THERE was nothing surprising about the Supreme Court upholding the death sentence of a self-professed murderer; much more significant is the part of the ruling that says criticising blasphemy law does not amount to blasphemy. This brave judgement may not bring an end to religious vigilantism and fanaticism that is deep-rooted in our society, yet it is certainly a victory for those who dare to question the rationale of a law so open to misuse. The landmark ruling has vindicated the late Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer and other courageous people who lost their lives for merely calling for reform of the blasphemy law.
Only a presidential clemency can now save Mumtaz Qadri from the gallows. One may not be in favour of capital punishment, but this should be an exception, as it would help break the climate of fear and weaken the ‘hero image’ of a murderer. In the end, it may be a small step towards changing the extremist narrative of religion in this country.
It was perhaps one of the country’s darkest days when a self-confessed murderer was hailed as a ‘warrior of Islam’ by the so-called custodians of law and justice. Those who had lined up to defend Qadri also included a former chief justice and a judge of the high court. The three judges on the bench were unequivocal in rejecting the argument that Qadri had the right to take the law into his own hands and that merely criticising the blasphemy law constitutes an insult to Islam.
Acceptance of killings in the name of Islam even by educated sections of society is most alarming.
From his death cell, the former police commando incited others to commit murder in the name of blasphemy. All that shame may not be washed away by Qadri’s execution, but the punishment would save many lives vulnerable to rampant insanity.
Not surprisingly, killings over blasphemy in Pakistan have spiralled in the last few years. According to one report, at least 65 people have been killed in cases linked to blasphemy since 1990. For sure most of the victims are poor. And many are non-Muslims. Often they are killed to settle personal scores. Now the lives of even lawmakers, politicians and human rights activists advocating for reforming the law are threatened. The Qadri case had certainly given a new stridency to the zealots.
Two months after Taseer’s murder, the minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, was killed apparently for demanding changes to the blasphemy law. Last year, gunmen killed Rashid Rehman, a prominent human rights lawyer for defending a professor accused of blasphemy. He received death threats from his own community of lawyers in the courtroom in full view of the judge. His killers are still believed to be absconding.
But what is most alarming is the acceptance of those killings in the name of Islam even by educated sections of society and the criminal silence of successive governments on these deeds. That has reinforced the sense of fear among the people making it extremely difficult to have a rational discourse on the issue of blasphemy.
Such had been the fear that a media report quoted Gen Kayani, the army chief at the time of Salmaan Taseer’s murder, telling a group of Western ambassadors that he could not publicly condemn Qadri because too many of his soldiers sympathised with the killer. The judge of the anti-terrorism court who first convicted Qadri had to leave the court from a back door as hundreds of zealots surrounded the court building. He reportedly fled the country with his family, as the state could not guarantee their security. Large numbers of supporters would gather around Qadri in the courtroom during the trial in violation of the law. But no action was taken against them.
While the government failed to protect the victims of false blasphemy charges, Qadri reportedly enjoyed all amenities on death row. It is said he was even allowed to record naats and religious sermons that are freely sold in markets and aired in religious gatherings.
Perhaps the ruling by the Supreme Court will help break that sense of fear and open the way for an enlightened debate on the blasphemy law. One hopes that the political leadership is also now able to show some courage to initiate changes in the law that has become such a handy weapon in the hands of religious fanatics and criminals and is used to settle personal vendettas. The blasphemy law in its current form has only fuelled bigotry and provided justification for vigilantism.
Rising religious intolerance and persecution of minorities are the major sources of terrorism tearing apart the social fabric of the country and national unity. The Supreme Court has thus done absolutely the right thing by restoring the charge of terrorism against Qadri. Killing on trumped-up blasphemy charges must be treated as a form of terrorism. But unfortunately we don’t see any sign yet of the state taking up the challenge upfront.
Qadri’s execution will be a test for the government’s resolve to fight violent extremism. So far there has not been much reaction from his supporters on the Supreme Court ruling. But his devotees will go to any extent to save his life. Hence a delay in carrying out the sentence can create more problems for the government. One can only hope that the president does not give in to the pressure of religious extremists.
The judges have done their job of restoring public faith in the law, and now it is up to the government to confront the demon. Dithering on the part of the government will only embolden the extremists with disastrous consequences for the country.
There is also now an urgent need for the political leadership to develop a consensus on measures to stop blasphemy-related killings. It is the weakness of the state that allows religious vigilantism and produces murderers like Qadri. It is the time now to exorcise those demons.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, October 14th, 2015