Blasphemy laws: another angle

The blasphemy laws are in the limelight once again. An imam and his son have been jailed for life on blasphemy charges by a court in Muzaffargarh. Muhammad Shafi, the 45-year-old imam, and his 20-year-old son Muhammad Aslam were arrested last year in April for removing a poster that contained Quranic verses from outside their grocery shop. It has been alleged that the poster, commemorating the anniversary of Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) birth, was pulled down by the pair who then “tore it and trampled it under their feet”. The imam and his son deny these charges and their defence counsel is of the opinion that “the case is the result of differences between Deobandi and Barelvi sects of Sunni Muslims”. This case brings to light the fact that not only is the blasphemy law used to target religious minorities, it also lends itself to sectarian angles. Sectarianism is not just limited to the Sunnis versus the Shias; there are many Sunni sub-sects who have their own differences with one another. The Deobandi school of thought follows a literalist and quite conservative interpretation of Islam while the Barelvi sect follows the Sufi traditions. Pakistan is no stranger to sectarian violence. In the 80s we saw an increase in sectarian warfare because of military dictator General Ziaul Haq’s fascist policies in the name of Islam, which in essence is a religion of peace but has been hijacked by extremists with vested interests.

It would not be wrong to say that even three decades later, Pakistan is still haunted by General Zia’s gruesome policies. The blasphemy laws were originally introduced by the British in the pre-partition Indian subcontinent for interfaith harmony. General Zia tinkered with these laws and since then many people have misused them to settle personal scores or to target those opposing their views. (Late) Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer highlighted how these laws were being misused to punish the dispossessed people in our society. His voice of reason was silenced by the religious extremists. It seems as if the debate on blasphemy laws has also died a silent death after Mr Taseer’s brutal assassination. Neither the PPP-led federal government nor any other political party is ready to take on the mullah brigade. The PPP has made it quite clear that it will neither repeal nor amend the blasphemy laws. MQM chief Altaf Hussain appealed to the religious parties to stop their demonstrations given the government’s assurance that no change would be made to the blasphemy laws. Apart from appeasing the right-wing forces, this decision by the PPP may have to do with the fact that the religious parties are using the blasphemy issue as a rallying point for the next general elections. Religious parties do not have a large vote-bank. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) was able to win a relatively larger number of seats in 2002 only because the elections were rigged. In the relatively free and fair elections held in 2008, the religious parties were able to win only a handful of seats, as usual. Now they want to cash in on the rising tide of religious ‘fervour’ in the next election. Perhaps this is why the PPP government has taken a placatory stance on the blasphemy laws even though it is not a matter that placation is likely to resolve.

On another note, religious organisations are busy giving both veiled and direct threats to all those who are mourning Governor Taseer’s martyrdom or condemning his killer Mumtaz Qadri. These threats are a serious matter and should not be taken lightly. Section 506 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) clearly states the punishment for criminal intimidation. It is of utmost importance that the government upholds the law of the land and penalises the mischief-makers and the hate-mongers. Time is of the essence.

(my editorial in Daily Times)

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