Shape of things to come

January 08, 2011

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IF the murder of Salman Taseer is an omen to go by, our minorities are increasingly being left defenceless. What now for religious freedom and human rights? The shape the debate over the blasphemy laws it is taking is extremely worrying. Rather than a genuine effort to consider what is in the best interests of Pakistanis, we are seeing the emergence of an increasingly united and hostile religious bloc. The acrimonious tone adopted by opponents of reform in parliament is simply being replicated at the community level.

Protests against the possibility of amendments were staged across Pakistan on New Year’s Eve, despite the fact that just the day before the State Minister for Information Samsam Bokhari gave assurances that the government had no intention of amending the blasphemy laws. In a clear attempt by the government to appease angry opponents, Mr Bokhari stated that PPP member Sherry Rehman had acted in her personal capacity when submitting her bill proposing amendments to the blasphemy laws.

The bill seeks to scrap the mandatory death sentence for blasphemy. Although the country’s religious minorities and other sections of society have been hankering after changes to these laws for years, they continue to be met with condemnation by Islamic parties and organisations. The government, meanwhile, does not appear to be strong enough to face the rising pressure.

The PPP is the country’s largest party, and it claims to espouse liberal values. It is therefore all the more regrettable that the government has chosen to distance itself from Ms Rehman’s bill and the brave efforts made by Mr Taseer prior to his assassination.

The government appears to have already accepted defeat. This is an alarming prospect for those still clinging to a semblance of hope that this government would bring about changes for improving the lot of minorities and, indeed, all Pakistanis.

With the assassination of Mr Taseer, it seems that now there really is no hope that the laws will be amended. Their misuse will go on and minorities in particular will continue to find themselves subjected to false allegations by people who know they have an easy way to seize properties, take over businesses and settle personal scores.

Cases abound where blasphemy charges have been levelled against people without presenting any concrete evidence. I was particularly worried by a recent case because of the danger it could signal — not just for minorities but for all Pakistanis, including Muslims.

Dr Naushad Valiyani was arrested for blasphemy in December after he discarded a business card he had received from a medical representative. This medical representative’s full name, Muhammad Faizan, was printed on the card; hard as it is to believe, for this reason Mr Faizan deemed the act of throwing the card into the bin blasphemous.

How many people in Pakistan have Muhammad either as their first or last names? Every day, these people receive letters addressed to them and these envelopes are torn up and thrown away. Are we to charge all of them with blasphemy? According to the way the laws are worded, that is exactly what they are committing.

Article 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code states that the “use of derogatory remarks etc in respect of the Holy Prophet (PBUH)” is a crime and “whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life and shall also be liable for a fine”. Note that the law says nothing about “will” or “intention”, paving the way for a legal climate in which an offence committed unintentionally carries the same consequence as one committed intentionally.

Had a local cleric not got involved, Dr Valiyani may have faced execution. And if his case is a precursor of things to come, we can expect to see people increasingly using the blasphemy laws for their own convenience: to get ahead in their business, put down rivals and even defeat political opponents and settle government disputes.

What would have happened had Gen Pervez Musharraf used this law against Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, or if President Zardari were to use it against Mian Nawaz Sharif? It sounds like nonsense, yet if the increasing misuse of the blasphemy laws is allowed, this is the kind of anarchic behaviour we can expect. Everyone, regardless of status or religious leaning, has every reason to fear.

What chance do the minorities or anyone else have to challenge the blasphemy laws when their representatives in parliament continue to shrink from the issue? Mr Taseer was killed because of his support for reform, Ms Rehman has received threats and Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti’s committee on changes to the law is facing calls for dissolution. The renowned Muslim scholar Javed Ahmad Ghamidi has left the country and even the media are not taking the matter seriously.

Is it legitimate that changes to the blasphemy laws are being blocked, not because of the will of the people but because of the will of a powerful and prejudiced Islamic bloc, even within parliament?

It is time that the government, opposition and religious scholars took this matter seriously and worked with legal experts to amend the laws. In a country where the majority of the population is illiterate, the responsibility lies with the government and politicians to make balanced decisions and take action. That action must start with a clear statement denouncing the assassination of Mr Taseer and any attempts to intimidate or harm the supporters of reform.

The longer the government drags its heels, the more people are going to die.

The writer is the director of the UK-based Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement.