The death sentence handed down to Pakistani Christian woman Aasia Bibi by a court in Punjab province’s Nankana district has once again brought attention to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. And while the 45-year-old mother of five awaits a review of the verdict against her, questions are being raised regarding the intent behind and utility of the said laws.
While the Constitution of Pakistan criminalises “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage” the religious sentiments of “any” community, the blasphemy laws, in the form of additions to Sections 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), proceed to recommend much more exacting penalties, including death, if the accused is found to be either disrespectful toward or critical of the Quran, Prophet Mohammad, Islam’s caliphs and other important figures mentioned in the statutes. These particular laws therefore do not stand up for religions other than Islam thereby rendering defenceless other religious communities. Moreover, the laws’ provisions pertaining to the Ahmedi community in many ways constrain them from practicing their religion. Forbidden from calling themselves, or “posing” as, Muslims, the legislation makes abundantly clear, albeit circuitously, that their faith should not be what it is.
It was in the early 1980s and during the regime of former military dictator Ziaul Haq that committing blasphemy was made a penal offence under the PPC. In its current state, the law prescribes a jail term for anyone found disrespectful toward the Quran and death penalty for anyone found to be reproachful of Prophet Mohammad. Oddly enough, while the question of intent is not considered when it comes to the latter offence, it continues to remain punishable by nothing short of the death penalty. The blasphemy laws also prescribe a fine and a prison term with regard to penal offences associated with the Ahmedi community.
Having survived for nearly three decades in its current and extreme form, the blasphemy laws have so far escaped all reform due to opposition from religio-political groups. At the same time, other, essentially secular, political groups have been succumbing to these hardline forces mostly out of fear of losing clout in regions with conservative leanings and where religious organisations seem to enjoy a considerable degree of influence. Even at this point, with the international community ramping up pressure on the government to pardon Aasia and to eventually repeal the blasphemy laws, certain otherwise antagonistic clerics from the Barelvi and Deobandi schools of thought have come together to caution President Asif Ali Zardari over going ahead with the pardon saying the move may lead to “untoward repercussions”.
While the sentencing of Aasia has led to much international uproar, hers is just one of the many cases which have led to blasphemy convictions by the courts. Moreover, many of the blasphemy accused – mostly from the unprotected religious minority groups – have been targeted and sometimes killed by lynch mobs. The still recent killing of two Christian brothers in Faisalabad, the case of Zaibunnisa who remained incarcerated for 14 long years on blasphemy allegations and the violence that targeted Christians in Gojra in 2009 are just some of the recently reported instances which clearly depict how such laws have effectively abandoned the country’s religious minorities and emboldened extremists.
These and similar other incidents have inevitably led to questions pertaining to the rationale behind the laws as well as to their outcome in terms of greater social good. And while the laws are frequently used to blackmail and victimise Pakistan’s miniscule religious minorities, they also come in handy by those wanting to settle personal scores, sort business rivalries and tackle land disputes with other Muslims. Rights groups have continually demanded that the laws be repealed and have referred to the statutes as fundamentally unjust and discriminatory in nature.
Moreover, legal experts and analysts have frequently termed the text of the laws as vague and even flawed in ways that make it a ready instrument of abuse. Incompatible with the universally accepted human rights charter, the laws and their application also stand in clear violation of the Constitution of Pakistan which guarantees every citizen the “right to profess, practice and propagate” his/her religion and in fact forbids the state from making “any law which takes away” the citizens’ fundamental rights.
Given the fact that the blasphemy laws have only served to fuel disharmony and strife in society, a thorough review of the legislation, followed by significant changes to it, can be the first small step toward countering the culture of exploitation that has become all-too-synonymous with these laws.