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Anti-Blasphemy Law: A Road to Injustice

November 23, 2010

Pakistan Penal Code Section 295-A, 295-B and 295-C – commonly known as blasphemy law, which deals with the desecration of Quran and derogatory remarks in respect of Holy Prophet (PBUH) are the ones that often come under severe criticism from different sections of society.

Undoubtedly, the political struggle for Pakistan was carried out under the umbrella of religion but Jinnah’s address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, Karachi on August 11, 1947 shows that he never fantasized turning Pakistan into a religiously intolerant nation. In his address he emphatically said, ‘You may belong to any religion, caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the state. In due course of time Hindus will cease to be Hindus and Muslims will cease to be Muslims – not in a religious sense for that is the personal faith of an individual – but in a political sense as citizens of one state’.

After the creation of Pakistan, the first clauses about religion appeared in the Objectives Resolution that was adopted in 1949 as a foundation for the future constitution of the country. Apparently, the clause which states that, ‘Muslims shall be enabled to order their lives in the individual and collective spheres in accordance with the teachings of Islam as set out in the Qur’an and Sunnah’ seem totally benign but this document is silent about the true interpretation of the phrase ‘teachings of Islam as set out in Quran and Sunnah’.

Many religious scholars argue that Quran repeatedly mentions only three specific responsibilities of a Muslim state i.e. to collect Zakat from rich and to distribute in poor, to ensure the freedom of offering prayers and to preach goodness and since there is no compulsion in religion so preaching shouldn’t transgress limits to become a forceful activity. Other than that everything else falls outside the realm of state obligations.

On the other hand, the Majlis-e-Khatm-e-Nabuwat movement to declare Ahmadis as non Muslims had started in 1949. That movement culminated in 1974 when Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims through an act of parliament. In late 1970s and early 80s General Zia-ul-Haq obsession with religion reached a totally different level of absurdity and a string of legislation passed under his administration paved the road to injustice. In 1982, changes were made to the Pakistan Penal Code and certain Islam-specific sections including blasphemy law were adopted. In 1984 General Zia promulgated a notorious Ordinance XX, which barred Ahmadis from associating themselves with Islam or Islamic practices in any manner whatsoever.

Initially blasphemy law wasn’t punishable with death. It became so after the decision of the Federal Shariat Court in 1990 which declared in its judgment that the penalty for blasphemy should be death and directed the government of Nawaz Sharif to make necessary changes to the law.

The historic reference for adopting the blasphemy law could be traced back to Ghazi Ilm-ud-Din, who killed a Hindu author in 1929 for writing a derogatory book against the Holy Prophet (PBUH). This incident was was sighted as an additional point as to why Hindus and Muslims could never live together. Ironically, in terms of religious practice there is no proof of killing the blasphemer. Holy Prophet (PBUH) did not seek vendetta against those who would misbehave with him nor did he encourage his disciples to seek revenge on that basis. The murder itself negates the very essence of Quranic verse which says that killing one person is like killing the entire humanity.

According to data 695 people were accused of blasphemy in Pakistan between 1986 and 2006.  The basic philosophy behind enacting laws punishable with death is to deter people from committing the wrong. The above mentioned figures negate the general assumption of deterrence. Why would a religious minority take a risk of desecrating Quran or of uttering sacrilegious remarks against the Holy Prophet (PBUH) when they have the knowledge of possible consequences?

The blasphemy law is greatly flawed not only because legally speaking the term ‘blasphemy’ is extremely vague but also no evidence is needed for indicting the blasphemers. In the absence of strict scrutiny that law naturally becomes a convenient way of settling scores with foes. Moreover, this law opened up the Pandora box of violence. Many a times an alleged blasphemer is gunned down during the proceedings, as happened in July this year when two Christians were shot dead in the outskirts of the court, or after the acquittal. Even the judges who acquit the accuser of blasphemy put their life at risk. In 2007 Judge Arif Iqbal Hussain Bhatti was killed in his Lahore office after acquitting two people who were accused of blasphemy. Incidents like those points towards the fact that the blasphemy law has failed to achieve an object for which it was enacted.

In 2004, the parliament made minor amendment to the blasphemy law. After the amendment the police officials are required to investigate accusations of blasphemy to ensure that they are well founded. However, this change is so trivial to make any substantial impact.

Given the political pressure from certain religious elements, repealing the blasphemy law will not be as easy; but to stop further persecution of the religious minorities as well as of Muslims it seems the only viable solution. One must not forget that laws are formulated for the protection of subjects and not as a tool of harassment.

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. November 23, 2010 10:31 am

    I agree there is religious intolerance here. The blasphemy law is abused. Your article however, would need more context. Tell me, what to do with those who deliberately derogate the Quran or the Prophet ? … could this be allowed ? Surely you won’t kill them, but you will do something about it I suppose.

    But one has to be *just* to be a muslim. Blasphemy law should encompass the sanctity of all religions. Therefore anyone who derogates any religion should be dealt with firmly.

    Also, I don’t understand why we fight intolerance with intolerance. Of all the Muslim sects in the world, only 2 declare their own prophets, the Ahmadis and the Bahais. This is a clear violation of the first “kalima” which is “believed” to be the pre-requisite to enter the faith for all Muslim sects. So to accept Ahmadis as muslims is a matter of principle, NOT emotion. I don’t know why people take advantage of the situation here to bend the “principles”.

    Ahmadis can call themselves and believe themselves to be muslims. But they just can’t expect the other sects to do so as they are in clear violation of the very foundation upon which the other sects believe Islam stands. To expect a Sunni and / or Shia majority states to accept them as muslims is illogical.

    One cannot just go hold the flag of liberalism and become “madar padar azad”, blasphemy is punishable but within the bounds of humanity of course.

    • November 23, 2010 10:56 am

      How would you prove if someone is guilty of (verbal) blasphemy?

  2. November 23, 2010 12:00 pm

    @ayesha – that’s the real question … and i’ve been asking myself just that for a long time … and that’s the point where it all goes wrong and abuse starts … I guess there should be concrete, reproducible, hard evidence that would eliminate any “reasonable doubt” … and capital punishment would be absurd in this case.

  3. November 23, 2010 9:04 pm

    We as Muslims learn to be tolerant – that is more than anything what we need today. I have seen people getting emotinal rather than logical while discussing serious subjects like blesphemy. Good article

  4. Raheel permalink
    November 24, 2010 1:17 am

    I disagree.
    In my opinion, if a law is being misused, that doesn’t mean there should be ‘no law’ what-so-ever. Pakistan IS an Islamic state and we have to accept it. Declaring blasphemy as ‘not-illegal’ will be against the constitution (or otherwise the whole constitution should be reshaped).

    P.S: I am disgusted how (childish) Pakistani media plays emotional games.

    • November 24, 2010 9:36 am

      Raheel: Be logical and try to understand the law and it’s implications. Suppose tomorrow a number of people testify against you that you uttered derogatory remarks in respect of Holy Prophet and they also provoke a small community you are part of. What will be your defense?

      Suppose, if Aasia Bibi uttered a sentence or two, don’t you think she was provoked by her Muslim female co-workers. Don’t you think intent should be differentiated from the spur of moment utterance?

      To adopt a middle path could be making this law very strict. The onus should be on the complainants to prove that the accused really is guilty of the said act. Again, what’s the guarantee the law won’t be abused as they would be relying on the same oral testimonies?

  5. Raheel permalink
    November 24, 2010 1:23 am

    “Why would a religious minority take a risk of desecrating Quran or of uttering sacrilegious remarks against the Holy Prophet (PBUH) when they have the knowledge of possible consequences?”

    Why does a person kill when he knows the consequences?

    Hatred against Islam makes some arrogant people do such thing. Recent example – the American priest’s act on current 09/11.

  6. November 24, 2010 1:52 am

    Ayesha :
    How would you prove if someone is guilty of (verbal) blasphemy?

    Testimony of witnesses?

    • November 24, 2010 9:31 am

      Tauqeer: Practically speaking do you really think (only) witnesses could be trusted like that in our judicial system? Do you really believe people are so truthful and fair.

    • December 2, 2010 12:28 pm

      Ayesha :
      False testimony is one of the worst impediments in our judicial system. It frustrated one of the justices of Peshawar High Court so much that he said angrily, we can’t impart justice like that. That was in reference to those everyday regular cases where law is straight forward.
      If you can’t improve the corrupt system than anti-blasphemy law should be made stricter to leave little room for injustice. Will legislator do that? Besides, can you prove that Holy Prophet initiated the killing of people who said bad things to him.

      Blasphemy has been a crime in Judiasm as well as Christianity. In both the cases, the maximum punishment for such a crime is/was capital punishment. ONLY in 2008, England abolished blasphemy laws. Have a look at:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blasphemy_law_in_the_United_Kingdom

      Things will take time, to change, hopefully for better. It is more to do with the behaviour of our societies towards ‘non-conforming’ elements, we should rather address that.

    • December 2, 2010 1:34 pm

      We need to undo the indoctrination. Yes, it will take time.

  7. Adnan permalink
    November 24, 2010 11:05 am

    Ayesha,

    Very well Written blog. We are getting insensitive crowd of people so I pray that one day we become a nation and get united against the atrocities carried out on the name of religion. Islam is a religion of peace and Our Great Prophet (S.A.W) has been an embassador of peace throughout his life. I’ve come to your blog after a long time and I’ve always found it so much informative and courageous. Best of Luck to you. May your courage and writing skills show us the light and guidance in the right path! Aamin

    • November 24, 2010 12:59 pm

      Thank you for your appreciation. That’s what I say if Holly Prophet (saw) was an ambassador of peace than who justified the killing of people in his honor or name. Having said that doesn’t mean I or people who are not with majority lack the same level of respect but I’m just trying to understand what should be a rational approach in such situation.

  8. November 24, 2010 11:40 am

    Ayesha :
    Tauqeer: Practically speaking do you really think (only) witnesses could be trusted like that in our judicial system? Do you really believe people are so truthful and fair.

    Then we need to improve our system right? I believe there would be numerous cases decided based on witnesses(eye), not just blasphemy, are they all invalid? or say abused at first instance?
    Yes, there is room of improvement in almost all spheres of systems we have in Pakistan, including judiciary, and yes people should afraid day of judgement while making false accusations.

    • November 24, 2010 12:40 pm

      False testimony is one of the worst impediments in our judicial system. It frustrated one of the justices of Peshawar High Court so much that he said angrily, we can’t impart justice like that. That was in reference to those everyday regular cases where law is straight forward.

      If you can’t improve the corrupt system than anti-blasphemy law should be made stricter to leave little room for injustice. Will legislator do that? Besides, can you prove that Holy Prophet initiated the killing of people who said bad things to him.

  9. maryam permalink
    November 25, 2010 2:56 am

    tauqeer n raheel i agree with you,
    in pakistan every law is misused, isint tht ryt thn why just blasphemy law should b changed???
    http://www.chowk.com/articles/5331
    Aysha plz have a look at this.

  10. November 26, 2010 12:18 am

    where is the solution? i mean i know the solution but is anyone willing to implement?

  11. kashifiat permalink
    November 28, 2010 2:57 pm

    Pls read

  12. black man permalink
    November 30, 2010 12:09 am

    You guys who support blasphemy laws in Pakistan are like the KKK and white america in America in the early 1900’s. I grew up in a all white neighborhood and I had to deal with skinheads and I even had a swastika painted on my house. In the early 1900’s if a black man looked at a white women he could be killed even without a trial. You people remind me of the KKK and white racist back in the early 1900’s because you would kill someone just for saying something you don’t like. Crazy.

  13. gentle_man323 permalink
    January 21, 2011 4:37 pm

    I read the article and was astonished for ignorance of the author about sirat and sunnah of the Prophet PBUH. The author said the prophet pbuh forgave all whoever misbehaved with the prophet pbuh. I asked the author give me just one single example where anybody insulted or did blasphemy against the prophet PBUH and the prophet forgave him beside Abdullah bin sbi sarah who was milk shared brother of Uttman bin Affan and the prophet PBUH at last forgave him reluctantly on continuous insistence of Uttman.even then the prophet asked the companions why did they kill that blasphemers while the prophet PBUH didn’t allow pardon untll uttman third request. I don;t think the author can not understand the difference of misbehave and blasphemy.

    • amir yusuf chaudhry permalink
      May 12, 2011 4:34 am

      Agreed. Abusing your prophets, your beliefs, burning your holy books, this is what they call freedom of speech. Going to the mosques, temples or churches is not an issue here. I am in the favour of interfaith dialogues & harmony between the religions and even between different sects. But you have to define some boundaries, some limits. No one tolerates abusive or harsh words against ones parents, and you want to allow the people to speak against their prophets. I am not only talking in the favour of Quran and Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H.) but for all the holy books, prophets, saints & gurus.

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