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Pakistan is betrayed by its blasphemy laws

Pakistani women preparing to vote in 2013. Credit: Daniel Berehulak / Getty

Pakistani women preparing to vote in 2013. Credit: Daniel Berehulak / Getty

February 19, 2019   5 mins

On 6 January, 2011, the world watched aghast as sections of Pakistan’s modern legal fraternity took to the streets of the country’s capital, Islamabad, to shower petals on the self-confessed killer, Mumtaz Qadri. He had arrived in court to hear charges against him for the murder of Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, who had campaigned for changes to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the release of a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, sentenced to death for blasphemy.

In his confession Qadri, a member of Taseer’s security team, justified his actions saying they were required to defend Islam. He was found guilty of ‘terrorism’ and handed the death penalty.  At his appeal hearing before the Islamabad High Court in 2015, Qadri was again feted by hundreds of lawyers who declared they were acting to meet their ‘Islamic obligations’.  His defence team which included two retired Justices – one of them the former Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court – also claimed to be doing their ‘religious duty’.

Qadri was finally executed in 2016 after Pakistan’s Supreme Court upheld his death sentence. He has since been canonised by his followers and his grave in Lahore transformed into a shrine. The 700-strong lawyers’ forum which rose to his defence has vowed to continue his struggle against blasphemy.

The spectacle of a legal community entrusted with upholding the rule of law, yet prepared to defend acts of unbridled vigilantism in the name of Islam, left many observers of Pakistan mystified about a country that projects itself as ‘modern’ and ‘moderate’. No less confusing was the sight of Qadri defending the use of violence while also professing his ties to peaceful branches of local Sufi Islam.

A reminder of these contradictions came to the fore in the wake of the recent controversy over the decision of Pakistan’s Supreme Court to acquit Asia Bibi of all charges of blasphemy. The judgement, issued in late 2018 and reiterated in January this year, unleashed a storm of protest which threatened to overwhelm the newly elected government of Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Though hailed by many as a landmark ruling, the Court’s verdict outraged religious parties which vowed to bring down the government unless it supported a review of the acquittal and prevented Asia Bibi from leaving the country. Faced with threats against judges and other state officials, the government capitulated.

Leading the charge against the Court’s verdict was the far-right Islamist party, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP).  A champion of local Sufi-influenced Barelvi Islam, which is followed by a majority of Muslims in Pakistan, the TLP has long campaigned for tighter blasphemy laws as a measure of exceptional Barelvi veneration of the Prophet Muhammad.

In 2017, it flexed its political muscle during violent nationwide demonstrations that culminated in the resignation of the then law minister. He was accused of blasphemy for re-wording an oath administered to election candidates in ways that the TLP judged had compromised belief in the finality of the Prophet Muhammad. Its stance was strongly endorsed by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), which vowed to resist any change to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

The TLP’s political clout was confirmed in 2018, after its share of votes in the general elections held that year secured its place as the fifth largest political party in the country. No wonder, then, that it was soon wooed by the ruling PTI which, unable to forge a working consensus with the main opposition parties, resumed co-operation with the extremists to win support for its candidate as president of Pakistan.

The gambit paid off, but at the price of acceding to the TLP’s demand just weeks later to suspend the Supreme Court’s judgement in favour of Asia Bibi.

The PTI’s championing of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws has been mirrored by other ‘mainstream’ political parties. In 2017, the then ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), whose law minister had been forced to resign over charges of blasphemy, took credit for inaugurating a major hospital wing in Lahore named after Ghazi Ilm-uddin. He had been sentenced to death in 1929 for killing a Hindu publisher whom he accused of publishing a blasphemous text.

Canonised by his followers (the prefix ‘Ghazi’ stands for a Muslim fighter against non-Muslims), Ilm-uddin’s defence was handled by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, later the founder of Pakistan. Pakistan’s national poet, Muhammad Iqbal, paid tribute to Ilm-uddin at his funeral praising him as “one who has surpassed us all”. Jinnah and Iqbal, who are both hailed as beacons of modernity and moderation in Pakistan, have been embraced as models by those fighting today to protect the state against blasphemy.

The foundations of a modern Pakistan in thrall to medieval laws of blasphemy were laid in the mid-1970s when a constitutional amendment overseen by a progressive government under the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) stripped the country’s Ahmadi minority of its status as Muslim. The grounds for doing so rested on claims that Ahmadis questioned the finality of the Prophet Muhammad.

The amendment, which remains in force, opened the way for a series of draconian changes to Pakistan’s Penal Code in the 1980s. Introduced as part of an Islamisation programme imposed to shore up the legitimacy of a military regime that had seized power in 1977, the changes set new and extreme standards of punishment – notably the death penalty – reserved specially for acts of blasphemy against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.

In a break with British colonial laws on blasphemy dating from the 1860s, which had until then formed the basis of Pakistan’s laws, the new measures aimed squarely to enhance protection for the religious beliefs of the Muslim majority rather than to safeguard the religious freedom of minorities.

But the new laws were also noteworthy on other counts: there were no agreed standards of evidence; no requirement to prove intent; no penalties for false allegations, and no clear guide-lines for what actually constituted blasphemy. Most remarkably, accusers retained the right not to repeat offending statements in court in case it aggravated the blasphemy, leaving the accused vulnerable to a sentence without knowing what was said or done to have constituted blasphemy.

These features continue to define Pakistan’s blasphemy laws though it is worth noting that no one convicted of blasphemy has yet been executed.

Nevertheless, the laws have been flagrantly abused. The flimsy burden of proof attached to accusations of blasphemy has led to an escalation in vigilante justice in which at least 70 people accused of blasphemy have been killed by mobs since 1990. Most of the victims were non-Muslims.

Lax standards of evidence have also encouraged the laws to be used to settle personal scores and disputes over money in which Muslims as well as non-Muslims have faced prosecution on false charges of blasphemy. Indeed, more Muslims than non-Muslims have been prosecuted for blasphemy.

The flaws in the laws make them ripe for reform. Yet calls for change have been fraught with risk and the price exacted quite simply intolerable. In the same year – 2011 – that Taseer was shot dead, another Christian government minister who had sided with him was also killed. A senior parliamentarian, Sherry Rehman, who had sought to table a bill proposing amendments was forced to abandon her campaign after receiving death threats.

But arguably the greatest obstacle to reform lies in profound national uncertainty over Pakistan’s Islamic identity. Much of it stems from rival conceptions of Pakistan, which juxtapose the country’s responsibilities as a modern Muslim homeland ready to take its place in the global community of nations, against its obligations to fulfil some Divine purpose as a guarantor of Islam. The blasphemy laws with their accent on religious boundaries and ever more rigid definitions of ‘the Muslim’, must be seen as symptomatic of these anxieties about the raison d’etre of the Pakistani state – even as they serve for some as powerful weapons to tame those anxieties.

Farzana Shaikh is an Associate Fellow of the Royal institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London and the author of Making Sense of Pakistan (2009, 2019)

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