During a dialogue with Pakistani journalists last week, American Muslim lawyer and analyst on religious minorities in South Asia, Safiya Ghori, pointed out the fundamentally discriminatory nature of the blasphemy law. Apart from the troubling and seemingly inherent intent of the law, Ghori, who has also worked on post-9/11 harassment cases affecting Muslims in the United States, noted the lacunae within the text of the law which “make it even more susceptible to abuse” whenever convenient.
“The law is religion specific...it also does not distinguish between a deliberate action and an honest mistake,” Ghori pointed out during the dialogue focusing on minority issues in Pakistan.
“At the same time, the text of the law does not specify any detail of exactly what constitutes ‘insult’ and ‘respect’, leaving the whole matter rather vague and liable to subjective interpretation…the law also does not recommend a procedure that can deter, if not entirely stop, its abuse.”
Despite Ghori’s sensitivity to the religious and political nuances with regard to the concept of blasphemy as envisioned in Pakistan, quite a few of the participants did not seem to agree with her reasoning. Barely a head or two nodded in admission when Ghori referred to the Gojra tragedy of 2009 as an example of how the concept of blasphemy has been used in Pakistan with the purpose of victimising religious minorities and other politically vulnerable groups. One of the participants even went as far as to claim how religious minorities were doing “okay” and how 75 per cent of Pakistanis were “moderate” (whatever that means), as some of us wondered where that most telling figure came from.
When one of the journalists mentioned how none of the major media groups had taken up a committed campaign against the harsh treatment of minorities as persuasively as they had done in criticising say the government or Asif Ali Zardari, she was effectively told to shut up since “it wasn’t the Muslims who were massacring around the world”.
But the fact remains that the issue of the dismal conduct with religious minorities in Pakistan is home-grown and not one where American foreign policy or any other outside “force” even remotely factors in. Though, unfortunately, that was what some of the journalists suggested as explication, if not justification, for the violence meted out to religious minorities here.
I had thought we had come a long way since the Taliban madness began to take its toll on the state and the citizenry and it seemed that all the death and gore was now repugnant enough to make us crave for some kind of peace, for a respectful social contract that applied to all Pakistanis, regardless of who they prayed to. But we aren’t ready it seems. Ironic for a country primarily founded so that the Muslims of the sub-continent did not have to endure a life of humiliation and persecution, no? But the mess that is the current state of religious minorities and ideological freedom in our homeland is at best a cause for shame.
Laws have been formulated and used to target our fellow Pakistanis simply because they happen to have a different set of beliefs. And yet, we try to sneak in the favourite red herring of ‘foreign elements’ to transfer responsibility of our actions and abandon the facts because they end up reflecting badly on us. Well, denial won’t change the reality on the ground and the only logical way to being committed, responsible Pakistanis in this case should begin with recognising what the problem is, why it exists and what can be done to work it out. That should be much simpler provided one’s willing to try.
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