Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan: playing with fire

Published in Daily Sun
Saturday, 12th March, 2011

The assassination of Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs, Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti on March 2nd, at the hands of his security guard has dented Pakistan’s already fragile image as an intolerant country. In January, Pakistan’s a leading politician and Governor of Punjab Mr. Salman Taseer, was also gunned down by his security guard for he too like Mr. Bhatti had been campaigning against Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws that target minorities, particularly the Christians. In both cases, the alleged killers were widely hailed in the country. In case of Mr. Bhatti, information on his security was leaked by government security detailed for him.

In case of Mr. Bhatti’s assassination, there was official apathy for his death that was palpably visible. At the funeral of the late Minister, the Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani was the only senior Government official to turn up. The rest of his cabinet and officials, were conspicuously absent. Their absence was more than adequately made up by the presence of a large number of foreign diplomats, including the US Ambassador to Pakistan Mr. Cameron P Munter.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have brought the country criticism and censure from abroad particularly from the western nations. It was introduced in the country during the tenure of President Ziaul Huq who was an Islamic fundamentalist. The laws that are part of Pakistan’s Penal Code derive their authority from Article 2 of Pakistan’s constitution that makes Islam the state religion and Article 31that mentions that it is the duty of the country to foster Islam. The blasphemy laws that are included in Pakistan’s Penal Code are spread over a number of its sections. Section 295 prohibits defiling or damaging a place or an object of worship. Sub-sections of this section prohibits specific acts against Islam such as acts against Quran, against Prophet Mohammed (Peace be upon Him), etc and also specifies nature and extent of punishment that extends up to the death penalty. Section 298 and its sub-sections are also parts of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Article 298-C contains discriminatory provisions against the Ahmediyyas.

The blasphemy laws are now threatening the very basis of Pakistan, already weakened first, by the aftermaths of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and now by the events after 9/11 when Pakistan became an US ally in the war against terror but now shows all the signs of becoming a victim of terror. The blasphemy laws of Pakistan were intended to respect Islam in a country where out of its 173 million people, 97% are Muslims and only 1.6%, Christians. In Pakistan, the religious minorities are not even by the remotest stretch of imagination any threat to the power structure in the country. The Ahmediyyas who have been made religious minorities and against whom the blasphemy laws have been systematically applied in Pakistan are also likewise not a threat to the Muslims of Pakistan.

Yet there have been hundreds of cases in various courts in Pakistan under the country’s blasphemy laws. Strangely, not all the victims of these draconian laws are non-Christians. The majority of the cases under the blasphemy laws have been brought against Muslims who have chosen to come into conflict with these laws. Coming into conflict is not difficult either. In fact for those who want to bring charges under these laws can find enough provisions in Pakistan’s Penal Code to do so easily and at will.

The case of Asia Bibi exposed the notoriety and their ridiculous nature of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan to the rest of the world. Asia Bibi is a Pakistani Christian who worked in a farm in Sheikhupura village. In 2009, she was asked to fetch water by fellow farm workers some of whom refused to drink water from her hand because they believed Christians to be “unclean”. There were some arguments over it but the matter later got entangled over property differences that Asia Bibi had with a neighbour. A mob went to her house and beat her and her family and accused her of passing derogatory remarks about Prophet Mohammed (phub). A case was filed against her under Section 295C and she was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. The case is pending appeal in a higher court.

Asia Bibi still is now languishing in jail, awaiting her fate. Pope Benedict has appealed for clemency and human rights groups round the world have been vocal in her favour. The fundamentalists pursuing her case have threatened that if the High Court turns down the death sentence or if she is ultimately granted clemency, they will take the law into their hands and implement the death sentence. A human right researcher writing on the Asia Bibi case commented that the “The law creates this legal infrastructure which is then used in various informal ways to intimidate, coerce, harass and persecute."

Between 1986 and 2007, 647 cases were brought before the court for trial. Fifty percent of those who were charged were non-Muslims clearly underscoring the there is opposition among the majority Muslims against the blasphemy laws. However there are ominous signs in the way the blasphemy laws are being played out in Pakistan’s volatile politics. Of the 647 against whom charges were brought, 20 were murdered. Those who are wildly supporting the blasphemy laws have support at important places of the government. In case of both Mr. Bhatti and Mr Taseer, the government’s intelligence helped the assassinations. Mr. Bhatti who knew his life was at stake because of his opposition to the blasphemy laws, tried many ways to protect himself, including staying away from his official residence at night but in the end , his killer tracked him down where he simply lay in waiting for him to pull his trigger. In case of both the Governor and the slain Minister, the killers showed no remorse and were hailed by many as heroes.

It is scary that even the government at the highest level is bowing down to these elements as was evident by the absence of Government leaders excepting the Prime Minister at Mr. Bhatti’s funeral. These elements have been able to put the fear of death in minds of a lot of leading figures of Pakistan. The saddest part of developments in Pakistan over the blasphemy laws is the surrender of the Pakistan People’s Party to these elements. Prime Minister Gilani has said that his Government is not going to change the blasphemy laws, not even after knowing that these elements were behind the death of Benazir Bhutto. Britain’s leading newspaper The Guardian in a recent editorial put Pakistan in perspective with its despicable blasphemy laws by writing that “the government, the army the courts are playing with fire. Appeasement never works and in the end it will consume them all.”

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and Secretary to the Government

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