Misusing Blasphemy Law
Blasphemy is a word that has been used with various – often not precise – meanings at different times. For moral theologians, blasphemy is a sin. Among many people belonging to larger faiths, blasphemy is considered either an offence or a sin.
Many modern states including France, Scotland, England have legislation aimed at making blasphemy severely punishable even with capital punishment. The underlying idea appears to be that an attack on religion is necessarily an attack on the state.
The blasphemy law codified in Chapter 15 of Pakistan’s Penal Code (PPC) – in particular section 295 B and C and 298 A, B and C – imposes a variety of penalties for different forms of blasphemy. These include the death penalty for anyone found to have, by words or visible representation or by an imputation or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiled the name of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Similarly, anyone blamed as a blasphemer against the Quran would be given life imprisonment under section 295C of Pakistan Penal Code.
In 1982, President Zia-ul-Haq introduced section 295B to the Pakistan Penal Code punishing “defiling the Holy Quran” with life imprisonment. In 1986, section 295C was introduced, mandating the death penalty for “use of derogatory remarks in respect of the Holy Prophet (PBUH).
“In 1990, the Federal Shariah Court ruled that the penalty should be mandatory death sentence, with no right to a reprieve or pardon. However, the blasphemy law is used sometimes against political adversaries or personal enemies, or by Muslim fundamentalists against religious minorities, or for personal revenge. Ahmadis and Christians are especially victimized by the blasphemy laws.
The Pakistani Catholic Bishop’s Justice and Peace Commission complained that from 1987 to 2014, over 1300 people have been accused of blasphemy, mostly non-Muslim religious minorities. The vast majority of the accusations were lodged for desecration of the Holy Quran. Critics complain that Pakistan’s blasphemy law “is overwhelmingly being used to persecute religious minorities and settle personal vendettas,” but calls for change in the blasphemy laws have been strongly resisted by Islamic parties – most prominently the Barelvi school of Islam. Over 50 people accused of blasphemy have been murdered before their respective trials were concluded, and prominent figures who opposed blasphemy laws (Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, the Federal Minister for Minorities) have been assassinated. Since 1990, 62 people have been murdered as a result of blasphemy allegations. The classical examples of the misuse of the blasphemy law are Lahore’s 1995 “Salamat Masih” case, and the “Yousaf Masih” case.
In Salamat Masih Case, three Christians from Gujranwala were accused of blasphemy. Because of the danger of a mob attacking the accused, the case was shifted to Lahore Session Court. In spite of heightened security measures, the accused were attacked by extremists outside the court. One of the three accused, Manzoor Masih, was murdered while other two were injured and the defence lawyers were also threatened and attacked. The Session Court Lahore awarded the death penalty to the remaining two accused persons. An appeal was registered by the accused person in Lahore’s High Court. The Bench of High Court acquitted the accused persons. Subsequent to the decision, one of the judges, Mr. Justice Arif Iqbal Hussain Bhatti, was also assassinated by the extremists. Thanks to the threat to their lives, the two acquitted Christians got asylum in Germany.
In 2004 the Pakistani Parliament approved a law to reduce the scope of the blasphemy laws. The amendment to the law means that police officials will have to investigate accusations of blasphemy to ensure that they are well founded before presenting criminal charges. In November 2010, Asia Bibi was sentenced to death by hanging on a charge of blasphemy; the case that has yet to be upheld by the Lahore High Court and has sparked an international reaction. Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was shot dead by his security guard for supporting Asia Bibi. Salman Taseer had visited Asia Bibi in jail and had held a press conference with her. He had told the media that Asia Bibi will be released soon and the President of Pakistan will soon annul her death sentence. This triggered mass protests in Pakistan with many imams of local mosques claiming that Salman Taseer had defied Prophet Mohammed and should be sentenced to death for it. Taseer was later assassinated in early 2011. In the same vein, on 2 March 2011 Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs (a Roman Catholic member of the National Assembly), was killed by gunmen in Islamabad as he was travelling to work, a few weeks after he had vowed to defy death threats over his efforts to reform Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
Laws serve the purpose of exerting social control but unfortunately our moral deterioration has reached the point that like other laws, the blasphemy law is also being misused. In my best opinion, a judicial inquiry should be conducted before arresting the alleged blasphemer.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organization with which he might be associated.