Anti-Blasphemy Law: A Road to Injustice
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.