Reasons of reticence -by Ammar Rashid

Why can’t we repeal the blasphemy laws?

Much has been said about the need to repeal Pakistan’s dreaded blasphemy laws in the wake of the repeated tragedies that have visited Pakistan’s minorities (as well as Muslims) in their name. There is little one can add to the already abundant evidence and rationale (both theosophical and secular) that demonstrates the need to do away with this draconian and oppressive section of the country’s Penal Code.

I believe, however, that now is an appropriate time to make an assessment of how this rather gargantuan undertaking may be achieved. What, it may be asked, are the major political barriers preventing a repeal of this clause from Pakistan’s law books? Further, is it possible for these barriers to be overcome any time in the near future?

On paper, the removal of the offending section (295-C) from the Pakistan Penal Code requires a simple majority in the National Assembly, which is a theoretically possible task for the nominally centre-left coalition of the PPP-MQM-ANP to undertake, albeit with some independent support. But even an amateur observer of Pakistani politics would acknowledge that such an occurrence would be wishful thinking at best. The recent, discouraging remarks of the Federal Minister for Minorities regarding possibilities for repeal are proof enough of the sorry lack of interest in any such initiative.

What prevents any of our relatively secular parties from taking such a step? It seems quite evident that the maintenance of their respective voter bases is not contingent on pandering to religious sensitivities — in fact, much of their politics, especially as of late, has been based on opposition to religious xenophobia.

The broad reasons behind this reticence aren’t too difficult to ascertain; the coalition, beset as it is with the disproportionately immense crises of economy, security, natural disasters, resource scarcity and ethnic strife (to name a few) and under attack from all quarters for its (real and imagined) shortcomings of governance, does not wish to entangle itself in a debate in which it could potentially be branded as antithetical to the supposed Islamic ideals of Pakistani statehood. In Pakistan’s context, it is an understandable, though admittedly unfortunate concern.

It is necessary at this stage, however, to identify specifically the nature and capacity of the likely opponents to such a move, both within and outside the legislative paradigm. Within the parliament, the most obvious threat comes from the dubious coalition partner, the disproportionately important JUI-F, a party that has perfected the art of threatening to quit government in order to gain intermittent political concessions. It is likely that the mere mention of the blasphemy laws will prompt a flurry of protests from the only Islamist party in the parliament — history suggests, however, that the credibility of its threats is tenuous, now especially so, given its numerical weakness in the National Assembly.

The major parties in the opposition, the PML-N and PML-Q (or MML for that matter), are the wild cards in this parliamentary equation, upon whom much will hinge. Though both have a history of socially conservative politics and have often pandered to the worst instincts of the religious right, they are distinct from the Islamist parties in that their social constituencies are not exclusively constructed upon the temporal articulation of religious sentiment. The North Punjab trader community, for instance, which constitutes the backbone of the PML-N voter base, will not search for other political patrons simply because of the party’s support for a repeal initiative, notwithstanding the community’s nominal discomfort with any such attempt. Notwithstanding the existence of certain xenophobic lobbying groups amongst the Leagues’ urban support base (such as the Khatm-e-Nabuwat Movement), there may still be much room to sway the opinions of the higher echelons of the Muslim Leagues — even if it is only for tacit consent for repeal.

It is likely that the most organisationally potent opposition to any repeal attempt will come from outside parliament — in the form of the street cadres of the religious right (including the unelected Islamist parties, the Madrassah networks and their militant counterparts) in urban and peri-urban areas. It is that image, perhaps, that most unsettles any mainstream party thinking of supporting a review of the blasphemy laws — the image of thousands of bearded men marching in the streets, rhetorically chastising the offending parties for ‘betraying the Prophet to serve Western interests’, while symbolically de-linking them from the modicum of religious legitimacy that they feel they must possess to politically survive. It is perhaps fear of the culmination of this image that is the single biggest factor preventing the mainstream parties from removing a law that they have little material interest in maintaining.

This particular fear is all too real and needs to be tactically understood by all those interested in any improvement in the treatment of Pakistan’s minorities. For citizens, progressive associations and civil society, the imperative to organise and demonstrate their presence on the streets to oppose this mob is absolutely crucial. Without oppositional street presence, the xenophobes will win without a fight.

But even greater responsibility lies on the media, especially its electronic variant, hugely influential in the contemporary age. In some senses, the mainstream parties’ fear of the rampaging mobs is predicated on their belief that the media will electronically magnify the marauders into what appears to be an expression of overwhelming public resentment. The PPP, in particular, has reason to fear that any such agitation will be projected in continuation of the dominant media narrative of popular dissatisfaction with the government amongst the ‘masses’.

The electronic media in Pakistan has an historic opportunity before it, therefore, to help generate the consensus required to remove the perpetual sword of Damocles from above the heads of Pakistan’s minorities. If it so wishes, it can achieve this task as skillfully as it has done so on many other politically contentious issues in the past, at little cost to its interests or viewership. Whether it chooses to do so or succumbs to reactionary impulses remains to be seen.

The road towards the removal of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws is fraught with much difficulty and requires a considerable exertion of political will, rhetorical skill and organizational acumen, on part of Pakistan’s major political parties, progressive groups, civil society and vitally, the media. But it is, as argued, achievable if the stakeholders can look past short-term reactionary perceptions and display some long-overdue empathy towards our battered minorities of their own accord, instead of being shamefully chastised into it under understandable international duress.