Qadri’s case to its logical conclusion would signal Pakistan’s clear intent to bid its volatile recent past adieu. It is quite possibly the only case where those who clamour against capital punishment in Pakistan - ignoring the state of war or the dearth of conditions where unadulterated humanistic laws could prevail - might be kind enough to not pay heed to their paradoxical whispers of conscience.
The cases of Mumtaz Qadri and Asia Bibi both showcase either side of the blasphemy coin: a Muslim man used the blasphemy law to kill someone he personally deemed to be a blasphemer, and a Christian woman was trapped by the same law after being falsely accused of blasphemy. As is evident both sides of the coin leave the law open to abuse.
The accusation of blasphemy isn’t solely a menacing arsenal for mob violence, or a potent tool for people to settle personal scores, the allegations of apostasy and sacrilege form the core of jihadism and Islamist terrorism that has pulverised the Pakistani state over the past decade or so.
Justice Khosa, on Tuesday, replied to the defense counsel’s pleas by saying: “If everyone starts punishing others, who have in their opinion committed blasphemy, then this society will disintegrate.”
Even so, the question that the judiciary and the legislators need to mull is that despite a quarter of the world’s countries (22%) having some form of blasphemy laws – including the likes of Germany, Canada and Australia – why is it that Pakistan’s law remains open to abuse more so than almost any other country?
It is because Pakistan’s Constitution and Penal Code, as things stand, simultaneously flirts with Saudi/Iranian theocracy and Western democracy in whimsical proportions. This gives us oxymoronic jurisprudence which simultaneously ‘guarantees’ ‘right to life and liberty’ and ‘freedom to profess religion’, while criminalising crimes of conscience – blasphemy, and by correlation apostasy – with death. The Pakistan Penal Code’s Sections 295-B and 295-C are the final nails in the coffin of pluralism in the country, with the Islam-specific clauses laying the ground for mob rule.
While Section 295, from the Original Indian Penal code of 1860, and 295-A, added in 1927 after the Ilam Din fiasco, are secular in nature – apply to all religions identically – 295-B and 295-C added by the Zia regime in 1986, make Islamic scriptures and religious figures worthier of esteem. This naturally aggravates Muslim supremacism, leaving moderate Muslims – like Salmaan Taseer – and non-Muslims – like Asia Bibi – at the mercy of Islamic fanaticism. It is no coincidence that there were only 14 cases filed for blasphemy between 1947 and 1986, which have increased nearly a 100 times over the past 29 years.
When the law clearly differentiates not only between Muslims and non-Muslims, but also implicitly distinguishes those adhering to Islamic laws as superior Muslims – by criminalising lack of adherence to Islamic scriptures and religious personalities – it’s obvious why the radical Muslims take those blasphemy clauses to their natural end by manifesting their ‘judicious superiority’ and “punishing others” themselves. How do the judiciary and legislators expect to nourish a law abiding environment vis-à-vis religious coexistence, when the Constitution doesn’t even treat all religions as equal?
While hanging Mumtaz Qadri would herald a new dawn for Pakistan’s stance on terrorism, without the eradication of the Islam-specific blasphemy laws, the Islamist tree would keep bearing its jihadist fruits. Treating all religions as equal would mean accepting the dreaded S-word (secularism) for the national Constitution, wherein the state doesn’t interfere in religious matters and treats all religious communities identically and secures everyone’s right to self-identify – which would, of course, irk the anti-Ahmaddiya brigade.
As crucial as the SC upholding Qadri’s death penalty is its overturning of the IHC verdict that claimed that Salmaan Taseer’s murder wasn’t an act of terrorism. The high court’s perplexing verdict blatantly contradicted the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), Article 6 2(i) of which clearly highlights creation of “a serious risk to safety of [the] public or a section of the public, or… (frightening) the general public,” as an act of terrorism. More critically though Article 6 1(c) also includes in terrorism’s definition, “the use or threat of action where the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a religious, sectarian or ethnic cause.”
What act could be more intended towards “advancing a religious cause” and “frightening sections of the public” than killing someone and then touting the act as “a lesson for all the apostates, as they finally have to meet the same fate” - as Qadri exclaimed after Taseer’s murder?
Not only did the absolution of terrorism charge create a window for Qadri’s counsel to settle the case through blood money – which isn’t possible for convicted terrorists – in the bigger scheme of things, the IHC’s verdict would’ve meant that attacks designed to target Shia, Ahmadis and non-Muslim minorities would’ve been peddled by the zealous supporters as not being acts of terrorism. That would’ve been as close as it is judicially possible to legalise terrorism.
And so, while the potential hanging of Mumtaz Qadri – which still is far from being a shoo-in – could signal the end of a gruesome chapter, more critically it would be the start of a new one. More essential than executing Qadri the man, is the elimination of Qadri the cult. This isn’t possible without proverbially hanging the cult of Ilam Din and revisiting the status of Muslim marauders like Mohammed bin Qasim and Mahmood Ghaznavi, and 7th century Arab warriors, as “our” heroes. Even more significant is the need to reconsider our blind adherence to the narrow, antediluvian and imperialist ideologically that is monolithically, and ubiquitously, sold as Islam.
There is more to a Muslim’s identity than theological adherence and it’s adopting Muslim pluralism that will breed religious coexistence in Pakistan. This would in turn create as society that is democratic, humanistic and tolerant enough to abolish the capital punishment. And that is when Mumtaz Qadri will truly be eliminated.
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a member of staff.