VIEW: Safeguarding citizens’ freedoms —Usman Ahmad - Friday, March 04, 2011

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Rather than uphold the honour of Islam, the blasphemy laws have served only to destroy the peace of society. Abuse of the laws is a widely accepted practice because no proof is required — anyone can be charged with blasphemy on the assertion of a witness

As Wednesday’s assassination of the Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, has shown — years of mixing politics with religion has created a dangerous cocktail of hatred and bigotry in Pakistan. The political and judicial institutions of the country have appeased the prejudices of Islamic fundamentalists for so long that regardless of which way the pendulum of political power swings, incumbent governments invariably find themselves at the mercy of mobster theocrats and religious zealots. What a far cry from the pluralistic and secular Pakistan envisaged by the founder of the nation, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Nowhere is the pernicious communion between the mullah and the state more apparent than in the country’s blasphemy laws. Yet, to even suggest such a thing is to walk a fine line these days between life and death as both Shahbaz Bhatti and the late Governor Salmaan Taseer found at the cost of their lives. Fear of the religious right has cowed the nation into silence and the spectre of the un-repealed laws has quelled any debate and national discourse on the subject. The fallout is hardly surprising. For blasphemy is an inherently suffocating ideal. When it is enshrined in legal tenets as a capital offence and sanctioned by the state, it becomes a grotesque affront to the freedom of thought, expression and liberty.

Officially, the Pakistani constitution guarantees the religious rights and freedoms of both Muslims and non-Muslims. But Pakistan’s religious laws are framed in such a way that they necessarily impinge upon the civil liberties of anyone who is not a believer in Islam. Christians, Hindus and atheists all exist outside the purview of the law on account of the fact that they do not believe in the truth of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) or the sanctity of the Quran. Their fundamental beliefs condemn them as criminals. Whether they are brought to trial or not is irrelevant for their very existence is an offence. In the simplest terms, they are guilty of daring to hold beliefs at variance with those of the mainstream. And what of those Muslims who do not observantly follow the injunctions of Islam? Is their disobedience not a form of blasphemy and a blemish on the sanctity of the Quran and the Prophet (PBUH)? How this is supposed to facilitate statehood and prevent the fragmentation of society is anyone’s guess.

All of this has consequences, and they are there for all to see. Rather than uphold the honour of Islam, the blasphemy laws have served only to destroy the peace of society. Abuse of the laws is a widely accepted practice because no proof is required — anyone can be charged with blasphemy on the assertion of a witness. Human rights groups have long argued that charges of blasphemy have been routinely filed for land and property disputes and other motives. This can be gauged by the fact that almost 50 percent of those accused are themselves Muslims. In one particular case, a Hindu factory worker was charged with blasphemy following rumours that he was in love with a Muslim girl. The fact that cases of blasphemy have increased since the original laws were amended during the reign of General Zia prove, if nothing else, that they have emphatically failed to act as a deterrent against the defamation of religion. Further, the ease with which an accusation of blasphemy can be made only serves to inflame public sentiment and gives rise to vigilante justice. The most terrible illustration of this occurred in the town of Gojra, Punjab, in 2009, when seven Christians were burnt alive and 18 others injured after a wave of violence erupted following accusations of the desecration of the Quran. Governor Taseer was also accused of insulting the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and paid for it with his life despite the fact that his only crime was to denounce the treatment of Aasia Bibi.

Shamefully, all this is done in the name of Islam. But instead of preserving its sanctity, Pakistan’s penal code has ended up defiling it. Islam sanctions no punishment against blasphemers. When broaching the subject, the Holy Quran emphasises two basic principles that seek to foster cohesion and mutual tolerance. Firstly, Muslims are exhorted not to abuse even the deities of idol-worshippers lest they should retaliate by insulting Allah. And secondly, if they find themselves in the presence of those who would talk ill of God and His Prophet (PBUH), they are instructed to merely retire from the company of such persons. By going against these teachings Pakistan’s theocrats have ventured on dangerous ground. Their support of these laws suggests that they consider the teaching of God lacking in respect to dealing with blasphemers, thereby lending credence to the pop culture definition of the maulvi as someone who says, “God knows best, but I know better.”

The role of the state is not that of a moral or religious arbiter. It is not for lawmakers to intrude upon or decide the religious beliefs of their citizens. Their duty is to safeguard individual freedoms and preserve human dignity. Rather than cultivate a truly pluralistic society, successive Pakistani governments have been at pains to pander to the demands of sectarian polemicists. Why should someone’s religion be to the detriment of their status as a citizen of a country? If Muslims abroad expect their religious beliefs to be respected, then surely countries with a Muslim majority ought to extend this courtesy to people who adhere to different belief systems. It is entirely reasonable to suggest that no harm will come to the fabric of the nation or to Islam from the ridicule and mockery of a small number of people. If only there were more politicians brave enough to take a stand on this issue — but alas, for now, the supine silence of abject fear seems to be the choice most have opted for.

The writer is a freelance columnist and can be reached at

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