Recently, Irish Minister Aodhan O Riordain told the Irish parliament to announce a referendum to remove the blasphemy law from the Irish constitution. It was last used in 1855. Although no date has been announced for the prospective referendum, the government’s inclination to reach such a decision is a big step in itself. There is a great chance that the law will be repealed because 61 percent of the constitutional convention members voted in favour of abolition.
Astoundingly, I have not heard of any protest, agitation or life threats towards those who still want the blasphemy law or towards those who are in favour of removal. There are over 50 percent who want to replace the offence in the constitution with a new general provision to include incitement of religious hatred. No matter what happens, I am sure it will all happen in a peaceful and democratic way and will be acceptable to the Irish public, as we have recently seen in the Scottish referendum.
A majority of the population is Catholic but, under Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, people have a right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and freedom of expression. That is why there are some people who are campaigning to repeal the blasphemy law from the Irish constitution without any fear of being attacked or killed, something that is not possible in Pakistan. Pakistan has ratified dozens of international treaties, including the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and is under obligation to bring its domestic laws in line with these treaties so people can practice their right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and freedom of expression. But, despite international calls, the Pakistani government does not have any such intentions.
There are a very few countries left in the west that still have the blasphemy law on their statute books; the majority of countries have abolished them. Where these laws still exist, they are almost redundant, and I have never heard of blasphemy cases in these countries. This is because blasphemy laws are not consistent with the promotion and protection of human rights, and limit freedom of speech and expression. The Council of Europe has already stated in its report that the offence of blasphemy should be abolished. In the US, some states still have this law but nobody can be prosecuted because of the first amendment to the constitution.
The UK abolished its blasphemy law on March 5, 2008, with the consultation of the Church of England. On May 8, 2008, the bill received royal assent and, on July 8, 2008, it came into force. The last person in the UK to be imprisoned for blasphemy was John William Gott from Bradford in December 1921. He had three previous convictions for blasphemy when he was prosecuted for publishing two pamphlets ridiculing Jesus. He was sentenced to nine months hard labour by the Old Bailey Court. Thomas Aikenhead, a Scottish student from Edinburgh, was the last person who was prosecuted and executed at the age of 20 on a charge of blasphemy.
But now there are some British Muslims who are demanding the reintroduction of the blasphemy law and are lobbying with the MPs and collecting petitions. However, I do not think they will be successful as the legislature, including Prime Minister David Cameron, are well aware of the consequences of this law. Almost all western governments, the UN, Commonwealth, European parliament and world church leaders have raised their concern about the continuing misuse of the blasphemy law against religious minorities in Pakistan. But it is all falling on the deaf ears of the government and politicians alike. Pakistan even supported the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) in its attempts to globalise the crime of blasphemy and, in 2009, the European Union opposed Pakistan’s submission. Pakistan first needs to stop the growing misuse of the blasphemy law within its own borders, which has attracted international criticism on many occasions.
Although the crime of blasphemy is punishable by law in a majority of Muslim countries, Pakistan is the only country that has made headlines because of its increasing misuse of this law against religious minorities. Minorities are living under constant fear for life and demanding its repeal, or at least for it to be amended appropriately. Because of the inattention of past and present governments, it has become a sensitive issue and now we have even failed to discuss this matter in parliament. That is why, when Sherry Rehman submitted a private member’s bill for the amendment of the blasphemy law, she received life threats. Earlier, minority MP Mr Bhandara’s proposal was rejected and Minister Sher Afgan said, “M P Bhandara should not have presented this amendment. Pakistan is an Islamic republic. We cannot tolerate anything on the sensitive issue of defiling the Prophethood.”
If we cannot discuss the increasing misuse of the blasphemy law in our parliament then what other platform do we have? This is the Pakistani parliament’s responsibility and now we have the example of Ireland in front of us. All over the world new legislation and amendments are made in parliament, and the Pakistani parliament has to do the same, otherwise attacks on churches and temples will continue, incidents of vigilante killings and mob justice will continue. No one knows what will be next as we have seen some high profile people charged under this law.
According to reports, at least 17 people are on death row, including UK citizen Muhammad Asghar in Adiala jail. He was recently shot by a policeman but survived because of timely medical treatment.
Now is the time to learn from Ireland and bring this matter to parliament. If the law cannot be repealed, at the very least safeguards should be introduced to stop the continuous misuse of this law. Pakistan should take the example set by Ireland and many other countries that have abolished their blasphemy laws, and realise that it is no longer acceptable to punish others for their religious beliefs.
The writer is a freelance columnist