The relationship between state and religion in Pakistan has always been an uneasy one. From the passage of the Objectives Resolution in 1949 to General Ziaul Haq’s Islamisation drive – even after his military rule – religion has consistently been brought in to run the affairs of the state. Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in the treatment of those accused of committing blasphemy.
In 2014 there has been an unprecedented spike in the accusations of blasphemy and the lethal violence caused by them, with November being the cruelest month. It began with the gruesome, brutal lynching of a Christian couple, Shahzad Masih and his pregnant wife Shama, in Kot Radha Kishan near Lahore. They were burnt alive by a mob for alleged desecration of the Quran. A few days later, a man was arrested in Gujrat for allegedly blaspheming against holy personages of Islam. Upon being brought to a police station, he was axed to death by an officer.
In another incident, a professor in Attock fled to save his life after his students accused him of committing blasphemy. On November 25, an Anti-Terrorism Court in Gilgit sentenced media mogul Mir Shakilur Rehman, morning show host Shaista Lodhi, actress Veena Malik and her husband Asad Bashir Khan to 26 years in prison on blasphemy charges.
During previous months, there were similarly troubling developments. In October, the Lahore High Court (LHC) upheld the 2010 death sentence awarded by a trial court to Aasia Bibi, a blasphemy-accused Christian woman from a village in Sheikhupura. In September, two people accused of blasphemy and imprisoned in Adiala jail, Rawalpindi, were shot by the police officers guarding them. One of them received serious injuries while the other died on the spot. Earlier in the year, human rights lawyer Rashid Rehman was shot dead in Multan for representing Junaid Hafeez, a teacher being tried under the blasphemy laws.
In light of the growing number of such incidents, the Herald takes a look at the history of blasphemy laws in Pakistan and their impact on state and society.
Blasphemy laws are a product of Zia’s era.
No, but he made them stringent.
During their rule over the subcontinent, the British included laws in the Indian Penal Code to deal with blasphemy. The reason is easy to ascertain: home to diverse religious communities, each with different, often conflicting, beliefs and traditions, British India often suffered violence in the name of religion. Sometimes this violence resulted from real or imagined insults to the holy personages of one community by another. In 1860, therefore, the British government of India introduced three laws and inserted them as sections 295, 296 and 298 in the Indian Penal Code. These laws respectively dealt with the desecration of places of worship, causing disturbance in a religious assembly and deliberately hurting religious sentiments.
As skirmishes between Hindus and Muslims continued on such issues, the British later added section 295-A to punish those who insulted a religion or its followers using verbal, written or visible representative means. None of these laws were specific to any religion, nor were they biased for or against any religious community. Blasphemy also did not incur capital punishment under these laws. According to a study conducted by the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), an independent think tank based in Islamabad, only five prominent blasphemy cases were reported in British India between 1860 and 1947.
In a sign of what was to come decades later, the promulgation of these laws did not stop the first recorded murder of a blasphemy accused. Rajpal, a Hindu publisher in Lahore, was assassinated by Ilm Din in 1929 for publishing a book which the Muslims deemed blasphemous. Rajpal was tried under the blasphemy laws but the LHC found him not guilty.
When Zia carried out his coup in 1977, he used religion as a tool to legitimise his rule. In one of the most significant, and far-reaching, steps that he took to Islamise the state and society, he added many subsections to the blasphemy laws. These include sections 295-B and 295-C, which designate desecration of the Quran and blasphemy against the Prophet of Islam as serious crimes. Initially, life imprisonment was the maximum punishment under 295-B and those found guilty under 295-C would either get life imprisonment or the death sentence.
In 1990, however, the Federal Shariat Court, another creation of Zia, declared that the death sentence was the only punishment that could be awarded to those found guilty of blaspheming against the Prophet of Islam. The Zia regime also introduced section 298-A which declared blasphemous any insulting comments against the companions of the Prophet of Islam. In 1984, two more sections (298-B and 298-C), were added, which specifically concerned the Ahmadi community.
Contrary to the British blasphemy laws, additions made during Zia regime were Islam-specific — they were meant to prosecute only those who blasphemed against holy Islamic personages and desecrated the Quran. Another major feature of these changes was the omission of ‘deliberate or malicious intent’ from the allegations of blasphemy — even those who commit blasphemy inadvertently, including those who are “unsound of mind”, can now be tried under the blasphemy laws.
Since the Zia years, the registration of blasphemy cases in Pakistan has skyrocketed, with most of the accused facing allegations of blaspheming against the Prophet of Islam or desecrating the Quran. This is in sharp contrast to the pre-Zia era. Between August 1947 and 1980 only eight blasphemy cases were reported in Pakistan and none of them were for blaspheming against the Prophet of Islam or desecrating the Quran.
Have blasphemy laws helped in curbing incidents of blasphemy?
The evidence points otherwise.
Ideally, laws are made to deter people from committing crimes, so as to maintain a peaceful society. When introduced by the British, blasphemy laws were meant to uphold civil order among different religious communities. Evidence, however, suggests that blasphemy laws in Pakistan are far from being a deterrent. If anything, they have massively increased the number of blasphemy cases even when most of these cases are initially filed on trumped-up charges.
Statistics compiled from various sources such as CRSS, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), a non-governmental organisation based in Lahore that mainly works for the rights of the Christian community, reveal that the intensification of blasphemy laws by Zia significantly increased the number of alleged incidents of blasphemy. The CRSS report states that 328 people were tried under the blasphemy laws between 1987 and 2012. According to HRCP, blasphemy cases were registered against 19 Muslims and 14 Christians in 2013 alone. This year, the number of such cases has been at a record high. According to the statistics put together by the NCJP, 94 blasphemy cases have been registered between January and September 2014.
In a research paper, titled Unholy Speech and Holy Laws, Dr Osama Siddique, a law teacher at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, cites figures compiled in 2007 to show that, by then, 104 blasphemy cases had passed through various stages of trial in Pakistan. A vast majority of these cases were registered under sections 295-C and 298-C of the Pakistan Penal Code.
Other figures cited by Sahar Khan, a PhD student at the University of California Irvine, in her research paper, titled The Blasphemy Laws: A Pakistani Contradiction, show the number of blasphemy cases brought to a court for trial has increased in every decade since 1980. According to her findings, the courts heard 12 blasphemy cases between 1980 and 1989 but this number rose to 37 in the next ten years and to 56 between 2000 and 2009.
Some of the increase in blasphemy cases, however, can be attributed to non-religious reasons. Because of the way the blasphemy laws are phrased, they provide a lot of space for anyone to use them for settling personal scores, even for securing financial benefits. Unsurprisingly, many blasphemy cases have been dismissed by appeal courts b
ecause they were motivated by ‘mischief and mala fide intent’. As Siddique highlights in his research, “… appellate courts have almost always struck down or caused to be struck down (by remanding these cases after pointing out flaws of evidence and procedure) convictions at the trial court level.”
Other Islamic countries also have blasphemy laws.
Yes, but laws are not the same everywhere.
According to a 2012 research conducted by the Pew Research Centre, an American think tank, nearly 22 per cent of the world’s countries and territories have blasphemy laws or blasphemy policies — and almost 70 per cent of those are Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
While almost none of the Muslim-majority countries have blasphemy laws that can be termed compatible with international human rights laws and global judicial and legal conventions, only Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia provide for capital punishment in blasphemy cases. In Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, a constitutional petition was filed in 2010, seeking the repeal of the country’s blasphemy laws, but the petition failed. Indonesia is also one of those countries that have passed a law to declare Ahmadis non-Muslims. Malaysia, Bangladesh and India have the colonial-era blasphemy laws on their statute books, with the maximum punishment not exceeding three years.
Reforming the blasphemy laws is possible.
No, as some recent attempts testify.
Is there any possibility of repealing, or at least modifying, the blasphemy law to prevent their misuse? Unfortunately, the evidence says no. The last time a serious effort was made to reform the blasphemy laws was in 2010 by Sherry Rehman, then a member of the National Assembly. Immediately after presenting a bill in parliament suggesting reforms, she began receiving threats and was even booked for committing blasphemy. She withdrew the bill.
The biggest blow to the cause of reforming the laws came when Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was shot dead in January 2011 by his official security guard in Islamabad for speaking in favour of Aasia Bibi and calling the blasphemy laws “man-made”. Only two months later, Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, was gunned down in Islamabad — he was also one of the proponents of reforming the blasphemy laws.
While the European Union has once again demanded that Pakistan consider repealing the blasphemy laws after Aasia Bibi’s death sentence was upheld, there is no political will, clout or incentive for that. A legal expert with experience of working on blasphemy-related issues tells the Herald that following Taseer’s murder “the road to reforming the law has ended”.
There, however, could still be some way of reforming the laws. As Siddique points out, more than looking for a political and legal solution, it is imperative to elicit social, cultural and religious narratives, allowing a healthy discussion about blasphemy laws. One way to generate such a narrative is to utilise Islamic jurisprudence in favour of legal and judicial reforms on the subject of blasphemy, he says.
Morocco may teach Pakistan a thing or two in this regard. The country managed to introduce wholesale reforms in its laws pertaining to women’s rights even though the subject was very sensitive, both religiously and culturally. What the government there did was successfully employ Islamic jurisprudence and precedents in the reforms’ favour.
While there are many similarities between Pakistan and Morocco, suggesting that we can also do what the Moroccans could, there is one crucial difference between the two countries. Morocco is a monarchy whereas Pakistan is a majoritarian democracy where the majority seems dead set against any reform in the blasphemy laws — at least so far.