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The unholy law

ICC Note

Pakistan ’s blasphemy law is perpetuating violence and persecution against Christians and other religious minorities.

By Mansoor Raza

01/19/2010 Pakistan ( is widely believed that the draconian Blasphemy Law is used for the miscarriage of justice; it is exploited ruthlessly by fanatics to settle scores with rivals and by religio-political parties to gain political leverage over administrative apparatuses.

A numbers game

The Pakistani Blasphemy Law originated from the 1860 British Penal Code, which contained a few clauses that protected the interests of diverse religious groups in undivided India . From 1984 to 2004, 5,000 cases of blasphemy were registered in Pakistan and 964 people were charged and accused of blasphemy; 479 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and 10 others. Thirty-two people charged with blasphemy had been killed extra-judicially. Eighty-six percent of all the cases were reported in Punjab .

Pakistan ’s minorities

The religious minority demographic of Pakistan ’s population is 3.7 per cent (an estimated six million). There are approximately 30,000 Sikhs, 20,000 Buddhists, 1,822 Parsis, and 600,000 Ahmadis (an exact estimate is difficult to obtain because of their reluctance to register as non-Muslims in the census). Other religious groups are Bhais, Kalasha, Kihals and Jains.

Divide and school

The radicalisation of Pakistani society, which manifests as a heightened intolerance for religious minorities, has been traced back to various social developments. One of them is the mushrooming growth of madrassahs in Pakistan , a phenomenon perpetuated by the Afghan war. Historically, madrassahs were considered a particular type of educational institution and never confronted the state as an institution, though they are responsible for creating a stringently static mindset.

Madrassahs have become important and influential; Pakistan has 16,059 high schools and 15,725 madrasahs: the total high school population stands at 1.6 million while there are an estimated 1.5 million madrassah students (though a group of researchers has claimed that madrassahs accounts for less than one per cent of enrollment). Madrassahs are in the forefront of producing a particular world view based on Alam-e-Islam (World of Islam) and Alam-e-Kufr (World of Infidels).

The Maududi mindset

Meanwhile, the new influence of religion in the political sphere has contributed to the persistence of the Blasphemy Law. In the twentieth century, the politicalisation of religion was mainly a reaction to the colonisation of Muslim lands by western powers. Religion played an effective motivating role for political parties seeking independence of their homeland. As politics and religion collided, Islam seeped out of the madrassahs and into modern educational institutions.

Reality reassembled

Pakistani society was also polarised by Gen Zia’s introduction of a separate electorate in 1985. It was another major step to reduce the status of minorities. Earlier, in the joint electorate system, the minorities still had some clout as a representative could not ignore the votes of non-Muslim constituencies. But by introducing a separate electorate, the military dictator isolated Christian voters.

Mission of hate

The culture of Political Islam and ‘jihad’ in the 1980s also led to the widespread dissemination of anti-minority propaganda. Hate literature was constantly churned out by various religio-political groups that spat venom not only on non-Muslims, but also against other Muslim sects.

Under the Pakistan Penal Code in 2006, the government banned 16 books, 12 weekly magazines, 9 monthlies and one daily newspaper to discourage the circulation of hate material. In 2005, the government had already banned about 133 publications. The amount of money spent by extremist organisations to produce offensive literature still runs into millions of rupees every month. Inevitably, the literature targets Shias, Ahmadis and Christians, and is freely available in the areas of operation of sectarian and ‘jihadi’ organisations.

Revisiting the law in Pakistan

The extremist organisations’ incitements to hate and violence have sadly turned into actions and reality have a direct bearing on the public’s conduct towards minorities, particularly those accused of blasphemy. A review of major blasphemy cases over the last 26 years and interviews with the accused revealed that the law is used by zealots to suppress liberals and others who think differently. Over the years, it has become evident that the Blasphemy Law singles out non-Muslims for persecution.

Non-Muslims who offer a rebuttal to the abuse of radicalised clerics and youngsters are branded as criminals guilty of blasphemy. The judiciary, meanwhile, faces perpetual pressure from the fanatics, a pressure that jeopardises the delivery of justice.

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