For and against Blasphemy Law in Pakistan

The real issues
Dawn Editorial
Friday, 18 Sep, 2009 (Dawn)
Deadly attacks against Christians, in particular, are on the rise in Punjab. —AP Photo

PEOPLE are dying queuing for grain in Pakistan. This is a country where food inflation is forcing parents to pull their children out of school – they can eat sparsely or be educated, not both. Lives are being lost to ailments that are easily curable. Street crime is rampant across a country where human life is worth less than a cellphone. Yet our political leaders appear oblivious to the misery that is everywhere. They seem to have no perspective, no grip on reality. Does a man who can’t feed his children really care whether or not Pervez Musharraf is tried for treason? Is a mother whose child has died of gastroenteritis likely to give much thought to America’s military presence in the region? Will a jobless person be impressed by the president’s much-touted ‘achievements’ during his first year in office? Our leaders have clearly lost sight of the core issues.

This is a country where religious minorities are targeted by Muslim mobs while the law-enforcers look on. Deadly attacks against Christians, in particular, are on the rise in Punjab. As is usually the case in such incidents, the violence has been triggered by unproven allegations of blasphemy. Robert Fanish Masih, who had been arrested last Saturday on blasphemy charges after Muslims went on the rampage in village Jaithikey near Sialkot, was found dead in his cell on Tuesday. The next day his family and community members, who had all been forced to flee Jaithikey, were prevented from burying him in their native village. And this heartless, inhumane act wasn’t the work of Muslim vigilantes alone. The local police also told the mourners to turn back, on the grounds that their presence could fan violence. In short the victims were punished, not the aggressors.

The Punjab government needs to take urgent steps to protect minorities in the province for the situation there is deteriorating. Its stance on minority rights will be gauged by its response. The centre, meanwhile, should start working towards the repeal of the blasphemy laws. For too long they have been used to settle personal scores, grab land – and to kill. These draconian laws must be struck off the books.

In the aftermath of the death-in-custody of the blasphemy-accused Fanish Masih in Sialkot, the Governor of Punjab, Mr Salmaan Taseer, has courageously called for the repeal of the infamous law targeting the minorities in general and the Christian community in particular. He was echoing the demand being made by protesters in Lahore reacting to the cruel thrashing Christian protesters were given by the police in Sialkot.

Fanish Masih was found dead in his cell. The police say he committed suicide, but the question for all of us to consider is that Masih was kept in solitary confinement even after the police knew prima facie that the charge against him was concocted. Also, there was confusion all around springing from a conflation of blasphemy with desecration of the Holy Quran. Masih himself must have been sure that he was in a trap where his death was certain.

The sheer negative jurisprudence of the Blasphemy Law shocks the rational person and instils despair in the accused. Yet, the Pakistani mind is divided over details that are accepted by all as shameful to the pride of the nation, equating Pakistanis with backward Nigeria where blasphemy laws have killed hundreds so far, tragically, in imitation of Pakistan. The irrationality of the public attitude came to the fore when the federal minister for religious affairs, Allama Hamid Kazmi, was asked to react to Governor Taseer’s call for the repeal of the law.

Mr Kazmi was grieved by the Sialkot violence against unprotected Christians but was determined to defend the Blasphemy Law. His case was of a piece with the one made by the conservative Urdu press and the clergy. He assumed that blasphemy occurred in Pakistan and that no Muslim could collude with it by removing the deterrence of law. But the facts were ignored by him. The truth is that there is no blasphemy proved in Pakistan so far, except in the lower courts where mobs carrying weapons force the judge to hand down death.

Any society free of extremism would grasp this fact. Why should a law be enforced in a society where no one can actually blaspheme? And what does it mean that after the promulgation of the law, blasphemy actually raises its ugly head? Hundreds of cases have gone up from the grassroots courts to the higher judiciary where the accused has been let off, except for cases such as the one regarding a woman of unsettled mind who is being recommended for mental asylum after a lifetime in jail.

In May this year, 500 clerics stormed a court in Lahore’s Mustafabad when a judge bailed out Munir Masih and his wife for keeping a Holy Quran in their home. The victims insisted they had kept it for spiritual protection and out of devotion; but the accusation was that they were unclean as a community and therefore the Holy Quran was defiled. Later the charge was changed from desecration to blasphemy, after which the court was assaulted.

In April this year, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal against a Federal Shariat Court ruling that death is the only punishment under Islamic law for blasphemy. This is what the victim knows when he is framed and put in solitary confinement in jail: he is going to die either sentenced by a scared sessions judge or killed by the police during the remand.

The Council for Islamic Ideology recommended in 2006 that blasphemy cases be registered with the High Court and that high officials free of local blackmail be appointed as investigators, but nothing has happened. Both the mainstream parties want the law repealed. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in his memoir complains that Nawaz Sharif as prime minister wanted to change the Blasphemy Law but Ms Bhutto did not help him in parliament. Later Ms Bhutto returned to power in 1993 and wanted to change the law but this time Nawaz Sharif did not help.

The PPP and the PMLN are busy fighting their other less worthy battles in parliament, but if they had the wellbeing of the country at heart they could have joined hands to repeal the Blasphemy Law and then faced up to the extremist backlash just as the country is finally confronting the terrorism of the Taliban. There is no other way to tell the killers of our Christian community that they have to stop this horrible pastime. (Daily Times)