Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 8 December 2019

In Pakistan, the blasphemy law is being used for political purposes

Tom Hussain says some groups are using a colonial law to silence their opponents
The late Punjab governor Salman Taseer. AFP / Pakistan's Governor House of Punjab
The late Punjab governor Salman Taseer. AFP / Pakistan's Governor House of Punjab

Once again, Pakistan finds itself mired in controversy over its colonial-origin blasphemy law, a perennial feature of the human rights calendar because of its propensity for being misused against non-Muslim minority communities and Muslims who take up a humanitarian stance on their behalf.

The issue flared in the lead-up to the January 4 anniversary of the death of Salman Taseer, the governor of populous Punjab province, who was murdered six years ago by a police bodyguard.

The assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, deemed Taseer to have endorsed the insults against the Prophet Mohammed allegedly made by a Christian village girl, Aasia Bibi. She was charged with – and subsequently convicted of – blasphemy after claims levelled by Muslim neighbours with whom she had previously quarrelled. A personal vendetta was clearly a factor, as it has been in most blasphemy cases, prompting the governor to call for a presidential pardon and to deride the enabling law as oppressive.

In turn, the assassination provided a pretext to the Pakistani Taliban to kidnap his son Shahbaz Taseer and sell him to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group whose members’ loyalties are split between Al Qaeda and ISIL. He survived more than four years of often brutal captivity in North Waziristan and Afghanistan to return home last March.

Now, another of the governor’s sons, Shaan Taseer, has received death threats for a Christmas message to Pakistani Christians in which he criticised the continued abuse of the blasphemy law and called for prayers for its victims. Parallel to that, religious activists who had championed Qadri, the assassin, intimidated the chief of a police station in registering a charge of blasphemy against him.

Presenting themselves as religious scholars affiliated with the Barelvi school of Hanafi Sunni Muslim thought in the subcontinent, the activists are seeking the death sentence for Shaan Taseer.

They can do so because the law prescribes capital punishment for words, actions or images that can conceivably be seen to represent an insult to the Prophet Mohammed.

The law’s sweeping character is the first of many indications that it is political, not Islamic, in both its origins and application.

The blasphemy law currently in force in Pakistan evolved from a law enacted by British colonialists in 1860 to discourage violence between rival religious groups in pre-partition India. As such, it did not discriminate between faiths.

A separate clause dealing specifically with blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed was introduced in 1986 by Gene Zia-Al-Haq, who postured his military dictatorship as Islamist and nurtured militant jihadism for geopolitical ends in Afghanistan.

It ignores the long-standing consensus among Islamic jurists that only Muslims are liable to be tried for blasphemy under the Islamic laws they believe in. This view was endorsed by the founders of the Barelvi school – to which the accusers of the Taseer family claim affiliation – and the Deobandi school of Hanafi thought, which together account for most Sunni Muslims. The same interpretation has been offered by the founder of the Salafi movement that emerged there in the 20th century.

The law is further tainted by the introduction of a mandatory death sentence for blasphemy, based on a single, discredited 15th-century interpretation of the teachings of Imam Abu Hanifa, founder of the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence.

And, of course, there remains the law’s propensity to be misused for vendettas. Islam clearly considers the levelling of false accusations to be a heinous sin.

On the other hand are the activists who have employed intimidation and mob violence and sanctioned murder. They claim Islam grants them impunity, irrespective of the Supreme Court’s conviction of Taseer’s assassin and ruling that his call for reforms to the blasphemy law does not constitute blasphemy.

The court’s verdict was endorsed by cleric-politicians of Islamist parties in parliament and on a state council that vets legislation for compliance and contradictions with Islamic law.

Yet the same cleric-politicians have blocked reforms to the law, such as the inclusion of a clause for punishment of those found to have levelled false accusations of blasphemy. The government, fearful of political implications, has vowed not to make any changes to its draft.

This reflects the fatal flaw in Pakistan’s efforts to defeat the extremists who have justified their war against the country by invoking falsified interpretations of Islam. The counterterrorism campaign launched in 2014 is a success inasmuch as it has deprived terrorists of territory and destroyed their network.

However, it has done very little to counter their narrative. Even those extremists officially recorded as having been involved in terrorism have been allowed space to conduct political activities, as long as they don’t pose an active armed threat to the state and, to some extent, they tone down their public rhetoric.

To evade blame, the competing arms of the state have even pointed fingers at each other. The result is that the law is being politicised.

Tom Hussain is a journalist and political analyst in Islamabad

Updated: January 9, 2017 04:00 AM