Saarah Javed, Johns Hopkins University
Christian-Pakistani mother, Asiya Bibi was convicted and sentenced to death in 2010 after an argument at her work with her Muslim co-workers over sharing a bowl of water, in which she allegedly insulted the holy figure of Islam, Prophet Muhammad, which violates Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Successive appeals have been rejected, and if the Supreme Court supports her sentence, her last chance will be a direct appeal to the Pakistani president for pardon. This case is historical as Asiya Bibi would become the first person in Pakistan to be executed for blasphemy.
The ongoing case of Asiya Bibi is gaining traction as her appeal approaches. Pakistani military troops have been placed outside of the capitol for any riots or crowds that may start. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are progressive and meaningful in theory; in practice, however, they have seen much abuse. The ability to sentence another individual to death based on a single person’s biased account and possibly skewed witness is a dangerous and effective tool. This article will explore the future of blasphemy law reform and its implications on both Pakistani society and religious identity.
One might assume that blasphemy laws are mostly filed against minority Ahmadi Muslim and Christian communities, but there is now instances that applies the blasphemy law towards anyone, including Sunni Muslims, with the punishment being the death sentence. Anyone can make an accusation of blasphemy. Arrests are made with little evidence and is usually investigated after the fact or in court. Blasphemy accusations are commonly used to settle personal feuds, with little to no accountability.
The history behind the blasphemy laws dates back to the British who created the law against “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any group by insulting its religious belief,” to protect the multi-faith groups from each other.
Former Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq, added life imprisonment for those insulting the Quran or the Prophet and the death sentence for defiling Islam. While there is the sentence of death, there is also a pardon allowed saying “blasphemers who ask for a pardon would be spared the death penalty” under the Hanafi school of Islamic thought.
Pakistani blasphemy law reform is not an easy task; all levels of Pakistani society, from the polarized to the moderate, from politicians to village folk, have different perceptions of blasphemy laws. A prominent problem that lays at the crux of the issue is the lack of awareness regarding blasphemy within religion. Blasphemy laws are not clearly prescribed in Islam or the Quran. With popular belief holding that blasphemy laws are part of religion, any reform or discussion against blasphemy laws is prone to counter arguments, feelings of confusion, and uneasiness. Without diving into the history of this law and properly educating the masses about its background, the law proves to be a dangerous weapon for an uneducated population. Without this education, the lives of those who even speak about the blasphemy laws are also endangered, as seen in the case of the late governor of Punjab district, Salmaan Taseer, who was assassinated by his own bodyguard for defending Asiya Bibi’s case.
In some cases, it is uncertain where the fate of blasphemy laws are headed. Some of the moderate Pakistani population think that the initial breach of the blasphemy law, the first insult directed towards Prophet Muhammad or the religion, can be pardoned. The person in question would then be given an explanation of his crime in order to not breach the blasphemy law again. However, the more difficult decision is what to do when that same person breaches the blasphemy law a second time. Some suggest that the criminal had their chance and they must deal with the laws of the land, which can be as harsh as death.
Within the blasphemy law problem lies another religious uncertainty- some feel that they must “obey the laws of the land”, which is in conjunction with their religious beliefs, which then means that the accused person must be sentenced to death or the punishment in which they are ascribed for, according to the laws of Pakistan However this juxtaposes the Quranic verse “…there is no compulsion in religion [2:256].” With this, the population is confused as to which path they should follow: that of the land, their own humanity, or international community’s human rights laws. If the law of their land is not in conjunction with their beliefs, or the religious teaching that faith cannot be forced upon anyone, the persecution of someone for their religion must also be scrutinized. It makes for a reasonable case, hence, that in practicing the verse mentioned earlier, more emphasis and support should be given for reformation of these blasphemy laws that affect so many minorities disproportionately.The blasphemy law’s background clearly sheds light on the complexities encountered in reforming and revising it.
In considering reformation, first and foremost, there must be education and a clear distinction between current blasphemy laws and guidelines which are written in the Quran and Islamic law. With the confusion that exists, Pakistani society will continue to feel that any political group, individual or international organization challenging blasphemy laws are acting against and attacking their religious identity. A proper and effective reform that goes beyond name and paper cannot happen if there are mobs lining up to kill politicians that support reform and if there are journalists being targeted for reporting on the topic. No one would follow the reform, and those whom the reform targets will continue to go against the rulings. Thus in order for the reform to be effective, the Pakistani government cannot merely change the law using paper and ink, but must take proactive steps to enforce an environment that promotes education, growth and understanding in accordance with religious teachings. There is no question about the abuse of the law and the vulnerability of particular minorities to this law. However, before stepping into abolishing or reforming the law, an environment for mindsets to change must be created.
It is important to mention that the difficulty of this case lies with the population at large who do not have malintent with minorities or who do not seek to settle feuds. One should not make the mistake of looking at the Pakistani public as backwards and regressive in human rights. By doing so, one withholds his or her support for reform due to misunderstanding which has been the root cause for tension against the movement thus far. There is a perceived sense of “religious respect” that the blasphemy law protects, where it is perceived that with such laws in place, tensions based on insulting religions will be discouraged and in effect create greater understanding and respect between other faiths in addition to Islam. This “religious respect” is perceived by some to be more important than religious freedom and freedom of speech. One should not easily compare the basis of freedom of speech, religious identities, laws and values from a Western perspective as the complexities of Pakistani society cannot be seen, examined and judged through this lens.
A section of Pakistani society does not see a problem with potential abuse of blasphemy laws because the court system will be the one to discern whether or not an accused individual is guilty. With this, there is a sign that there is belief in a strong Pakistani judicial system that is without error and will make the right decision regarding a persecuted individual. With this in mind, it is pertinent to strengthen the judicial system, the investigation process and revisit the judicial interpretations of the basis of getting a pardon to ensure that the innocent are not persecuted.
Finally, in order for the reform to work, there must be a foundation for an attitude around it to become less aggressive and charged. Religious institutions, politicians, along with city and village government leaders should create initiatives to educate the public regarding the origins of blasphemy laws, the distinction between those interpretations and the laws derived from therein. This would help defuse the strong sentiments that Pakistani society members have regarding the laws and their reform, as it would allow them to enhance their perceptions without challenging their religious identities.