Much of the commentary on the Aasia Bibi case has focused on her likely innocence. This was a women who, by all accounts, only stood up for her religion. If asserting your religious identity, we are told, is blasphemous then the word has lost all shred of meaning. Those advancing this argument are doing so on a purely utilitarian basis. Even if Aasia Bibi’s words and actions had fallen under the legal definition of blasphemy, they would have been clamouring for the commutation of her death sentence and her release from jail.
In focusing on the abuse of the blasphemy laws rather than the laws themselves, we - by “we” I mean those who value individual liberty - are ceding ground to those who use the authority of the law to impose their version of group rights on the population, a version that says no one is permitted to in any way offend, insult or challenge the beliefs of the dominant group. If the “abuse of the law” argument is our primary weapon in this debate, what are we going to do when someone is proven guilty of blasphemy with multiple credible witnesses?
Think back to the vociferous debate when Musharraf tried to water down the impact of the blasphemy laws by making it tougher to register cases under the laws. He was ultimately unsuccessful in even this small attempt but even that would have been little more than a Pyrrhic victory as it didn’t challenge the existence of the laws, only its abuse. And by focusing on the abuse we are complicit in the persecution of minorities; the only concession we make to decency being our demand that we be absolutely sure that the persecution is warranted. It would be like arguing that Hitler was a distortion of fascism rather than its obvious manifestation. When a law is as thoroughly discriminatory as the blasphemy laws, any abuse in the law in form of false testimony and trumped-up charges is secondary to the dehumanising law itself.
At a time when the main criticism of the courts has been its embrace of judicial activism, we will end up sounding incoherent when faced with a case where the accusation of blasphemy, as defined by our laws, is credible. After all, if we expect judges to adhere strictly to the letter of the law, how can we criticise them for handing out severe punishments in such cases? By all means we should plead for Aasia Bibi’s release, but let’s not lose sight of the bigger battle: the repeal of all laws that discriminate on the basis of religion.
The true enemy in this fight is not the judiciary. Rather, an overwhelming majority of the population needs to be convinced that blasphemy laws are cruel and anachronistic. Britain, after all, had a blasphemy law - which made it a crime to speak against the Church of England - on the books until 2008, but the last time it was used was in 1922. When society understands that putting someone to death for their opinions and beliefs is fundamentally illiberal, the battle has already been won. In Pakistan, we haven’t even begun to approach that level of enlightenment. Keep in mind that no one has been legally executed under the blasphemy laws in this country as the higher courts, particularly the Federal Shariat Court, have overturned all such death sentences. The real threat to the lives of those accused of blasphemy comes from enraged mobs, with the police playing the role of uninterested bystanders and the judgments of lower courts fuelling the anger.
Until these mobs, and those who silently support them, are silenced through force of argument, even the repeal of blasphemy laws will bring only marginal safety to minorities.
Nadir Hassan is a journalist based in Karachi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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