Blasphemy law: open to abuse
The world today views Pakistan as a state intolerant of its minorities. Reports of mobs trying to lynch people present a savage picture, which goes against the very grain of such a great religion. There is clear need to review these laws
“Derogatory remarks etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet: 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, shall be punishable with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.” (Article 295-C, Pakistan Penal Court)
“The penalty for contempt of the Holy Prophet, is death and nothing else.” (Criminal Law amendment Act, 1986)
Throughout history, societies have made and enforced laws to preserve religion and religious personages. Most such laws reveal a common pattern: vested interests and personal motives rather than noble principles and ideologies motivated them. Take the Spanish Inquisition, which began in 1478. When Pope Sixtus IV allowed King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabella to carry out the Inquisition, the objective was to drive out and eliminate the Jews and Moors from Spain and consolidate their power.
What followed is the harrowing era known in history as the Black Legend. Thousands were branded as blasphemers and heretics and slaughtered after indescribable torture, all in the name of religion. Not dissimilarly, when General Ziaul Haq incorporated the draconian Anti-Blasphemy Law into the constitution in 1986, it was with the sole purpose of gaining the support of the religious community to prolong his hold on power.
Anti-blasphemy laws vow to protect religions that have never needed such preservation. Also, the venerated names they purport to safeguard have never required any protection in the first place. Christianity survived and indeed blossomed for 11 centuries before the inquisition was instituted in 1231; the name of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had never needed a law to maintain its sanctity for 14 centuries.
Neither does there seem to be any religious basis for such a law in Islam. The Quran clearly advises patience and forbearance when a Muslim’s beliefs are being flouted by a non-believer.
“Allah is with those who restrain themselves.” (Quran 16:128)
“Have patience with what they say, and leave them with noble (dignity).” (Quran 73:10)
“And when ye hear the signs of Allah held in defiance and ridicule, ye are not to sit with them unless they turn to a different theme.” (Quran 4:140)
These ayahs advise exercise of fortitude by Muslims, and order them to leave a gathering where their religion is being ridiculed.
Those who support this law by claiming to follow the Sunnah are clearly misinformed. When he first started preaching the tenets of Islam to the inhabitants of Makkah, the Prophet (PBUH) was slandered and mocked (Quran 68:2). He was stigmatised as a man ‘possessed’ (Quran 23:70). He was even threatened with death, and escaped an assassination attempt. However, when he returned to Makkah as conqueror, he announced general amnesty for all offenders.
Those who support this draconian law pretend to do so in accordance with the Sunnah of the very Prophet (PBUH) who prayed for the well being of the non-believers of Taif who stoned him.
All that the anti-blasphemy law has done is invite gross abuse. According to the law, the accused is arrested and consigned to prison and held without bail as soon as an FIR is registered against him. He is ‘guilty until proven innocent’, a digression from the norm. (see boxes for the law)
Consequently, hundreds of ‘accused’ are languishing in jail, some for several years, pending trial. Furthermore, the law has encouraged religious fanatics to incite raging mobs to lynch supposed offenders while the law enforcement authorities look on. Since its invocation 18 years ago, not a single offender has been executed under the blasphemy law, while scores have been killed and hundreds have been arrested and put behind bars.
Dr Younas Sheikh, sentenced to death in August 2001 under the blasphemy law and now awaiting appeal, is the most recent example. Frustrated and helpless, Bishop John Joseph took his own life as a protest against this law. In the last decade, approximately 1500 Ahmadis and an equal number of Christians have been charged with blasphemy. Didn’t Islam survive in this country for 39 years before these laws were introduced?
The world today views Pakistan as a state intolerant of its minorities. Reports of mobs trying to lynch people present a savage picture, which goes against the very grain of such a great religion. There is clear need to review these laws. The West finally came to its senses and abolished the Inquisition in 1834. Will we require four centuries to understand the barbarity of such laws?
Saad Anis is a student at Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Technology