Blasphemy: Pak capitulates to its extremist hordes
The army-backed Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan is facing a tough task these days. Asia Bibi—the poor Christian woman who was on death row under Pakistan’s blasphemy law—has been acquitted. But the anomalies in such discriminatory anti-blasphemy laws continue to pose a challenge for a populist leader like him. Earlier, Imran himself supported the religious right in upholding the blasphemy laws. He has been criticised for a full-throated defence of Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws in the run-up to the general election on 25 July. “We are standing with Article 295c and will defend it,” said the leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) at a gathering of Muslim leaders in Islamabad, referring to the clause of the Constitution that mandates the death penalty for any “imputation, insinuation or innuendo” against the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
But surprisingly, as Prime Minister of “Naya Pakistan”, which seeks to model itself on “Madinite” Islamic welfare state, Khan seems to have changed his stance on one of the brazenly misused laws. By welcoming the Pakistani Apex Court’s judgement, which acquitted Asia Bibi, Khan has tried to challenge the gross misuse of the blasphemy law in the country.
Tellingly, Pakistan’s Apex Court lambasted the Islamist complainants who had insulted Asia’s religious sentiments, which the court said was no less than blasphemy as Prophet Jesus (pbuh) is also a Prophet in Islam. It has categorically stated: “Blasphemy is a serious offence but the insult of the appellant’s (Asia Bibi) religion and religious sensibilities by the complainant party and then mixing truth with falsehood in the name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad was also not short of being blasphemous”.
Interestingly, Imran Khan, who earlier backed the extremist outfit Taliban—calling its insurgency in Afghanistan as a legitimate jihad against occupying forces—has confronted the home-grown extremist faction Tehreek-i-Labbaikya Rasool Allah (TLYRA), also known as TLP. Soon after the Apex Court’s landmark verdict evoked huge protests and death threats from the TLP, Imran Khan denounced the extremist antics of the far-right group. In his address to the nation on 1 November, Khan talked tough, asking the TLP protestors not to “confront the State” and refrain from vandalism. He said he had been “compelled” to communicate with the nation due to the reaction and the language used by a “small segment” in response to the Supreme Court verdict.
As a result, the extremist group called off the protests against Asia Bibi’s acquittal with an apology for “inconveniencing without reason”. According to media reports on 3 November, the TLP announced the end to the violent protests and sit-ins which brought the country to a standstill since 30 October. Apparently, this announcement comes after an agreement between the government and the TLP to conclude the latter’s nationwide protests with the government promising to immediately initiate a legal process to place Asia Bibi’s name on the Exit Control List (ECL).
Thus, Imran Khan does deserve credit for compelling the TLP to end its vicious protests and sit-ins. But at the same time, it raises an uncomfortable question to him as to how he is going to be allowed to reform the blasphemy laws in order to craft his Naya Pakistan. For this, he needed a stronger crackdown on TLP and the ilk. But the state’s continued capitulation to the belligerent groups shows a dismal picture.
While this was an opportunity for Imran Khan to embrace a more inclusive vision for the religious minorities in Pakistan, it was an opportune time to revisit and reform the blasphemy laws in the country. It was time to candidly expose the insanity behind the laws that have taken life after life in Pakistan, with the likes of TLP’s radical Islamists having complete impunity. Let’s not forget that Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Governor Salman Taseer, who was brutally killed for calling Pakistan’s blasphemy laws black, belonged to the same faction which Imran Khan mistakably considers a “small segment”. The death penalty sentenced to Qadri caused more turbulence in Pakistan than what we saw with horror in the wake of Asia Bibi’s acquittal by the Apex Court. The consequent protests by the Islamist hardliners across the country were much less now than the turmoil which was created to “exonerate” Qadri as Ghazi (man of religious valour) and Alahir Rahmah (the one who is dear to Allah).
All this makes it patently clear that the public support for the enactment of medieval Islamic blasphemy laws in Pakistan is strong. Therefore, the religio-politicians of modern Pakistan like the notorious TLP leader Khadim Rizvi call for severe punishments to the supposed blasphemers with a view to shoring up their political support base.
But more deplorably, the laws have often been used to get revenge after personal disputes, and in most such cases, convictions do not stand to scrutiny. In fact, the public support for religious extremists in the country who enjoy complete impunity is deep rooted. The killing of Salman Taseer was not an isolated incident in Pakistan. A former judge, Arif Iqbal Bhatti was also brutally assassinated because he did not sentence the accused to death in a fake case of blasphemy. Similarly, some radical Islamists in Pakistan, a few years ago, burned alive a mentally disabled man on the accusation of blasphemy. This insane cruelty was perpetrated despite the fact that even the Islamic Sharia does not implement the blasphemy law on anyone who lost his senses.
Not long ago, a Pashtun Muslim student Mashal Khan was mercilessly lynched in the premises of his university in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa over fake allegations of posting blasphemous content online. Scandalously, the 22 perpetrators of this lynching who were arrested by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police included six employees of the university. More shockingly, Mashal’s friends stated to the police in writing that he was a devout Muslim, but since he strongly protested against the mismanagement by the university, he was lynched. Also, the Inspector General Police later stated: “We did not find any concrete evidence under which a blasphemy investigation or legal action can be launched against Mashal.”
According to a BBC report, at least 65 people have been murdered in Pakistan over blasphemy allegations since 1990. Most of the accused were Muslims or Ahmadis, also known as Qadiyanis. But after the 1990s, the minority Christians, who make up just 1.6% of the population, have been systematically targeted in numerous anti-blasphemy onslaughts.
But luckily for the Catholic mother Asia Bibi, who recently moved from prison to Islamabad amid death threats, Supreme Court’s verdict expressed disappointment on the manner in which the case was investigated. Justice Khosa judged that “the glaring and stark contradictions in the evidence produced by the prosecution in respect of every factual aspect of this case […] lead to an irresistible and unfortunate impression that all those concerned in the case with providing evidence and conducting investigation had taken upon themselves not to speak the truth or at least not to divulge the whole truth. It is equally disturbing to note that the courts below had also, conveniently or otherwise, failed to advert to such contradictions and some downright falsehood.”
Remarkably, the Apex Court has strongly rejected the lower court’s judgement in this case and rather critiqued it for failing to “give a fair judgement in the light of clear Quranic injunctions”. The verdict quotes the verse that requires believers to “persistently stand firm for Allah, witnesses in justice, and do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just, that is nearer to righteousness. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is acquainted with what you do” (Surah Al-Mai’da-verse: 8).
Interestingly, Justice Khosa also referred to the historic agreement between Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and the Christians who were granted immunity by him. In 628 A.D., a peace treaty was signed by the Prophet (pbuh) for the Catholics from St. Catherine’s Monastery, known as “The Promise to St. Catherine”. The key clause in this treaty says: “This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them… No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).”
But the postulate of protecting the Prophet’s honour called Tahaffuz-e-Namus-e-Risalathas has always been misused by the hardcore Islamists in Pakistan. However, the Holy Prophet, whose sanctity the extremists claim to defend never sentenced to death the Meccan pagans who cursed, ridiculed and plotted to kill him. Therefore, the vast literature of Islamic jurisprudence does not mention blasphemy as consistent part of the Islamic penal code. The Pakistani Supreme Court’s 57-page verdict offers detailed references to the Quranic verses and the hadith traditions in support of its key observations.
But while the Apex Court of Pakistan has exonerated Asia Bibi in light of the very primary Islamic scriptures—Qur’an and Hadith (Prophet’s traditions), what is utterly ironic is the state’s capitulation to the extremist hordes on the rampage. In an aspiring “Islamic” state where free thinkers, liberal bloggers, journalists and non-combatant civilians are choked to death for criticising the military establishment, potential terrorists like Khadim Razvi are roaming free. It just shows how deeply religious extremists have penetrated in the statehood of Pakistan.
Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi is a doctoral researcher at Centre for Culture, Media & Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org