No right to murder - Beena Sarwar - Friday, December 24, 2010

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It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic – but the absurd allegations of ‘blasphemy’ being hurled left, right and centre can actually cost lives. Consider that not one of the over 30 people murdered so far after being accused of ‘blasphemy’ had been found guilty by the courts in the final run. Some weren’t even formally accused before mob violence or individual fanatics took their lives. Motives have been found to range from personal enmities and financial rivalry to land disputes.

In instance after instance, the unscrupulous have cold-bloodedly used a mere spark (a hint of ‘blasphemy’) to ignite a raging fire that claims lives. Naimat Ahmer, the Christian teacher and poet in Faisalabad was killed by a young man whose uncle coveted Ahmer’s post, after posters cropped up accusing Ahmer of being disrespectful against the Prophet (Upon Him be Peace). There was personal enmity behind the lynching of the Jamat-e-Islami affiliated cleric in Gujranwala, accused of burning the Holy Quran, many years ago.

In the case of the bangle seller Chand Barkat (acquitted by a woman sessions judge in Karachi), the accuser was a rival shopkeeper. Jagdesh Kumar, the Hindu worker lynched at a Karachi factory in 2008 after being accused of blasphemy had lost his heart to a Muslim girl. Najeeb Ahmed, the young factory owner in Sheikhupura murdered in 2009 by his own workers had had a dispute with the employee who incited the mob.

Behind the razing of two Christian villages in Gojra last year, in which nine Christians were killed after allegations that some Christians had desecrated the Quran, was a premeditated plan aimed at clearing out their land.

The Christian woman, Aasia Noreen, was sentenced to death after being accused of blasphemy a year-and-a-half ago when she defended her faith before some Muslim women who refused to drink water she offered them. (Their reasoning: she is Christian and therefore ‘unclean’. Let’s be clear – this is a class issue. They would not have refused water from a ‘gora’, a white Christian). Even before the case could come up before the High Court – which must confirm the sentence or acquit her – the issue has been politicised to the extent that Aasia’s life is in danger even if she is found innocent.

It is shameful that no action has been taken against the Jamat-e-Islami affiliated cleric in Peshawar who announced Rs5 lakhs as reward for anyone who will kill Aasia if the Lahore High Court acquits her. Is incitement to murder not a criminal offence?

Even as the ‘religious right’ was out on the street baying for Aasia Noreen’s blood, protesting the president’s right to pardon her, an even more absurd case came up: Dr Noshad Valyani, a family physician in Hyderabad who discarded the visiting card of a medical representative with the name Mohammed is accused of ‘blasphemy’ (People are now wondering if they should stop using this name for their sons).

The alleged incident took place on Dec 9, while the complaint was lodged on Dec 11. In Aasia Noreen’s case too, the complaint was lodged several days after the alleged incident. This pattern is evident in most cases of alleged ‘blasphemy’. Charges are typically filed days after the incident, after local clerics and self-styled defenders of the faith hear about the altercation and persuade someone to press charges. In other words, the blasphemy law is being cynically used as a political tool to arouse passions and keep certain persons and parties in the limelight. It would be nice if we could just ignore them but when they impose their views with violence, they must be countered.

The injustices perpetuated by the blatant exploitation of the blasphemy laws have led even the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), Pakistan’s foremost constitutional advisery body regarding Islamic injunctions, to propose procedural amendments to guard against misuse against any individual regardless of religion. Even the most virulent of blasphemy law defenders, including a certain cleric against whom women’s rights activists have been up in arms, privately admit that the law is flawed and that amendments are necessary. A few brave souls are ready to say this publicly, like Dr Khalid Zaheer, who holds that “there is no blasphemy law in Islam.”

At a talk he gave last year organised by the civil society group People’s Resistance in Karachi, Dr Zaheer noted that the Quran does not even hint at a worldly punishment for blasphemy. Instead, the holy book urges Muslims to ignore what the blasphemers say, to not be a part of them when they blaspheme, and to create circumstances that do not allow blasphemy to take place. (Noman Quadri, a student member of PR, has translated and posted the speech to his blog).

On the question of why so many Muslims believe the reality to be otherwise, Dr Zaheer explained that hadith and history mention several incidents in which people were killed apparently for the crime of blasphemy. However, “only those people lost their lives according to the divine law who refused to accept God’s message when it was clearly delivered to them by the messenger.”

According to the Quran, death was a punishment to be meted out to the enemies of the messengers during their lifetime. “Such incidents have nothing with the issue of blasphemy in our times,” he added.

If Muslims want to retain a blasphemy law, they must satisfy two conditions:

a) Capital punishment cannot be given to a person who is found guilty of committing blasphemy. According to the Quran, capital punishment can only be given to murderers and those who take the law into their hands. (Quran; 5:32)

b) The punishment should be applicable to those found guilty of blasphemy against revered personalities and deities of all faiths and it should be equally applicable to both Muslims and non-Muslims. The Quran says: “Don’t use abusive language against their false gods lest they should use the same language against yours in retaliation.” (Quran; 6:108)

Of course not everyone will agree with Dr Zaheer. That is fine. Let the discussion continue. Let there be debate on amendments to the man-made blasphemy laws of Pakistan.

In the meantime, here is a basic principle that all Pakistanis, no matter what their political or religious beliefs, must publicly agree to: no one has the right to murder anyone regardless of their religious beliefs.

The writer is Editor Special Projects, Jang Group.

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