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Pakistan must repeal its blasphemy law
Submitted by admin on 18 February, 2011 - 17:23
-- Raheel Raza
The saddest aspect of the recent ruthless murder of Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, was not so much the viciousness of the killing but the vicious celebration of his death. Taseer was shot dead on January 4, 2011 by Mumtaz Qadri, a member of the governor's special security squad.
After Qadri pumped 27 bullets into Taseer, he was feted as a hero by many, not just in Pakistan but abroad, highlighting how deeply and shockingly mainstream Pakistani and Islamic society generally has been penetrated by religious extremism.
Taseer, who was close to President Asif Ali Zardari, had championed the cause of Asiya Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death under the blasphemy laws which, critics say, are used to target religious minorities, often for political and personal reasons.
The ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) appears to be divided over instituting a judicial inquiry into the assassination of Taseer, with two federal ministers contradicting each other on the issue. Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said on 14 January that more than 500 lawyers have offered to defend Taseer’s killer for free, and he was showered with flowers when he appeared in court.
This is a sad reflection on a country that was once pluralistic and tolerant.
In his presidential address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947, the founder of Pakistan, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah said, “What are we fighting for? What are we aiming at? It is not theocracy – not for a theocratic state. You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed - that has nothing to do with the business of the state….”
What happened to that mandate of liberty, faith and justice? It was hijacked by those for whom human life is of no importance.
Today the dreaded blasphemy law is a cancer consuming the body of Pakistan. It is totally in conflict with the Quran, which clearly states that “there is no compulsion in religion”; it is contrary to the words of the founder of Pakistan and against the very concept of universal human rights. Blasphemy laws are in violation of Articles 2, 3 and 4 of the Declaration on the Elimination of all forms of Intolerance and Discrimination based on Religion and Belief, and of articles 2 and 4 of the Declaration of the Rights of Persons Belonging to National, Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.
The blasphemy law, which was introduced by the British to protect religious minorities, was reinforced by Gen. Zia ul Haq in the 1980’s by introducing the death penalty for blasphemy, ostensibly to protect the honour of the Prophet Mohammad, the Quran and the companions and wives of the Prophet. (Sec 295 C: who ever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation innuendo, or insinuation, directly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life and shall also be liable for fine.)
Zia ul Haq called himself a man of faith, but his insecurities and lack of faith are manifest in his institutionalising the blasphemy law. Whatever made him think that the faith of Islam, its messenger and his family needed protection after 1400 years in which the faith had flourished without his assistance?
For over 20 years the blasphemy law has been used in Pakistan as a systematic tool of discrimination and abuse against religious minorities. It is estimated that since 1987 almost 1000 people have been accused under this inhuman law. Although religious minorities form only three percent of Pakistan’s population of almost 167 million, nearly half the victims were Ahmedis, and the others Christians and Hindus. The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief observed that the punishments accompanying blasphemy laws are excessive and disproportionate to the offence. Some Islamic scholars have also condemned the existence and application of these laws.
The text of the blasphemy law is specific to Islam and highly discriminatory. It makes no distinction between intentional deliberate action and unintended mistake in its application, and has been used indiscriminately to settle personal vendettas. Pakistan has been in the forefront of attempts in the global arena to press for limitations on freedom of religion or belief and on freedom of expression. For the past 10 years Pakistan has sponsored resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, and in the UN General Assembly in New York, calling upon the world to formulate laws against “defamation of religion”.
Pakistan blocked access to Facebook in May 2010 because the website hosted a page called Everybody Draw Mohammad Day. But their hypocrisy towards the blasphemy law and its flagrant disregard for human rights remains uncensured and unpunished.
On 1st August 2010, seven Christian women and children were burnt alive, several dozen people were injured and nearly 180 houses looted and destroyed in incidents in Gojra, Korian and Kasur. These attacks were carried out following unsubstantiated allegations of ‘desecrating the Holy Qur’an by the Christians’. Yet the government failed to protect the innocent people caught up in this carnage despite prior warnings.
A fact-finding mission of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HCP) found these attacks were pre-planned and not a response to blasphemy by an angry community. According to the HCP finding, announcements from mosques in Gojra on July 31 urged Muslims to gather and “make mincemeat of the Christians”.
Immediately after these attacks, Shahbaz Bhatti, Minister for Minorities declared at a news conference, “Allegations of desecration of the Holy Quran, which were used as an excuse by Islamist groups to foment such a big scale of violence, were baseless…”
After these deadly incidents, several government officials tried to speak out in favour of repealing the blasphemy law, but were silenced. Meanwhile ridiculous misuse of the blasphemy law by those in power continues. For example, a man alleged to have dropped a visiting card with the name ‘Mohammad’ on it was immediately accused of blasphemy.
Salman Taseer was a voice of tolerance and compassion. In trying to help Asiya Bibi he gave his own life. The horrific aftermath of celebration shows that the Islamists have a strong hold on the Pakistani media and were using Taseer’s assassination as an example to those who might dare speak out against repealing the blasphemy law. Some who have spoken out have been publicly warned and threatened. Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani made it clear on January 12, 2011 that the there would be no amendments to the blasphemy law.
- What can we do? The international community must:
- urge the UN Human Rights Council to pressure Pakistan to repeal or amend its blasphemy law.
- call upon the International Criminal Court to charge those who use the law frivolously while it exists and strengthen legal and administrative procedures to stop more abuse of the law by extremist groups.
- send an independent expert on minority issues to Pakistan to judge the gravity of the situation
- Urge the Pakistani government to:
- ban hate speech against ‘the other’,
- invite the UN Special Rapporteur of Religion or Belief to assess the situation objectively, and to monitor the progress on recommendations made during his predecessor’s visit in 1995, and
- take steps to protect political and religious organisations and institutions, judges and lawyers and other human rights defenders who advocate for a change to the blasphemy law.
-- Raheel Raza
Author of THEIR JIHAD…NOT MY JIHAD, Raheel Raza is an award-winning writer