Among the most difficult human rights issues faced by Pakistan’s Christians community the country’s controversial blasphemy laws rank close to the top. In many cases, Christians claim that the country’s blasphemy laws are abused by the Muslim majority to persecuted the Christian minority. Because so much communal emotion erupts after a blasphemy accusation, many Christians are assumed guilty even if the accusation is merely a rumor against them. Will Pakistan ever be able to change this situation? Will the issues of blasphemy ever be tamed?
12/22/2014 Pakistan (Daily Star) – Recently in Kot Radha Kishan, in Pakistan’s Punjab province, a young Christian couple, Saima and Shahzad, had their legs broken and were beaten nearly to death before being burned alive in a brick kiln. Though they were accused of blasphemy, the real reason was a financial dispute with their employer.
Before this episode, Rimsha Massih, an 11-year-old Christian girl, was sentenced to death for burning some pages from the Quran. Subsequently a local imam was arrested on suspicion of planting the pages in Rimsha’s bag. She was cleared of the charges, but she and her family fled to Canada to avoid persecution.
Asia Bibi, another Christian, is facing a death sentence for blasphemy. The governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was killed for supporting Asia Bibi’s case. Shahbaz Bhatti, a federal minister, was also killed for wanting to reform blasphemy laws. Currently, there are at least 17 people convicted of blasphemy on death row in Pakistan, with another 19 serving life sentences.
The extremist religious fundamentalists in Pakistan have used blasphemy laws to harass, torture and kill minorities, and in some cases even Muslims of different sects, for desecrating holy scriptures or circulating pamphlets allegedly critical of Islam. In March 2013, a crowd upset over an alleged derogatory comment about the prophet rampaged through the Christian area of Joseph Colony and burned over 100 houses. The victims claimed their Bibles were also burned. Rashid Rehman, a 53-year-old lawyer who had taken up the cases of minorities for over 20 years, was shot and killed by unidentified assailants.
Historically, law has been closely connected to the development of civilization. Ronald Dworkin, a 20th century legal scholar, has defined law as an “interpretive concept” to accomplish equity. However, in a theocratic state, pledged to enforce religious integrity, scholars are urged to remain on the fringes of sensitive matters. In Pakistan, where a state-led and -protected Islamist ideology has developed, blasphemy laws have taken a different complexion.
Fear of and loyalty to barbaric power – those able to dispense favors or invoke laws and punishments capriciously – sustains injustice in certain Islamic states. Such behavior represents the rule of men, not of law, who protect themselves by asserting that they have a special relationship with God. It is this that has allowed the persecution of minorities in Pakistan, and allows the mass slaughters by ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Where an argument eventually leads is often dependent on the participants in the debate. Hence, investigations and prosecutions of incidents of blasphemy should rely on principles and reason, not emotions and biases. Principles of Islamic faith allow for freedom of expression and a humane perspective when it comes to delivering justice in society.
Blasphemy laws in Pakistan date back to the early days of British rule. Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq introduced changes in the 1970s and 1980s. While there were seven blasphemy cases lodged between 1851 and 1947, Pakistan’s Center for Research and Security Studies says that 327 cases were lodged between 1977 and 2012. The laws are often abused by individuals or religious-political parties to settle scores with adversaries. When accused of blasphemy, Christians, Ahmadis, Hindus and sometimes Shiites, have faced savage assaults on their holy places, homes, businesses or on their person.
Though blasphemy laws exist in many countries, they are rarely invoked. For instance such statutes remain on the books in the American states of Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Wyoming and Pennsylvania. According to the Pew Research Center, 22 percent of countries have blasphemy laws, a majority of them Muslim. However, in the highly charged atmosphere in Pakistan, where fundamentalists are powerful, talk of liberalizing blasphemy laws, especially from a human rights perspective, could be courting disaster or death.
Yet a debate has started across all sections of Pakistani society. Some have sought the annulment of blasphemy laws, while others have sought to make changes so that these laws are more humane and objective. But it is often the case that this debate goes nowhere given the polarization it provokes between hard-liners and moderates.