by Nasir Saeed
The Council of Islamic Ideology in Pakistan held a meeting on May 29, headed by Maulana Sherani, and warned that if the blasphemy laws are amended, the country’s minorities will be unsafe, but how much worse could the situation get?
Minorities have been suffering since these laws were introduced by General Zia Ul Haq in 1986. Why is the council only now expressing concern about this? As if it had not noticed all the bloodshed and cries of the religious minorities for help over the last three decades.
They need to wake up and take a good look at what is happening across Pakistan on a virtually daily basis. Bloodshed in the name of religion is happening all the time. Attacks on churches and the torching of Christian villages happen so often that the question believers ask themselves is not if it will happen again, but when. And, yes, the stories they must surely have heard of innocent people being burned alive are also true. If the council really has not been aware of all these human rights abuses then that is worrisome indeed.
Perhaps the council has been so busy working to make Pakistan a pure Islamic state which is something that has been on the agenda for a few religious political organisations since Pakistan came into being. The founder of Pakistan clearly condemned any idea of a theocratic state. What will happen to the guarantee given to the religious minorities by Quaid E Azam that citizens will be equal and religion will have nothing to do with the state? What will happen to his famous speech of August 11, 1947 to the constituent assembly and all those media interviews where he reiterated assurances to the minorities? Will they just be thrown away and forgotten in history? And what of the hadiths, like the killing of one person being equal to the killing of all mankind?
It should not be forgotten that in the formation of Pakistan minorities played a vital role. Pakistan was not a conquered state of the Islamic army but it was not achieved without a struggle and minorities were part of that struggle so they should not be treated simply as Dhimmi – as they currently are. It is disgraceful that Hindus are already migrating to India in large numbers and it looks as though minorities are being systematically forced to leave the country. Unlike other countries that are surging ahead of Pakistan in terms of stability and economic development, Pakistan has not yet awoken to the fact that this is an age of human rights and the world has become a global village. Pakistan is a part of the international community and also under obligation to respect the international laws and treaties ratified by Pakistan, but it forever seems to swim against the current to its own detriment.
The council’s logic is beyond my understanding and that of anyone who believes in equality, peace and humanity. Why do we continue to have blasphemy laws in place when we know that they are destabilising our communities, causing unnecessary tensions between Muslims and religious minorities, and blatantly discriminating against an entire section of the population that deserves to be treated as equal?
Blasphemy laws are undoubtedly the root cause of persecution against Christians and they will continue to feel insecure in Pakistan until these laws have been suitably amended. According to some reports over 1,200 people were charged under blasphemy laws between 1986 and 2012, although the number is much higher for those who are accused and not charged. Of the estimated 1,200, half are minorities. This is disproportionally high when you consider that minorities make up only five per cent of the 180 million people living in Pakistan. Christians see themselves as the main target as they have experienced more attacks on their churches, villages, and members than any other religious minority.
Justice Munir recommended in his report that religious leaders should not have any role in the government but unfortunately General Zia not only gave them a role, but created such a mess that no government has dared to start cleaning it up. The PPP government boasted that they have restored the constitution of 1973 to its original shape but this is not true and there is a lot of work that needs to be done. All the amendments made by Zia need to be undone, but Pakistani politicians do not have the moral concern or courage to do this.
In the present age when we talk about blasphemy we refer to the 295-C, which has a mandatory death penalty. But even if someone’s crime falls under sections 295-A or B, he is still deemed worthy to be killed. Although no one has been executed officially, dozens of people have been killed by vigilantes and mobs. Mob justice and vigilante killings are becoming common in Pakistan but unfortunately those involved are never held to account for their actions, which only encourages the belief that their actions are honourable.
The attitude of the police is biased and several people have even been killed by the police, like Samuel Masih who was admitted to hospital with tuberculosis and killed by the policeman who was on duty to guard him. The officer said that he was bound by religious duty to kill Samuel and that he had performed his Islamic duty. In 2009 Fanish Masih was found hanged in his prison cell but no one has been charged. In 2011, two high profile Government ministers were killed, Governor Salman Taseer by his own security guard, and Shahbaz Bhatti by extremists who have never been brought to justice.
Pakistani society continues to be radicalised and now we have people like Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, Salmaan Taseer’s killer, taking pride in his abominable crime and submitting a 40-page statement quoting 11 Koranic verses and 28 quotes from Islamic law to justify his actions. He said he had only done what the Koran told him to do.
Justice Pervez Ali Shah did not agree with the radicals and Qadri’s interpretation of the Koran. Instead, he rightly told Qadri that his crime was “heinous” and made it clear that no one in Pakistan should be given a license to kill anyone on any condition. He sentenced him to death in an historic verdict. However, the reaction of the radicals and the lawyers of the Rawalpindi Bar Association was unfortunate. The lawyers organised protests against the verdict and ransacked Mr Shah’s courtroom, demanding his suspension and even threatening his life.
This kind of mindset continues to grow because the police have never charged any perpetrators. The government’s inaction and zealous judges like the judge of the Lahore High Court, Justice Nazir Akhtar, are also contributing factors. He said that anybody accused under blasphemy charges should be killed on the spot by Muslims as their religious obligation and that there was no need for legal proceedings for a blasphemer. These remarks appeared in the newspapers of Pakistan, including the Urdu publications Insaf and Khabrain on August 28, 2000. Justice Akhtar said Shaheed law is available to respond to any blasphemy against the prophet: “We shall slit every tongue that is guilty of insolence against the Holy Prophet.” Justice Khawaja Sharif is well known for his views too.
Going back to the Council of Islamic Ideology’s recommendations, they are based purely on religion while legal perspectives have been completely ignored, as well as important international norms surrounding human rights. These recommendations are one sided and contradictory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as several human rights charters. Well known lawyers, among them Baber Sattar, have argued that there is no need for sections 295-B and C as the existing laws 295 and 295-A, which Pakistan inherited from British India, were more than sufficient as they provided equal security and protection to the persons of all religions and their worship places while present laws only protect the Muslims.
The Council of Islamic Ideology’s Ulemas (Islamic scholars) and the Pakistani government must bear in mind that even if they are not willing to discuss the blasphemy laws and are failing to stop their misuse against the religious minorities that does not mean other countries are not taking serious note and discussing them in their own parliaments. The possible consequences for Pakistan and its relations with these countries, including trade and aid, should be obvious. In the UK, Lord Eric Avebury organised a debate in the House of Lords on May 22. This is not first time that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been discussed in a European parliament but this matter is moving up the agenda and is also catching the attention of politicians in the European Union, UN and Commonwealth countries.
It is admitted by Pakistan’s religious leaders and politicians that the blasphemy laws are widely misused. Human rights organisations and high profile Christians, such as Rowan Williams and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and even some Muslims are demanding that it be repealed or, at the very least, suitably amended. Now it all depends on the new government and the new prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif, and whether they will accept or reject the council’s recommendations. Mian Nawaz Sharif has already missed one chance in 1991 to appeal against the mandatory death penalty set by the federal Sharia court. Now Mian Nawaz Sharif has a second chance to show whether he has changed or not.
Nasir Saeed is a Director of UK-based Centre for Legal aid Assistance and Settlement. He may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org