The Blasphemy Laws of Pakistan: To Protect or To Kill?

The Blasphemy Laws of Pakistan are out for more blood with an unhealthy increase in the number of extrajudicial killings over the last decade. What is more threatening and beyond horrifying is the very fact that these committed “offences” are getting more absurd. 

Crimes committed were as “shallow” as throwing a business card named Muhammad into the rubbish, simple spelling errors, burning of a non-religious talisman, and even just the mere act of sharing a Facebook post.

These “offences” have not been met kindly and most end up with blood on the streets or life spent in jail waiting for their turn on the death row. 

In an interview of Aljazeera’s Asad Hashim with Arsalan Khan, an anthropologist who studies Islamic revivalist movements, Khan shared that there is no simple answer to the emotive response to these issues. 

“In a sense, all religious traditions have deep connections to specific sacred objects and would be hurt by perceived defilement of their religious traditions, but this has certainly taken heightened political significance in Pakistan.”

According to Khan, this heightened political significance of “blasphemy” observed in Pakistan unlike theocracies such as Saudi Arabia and Iran is linked to the 1947 Indian Independence Act that dissolved the Crown Rule in India and has established Pakistan as an independent country. 

“Religious identity has been centred as one of the core bases for national belonging in Pakistan,” he says. “[When] the state has defined Islam as the ultimate source of sovereignty, such battles have taken on deeper political significance.”

Moreover, these cases are getting settled outside the justice of a courtroom, with targeted violence and mob attacks towards the accused. And in many cases, even the lives of the families and lawyers of the accused and judges who have acquitted defendants are also endangered.

What happens when the law that is meant to protect a religion becomes a license to oppress and kill all who does not support it?

Pakistan as the first Islamic Country: The Power Dynamics Within Muslims and the Religious Minorities

Blasphemy Laws of Pakistan

Under the new constitution in 1973, shortly after the separation of East Pakistan which is now known as Bangladesh, Islam was pronounced as the state religion of Pakistan. In the earlier 1956 constitution, Pakistan had a republican status under a secular constitution and Islam had only been declared as the “official” religion. 

Pakistan is dominantly Muslim with 96.28% of its total population practising this religion although this demographic does not count the Ahmadiyya sect which has been categorized as non-Muslim in 1974 as per constitutional amendment under then-Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. 

Nevertheless, Pakistan still holds the second largest population of Muslims in the world with an estimated 200,490,000 next to Indonesia which has over 225 million. The Pakistani Muslims are divided among two major sects, the Sunni and Shiites. According to the most recent demographic studies, 75% to 95% of the Muslim Pakistanis identify as Sunnis and majority of them belong to the Hannafiyah (Hannafite) school which is one of the four major schools (madhhabs) of Islamic jurisprudence (alongside Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali). It is considered as the most liberal among the four nevertheless is still demanding in its instructions to the faithful. 

The Deobandi (puritanical Islam) and Barelvi (Sufi leaning) schools, reform movements founded in Northern India, are also widespread in Pakistan. These groups have long been in violent interactions against each other over a variety of significant theological issues. 

Another group called the Tablighi Jama-at founded in 1926 is a Sunni Islamic missionary movement that is focused in encouraging Muslims and fellow members to follow the ways of the religion during the life of the Islamic prophet Muhammad particularly in matters of ritual, dress, and personal behaviour. This movement is the largest grassroots Muslim organization in the world and is headquartered in Raiwind near Lahore. 

Aside from these, there is also the Wahhabi movement, an Islamic reform movement founded by Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb in the 18th century in Najd, central Arabia and then adopted by Saudi Arabia in 1744. Wahhabism which is prevalent in Saudi Arabia and Qatar has now seeped into the inroads of Pakistan among the tribal Pashtuns on the Afghan border areas. This movement believes in the on the absolute oneness of God and stresses literal interpretation of the Qurʾān and Sunnah. It also prohibits the veneration of shrines, tombs, and sacred objects, including the homes and graves of companions of Muhammad.

On the other hand, 5% to 15% of Muslims belong to the Shiites (Shia Muslim) which have several subsects notable of which in Pakistan are the Ismailis (or the Seveners). This includes the Nizaris, followers of the Aga Khans, who are prominent in commerce and industry. Another is the Ithna Ashariyyah (or the Twelvers) who closely resemble the traditional Shiite found in Iran. 

Within muslim sects and movements, there have been notable power displays and violent encounters under the premise of differences in beliefs and roots. Notably, Shiites have long been targeted by the Sunmi radicals due to their key theological difference on who should have succeeded Prophet Muhammad. 

The remaining four percent is constituted by the religious minorities namely Ahmadis, Bahais, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Kalasha (of Chitral), Parsis, and Sikhs. Hinduism holds the largest portion of the religious minorities in Pakistan (and fifth largest in the world) and closely followed by Christians. In 1947, the percentage of minorities dropped from 23% to 3.7% as 5 million Hindus and Sikhs mass migrated to India and by 1971, with the violent crackdown that has resulted in the separation of East (Bangladesh) and West Pakistan, 22% of the minorities left Pakistan. The Pakistani Christians in Pakistan were Punjabis converted during the British colonial era. 

The religious minorities in Pakistan have been facing discrimination ever since its independence in 1947. One of the main issues that proliferate this discrimination is the abuse of the blasphemy law (which is basically a law that protects Islam as a religion and religious authority). Individuals belonging to the minorities have always been targets of false accusations usually on the grounds of derogatory remarks against Prophet Muhammad which may result to fine, prison sentence, or worse death penalty. 

2011 was the height of religious intolerance in Pakistan when minorities, women, journalists and liberals were being killed by Islamist fundamentalist extremists while the Government stands as spectator with only words of condemnation yet inaction to resolve such issues. 

One editorial published in The Dawn commented on the adamant religious persecution in Pakistan. It read, “Bigotry in this country has been decades in the making and is expressed in a variety of ways. Violence by individuals or groups against those who hold divergent views may be the most despicable manifestation of such prejudice but it is by no means the only one. Religious minorities in Pakistan have not only been shunted to the margins of society but also face outright persecution on a regular basis.”

Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law: The Most Draconian Law among Islam Countries (Timeline and Definition)

The blasphemy law can be traced back to 1927 when the British colonial rulers made it a criminal offence “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religious belief”. Although sources have also noted that this law has been codified by Indian British rulers in as early as 1860. 

In 1947, Pakistan inherited these laws after its partition with India through the Indian Independence Act or the dissolution of the British Raj or Crown Rule in India. The separation between these two countries is accounted for under theological differences. Muslims strictly adhere to the concept of monotheism or the belief in one God as dictated in their religious text known as the Quran. On the other hand, Hindus are polytheists and idolaters following the teachings of Bhagavad Gita. 

These religious differences translated into sharp social differences. As a result, India became the soil for the Hindu-Muslim conflict which reached its peak on the fateful day of August 16, 1946 dubbed by Muslims as the “Direct Action Day” which started as a protest rally on the streets by Mohammad Ali Jinnah and his Muslim colleagues which then escalated to communal violence that claimed the lives of almost 4000 Hindus and Sikhs. The joint retaliation of the Hindus and Sikhs then wiped out the Muslim front. This violence between the religions have claimed the lives of 5000 people with 20,000 mortally injured and another 100,000 had been left homeless. 

Under the rule of the country’s moderate founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan retained these laws. He served as Pakistan’s first Governor-General until his death in September 1948. From the start of Pakistan’s independence in 1947 until 1977, there were only 10 recorded cases under this offence. The more prevalent issues at that time were related to religious and ethnic minorities focused on the Ahmadis (an Islamic revival or messianic movement which originated in Punjab, British India in the late 19th century). 

The Ahmadiyya sect of Islam or the Ahmadis have been targets of religious persecution since its inception in 1889. Although this movement was founded upon the Sunni tradition of Islam and its adherents are believers of the five pillars and articles of faith which were both required of Muslims, they are considered heretics and non-Muslims by mainstream Muslims. This is because they consider their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, to be the promised Messiah of Muslims. 

1974 marked changes in the Constitution of Pakistan that would evidently impact the blasphemy law. During the rule of Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the National Assembly amended the Constitution of Pakistan. The amendment read, 

“To declare that any person “who does not believe in the absolute and unqualified finality of The Prophethood of Muhammad (Peace be upon him), the last of the Prophets or claims to be a Prophet, in any sense of the word or of any description whatsoever, after Muhammad (Peace be upon him), or recognizes such a claimant as a Prophet or religious reformer, is not a Muslim for the purposes of the Constitution or law.”

Following this Constitutional amendment, the Ahmadis, who considered themselves as a sect within Islam, were specifically branded as a “non-Muslim religious minority community”. They perpetually suffered harassment in Pakistan and were denied the basic rights of a minority community.

This was considered by many as the draconian amendment that not only disempowered Ahmadis but also other religious minorities. But the ruthlessness of this provision was tasted under the 11-year regime of Pakistan’s late military ruler Mohammed Ziaul Haq (1977-1988). Moreover, he made several additions to the blasphemy law including a sentence such as life imprisonment for those defiling or desecrating the Holy Quran which is now part of the Pakistan Penal Code 295B. 

“Whoever wilfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur’an or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.” 

The death penalty was introduced by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1991 after the National Assembly failed to step in to reject the death penalty that was first upheld in 1990 by the Sharia Court. It is now part of the Pakistan Penal Code 295C which reads, 

“Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”

While no one has yet been sentenced to death penalty under the blasphemy law and most had their sentences either overturned or commuted on appeal, this is still as terrifying as it comes as the Pakistan Peoples Party (centre-left social democratic political party of Pakistan) has stated that in 2010 that they had no intention of amending the blasphemy law. And even today, voices shouting to repeal the draconian blasphemy law are still “unheard”. 

Impact of the Blasphemy Law Today

Again we ask, “What happens when the law that is meant to protect a religion becomes a license to oppress and kill all who do not support it?”

In an excerpt from the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers in 2012, it criticized the blasphemy laws of Pakistan, stating that these laws “serve the vested interests of extremist religious groups and are not only contrary to the Constitution of Pakistan, but also to international human rights norms, in particular those relating to non-discrimination and freedom of expression and opinion.” The UN also called for the repealment of the law under conflict with the International Human Rights. 

Moreover, the blasphemy laws do not observe its initial purpose as a protection for Islam, rather it has encouraged many to actively persecute those who do not share the same religion as them. As critics say, the blasphemy laws are “overwhelmingly being used to persecute religious minorities and settle personal vendettas.” 

Many of the cases of religious offence have been settled in blood outside of court decisions by vigilantes. Last July 29, 2020, Tahir Ahmad Naseem who was arrested in 2018 for claiming to be a prophet was shot dead in the courtroom inside the Peshawar Judicial Complex. 

This sent chills to the spines of many Pakistanis as well as in the international community and has triggered yet another loud call towards the repealment of the blasphemy law. Pakistan has long been a country of conflict depicting a democratic republic while simultaneously upholding itself as an Islamic state. This what The Diplomat called as a “paradoxical aspiration” has led to an encouragement of mob violence and vigilante justice. 

This is why despite the introduction of the death penalty in 1991 for religious offences, Pakistan had no recorded judicial killings. Instead, it stacks up on extrajudicial killings just like what happened to Naseem. 

And here is what ties up the image of the draconian law not as a protector but a cold blood murderer: Pakistan celebrates and glorifies the vigilantes. 

Salmaan Taseer, a businessman and Punjab’s 26th Governor had been assassinated back in 2012 for his campaigns for the reformation of the blasphemy law and his active participation in seeking justice for Aasia Bibi, a young Christian woman who had been sentenced death penalty for accusations of blasphemy. 

Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of Salmaan Taseer, has a shrine in Islamabad and was frequented by Muhammad Safdar, senior Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz leader and son-in-law of three time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. And among Qadri’s many other admirers is Rai Manzoor, managing director of Punjab Curriculum and Textbook board. Manzoor is currently busy banning books with perceived blasphemous and treasonous content. Manzoor is also known for glorifying the legacy of Ilam Din who murdered a Hindu publisher over blasphemy accusations in 1929. 

Pakistan continues to stack up bodies dead by vigilante’s hands and hands of everyone but the court. These cold blooded murders will not stop as long as Pakistan continues to glorify murderers like Salmaan Tazeer and Ilam Din who took the law into their own hands. 

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