Pakistan Must Stop Legitimising Barbarity Under The Guise Of Blasphemy Law
We have witnessed time and again that blasphemy law in Pakistan has been used as a tool of oppression by the ruling elite against religious minorities and other vulnerable groups for decades. Underpinned by draconian provisions such as 295 A, B and C of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), the violence against minorities has been institutionalised and given all-out impunity. Resultantly, the masses take it upon themselves to teach an alleged blasphemer a lesson.
In Pakistan, the mobs, in particular, take the shape of mad vigilantism in blasphemy cases. Many crimes have been committed by charged mobs often incited by local religious leaders who push for the performance of religious duty and the killing of any person accused of blasphemy. Since 1990, at least 65 people have been murdered in Pakistan for being accused of blasphemy and so far not a single perpetrator has been indicted for the crime despite irrefutable evidence.
Mashal Khan’s case is the most recent and classic example of a society gone awry and having its moral fabric torn asunder. With each passing day, the conspiracy behind his murder unfolds sickening details. It has now transpired that the university administration had instigated the students against Mashal on the pretext of blasphemy just because he had been outspoken against the university’s embezzlement of funds and had raised his voice against the officials for jeopardizing the future of students.
Ironically blasphemy is an allegation that needs no proof in this country. The charged mob hears and sees nothing but red when charging upon another person and reasoning with this mob almost always proves futile.
Judicial precedence also enunciates this mob mentality, as can be seen in a reported case where the judge held the following:
“To constitute offence under section 295 C number of witnesses are not required and it is not necessary that such abusive language against Holy Prophet (PBUH) should be made loudly in public or in a meeting or at some specific place but statement of single witness that somebody has made utterance for the contempt of Holy prophet (PBUH) even inside the house is sufficient to award death penalty to such contemnor (2005 YLR 985).
Conviction can be based on the solitary statement of a witness if the court finds his evidence to be trustworthy, inspiring confidence and in consonance with the circumstances of that particular case.(1995 PCrL J 811).”
The law was originally framed by British rulers based on the principle that every person had full freedom to follow his or her own religion and that no person would be justified under law to insult the religion of others. After independence, this principle was enshrined in the Constitution under Article 20.
During the regime of Pakistan’s late military ruler Zia ul Haq, several additions were made to the blasphemy laws, including life imprisonment for those defiling or desecrating the Quran. Later on, the death sentence was introduced by directives from the Federal Shariat Court vide PLD 1991 FSC.
Sadly the law was mutilated to the extent that the Ahmadi religious group was banned from propagating or even practising religion, thereby reducing the constituional right to a misnomer. The introduction of 295 A, B and C has opened a floodgate of litigation, which is evident from the fact that only ten blasphemy cases have reportedly been heard in court in the 58 years between 1927 and 1985, but since then more than 4,000 cases have been handled.
A study by the International Commission of Jurists in 2015 on the implementation of blasphemy laws in Pakistan has found that more than 80 percent of convictions by trial courts get overturned on appeal and very often because appellate courts find evidence and complaints to have been fabricated based on “personal or political vendettas”.
The law has been criticized since its inception for being anti-minority as it is a law in which allegations constitute enough proof. According to the critics of this law, the fact that minorities figure so prominently in these cases shows how unfairly the laws are being applied.
It is frequently claimed by witnesses in alleged “blasphemy” cases that to repeat what the accused is supposed to have said or done would itself be “blasphemous” and therefore they are exempted from having to explain the accusation. Courts therefore accept the testimony of a supposed witness to the blasphemy without hearing any of the details of the accusations.
The law has been used extensively and those daring to speak against it have not only been termed infidels but have even been killed. Governor Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti had to pay the price with their lives for being vocal while another politician Sherry Rehman had to go into exile for introducing a Private Member’s Bill on the topic in Parliament. This man-made law has become so sacrosanct that speaking against it amounts to blasphemy itself.
Despite recommendations from the international community and civil society, the state has been unable to abolish the unfairness of punishment in this law. Due to pressure from religious political parties, the state walks a tightrope between upholding human rights and appeasing hardliners.
Blasphemy law has also morphed into an anti-Shia and anti-Ahmedi tool for personal vendetta, while the causes of making allegations vary from financial issues to revenge, and have little to do with religious sentiments being hurt. The minorities thus get reduced to pests who offend mainstream religious sensibilities, sometimes with their speech, acts or writing, or merely by their existence. The allegation of blasphemy is almost always based on rumors spread with the intention of whipping up violence.
What’s important about blasphemy law is that it should rest solely on the basis of mens rea –intention to commit crime– which is hard to prove. Ironically, the law prohibiting “insult” or “offence” to religion, or “hurting the sentiments” of religious persons, may itself be “insulting” or “offensive” or “hurtful” to religion or religious persons if it prevents them from expressing their religious views just because others find their religion offensive.
When states try to base blasphemy laws on a single religious text, it is abundantly clear that different sectarian groups within a single religion interpret all mainstream scriptures in a variety of ways, with different groups deciding that some declarations or depictions are ‘blasphemous’ while others disagree, or find other declarations or depictions ‘blasphemous’.
For instance, certain fundamental religious beliefs of the Shia sect may be called out as repugnant or blasphemous to the majority Sunni sect. Similarly, the Hindu minority may hold cows in reverence and may disagree with the Muslim majority slaughtering it. Given such diverse and often opposing beliefs, having laws such as the blasphemy law is an injustice.
Shielding religion from criticism cannot be regarded as a social good. Criticism which is false can be tested and met with legitimate counter-arguments, while criticism which is true should be heard for the sake of correcting errors. In some cases, criticism helps religious thinkers improve theology. In more substantive cases, criticism is essential to shedding light over immoral or unlawful practices carried out in the name of religion.
The way forward is to amend the law and implement progressive measures within it that are pluralistic in nature and ensure equality without hurting the religious sentiments of any sect or religion. An unsubstantiated blasphemy accusation should not be the starting point of a criminal investigation. Mashal Khan’s case is a classic example of misuse of the law and it will neither be an isolated event nor the last if the law persists in its current form.
Scholars from all sects in the country should play their role by unanimously condemning the acts of violence originating from the misuse of blasphemy law. These religious scholars should issue a statement declaring the killing of an individual over blasphemy allegations to be against Shariah as well as the law of Pakistan.
While the law should aim at the undesirable persons who indulge in vilification or attack upon the religion of any particular class or the founders and prophets of a religion, the state should secure fundamental rights of the intellectuals who engage in bona fide and honest criticism of a religious tenet.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any other organization with which she might be associated.