The true colour of bigotry

On January 30, thousands of people gathered in Lahore at a rally ostensibly arranged by the religious right, but which had the full support of centre-right political parties. The banned Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT)/Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) participated, as did the Sipaha-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), the Tehrik-e-Millat-e-Jafariya, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) — as well as Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and various factions of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N, PML-Q, PML-Z). Their rallying call: a warning to the government and all those seeking any amendment or repeal of the notorious blasphemy laws.

In pre-partition India, the British introduced the blasphemy law into the Penal Code in 1860 in order to protect the religious sentiments of the minorities. But General Zia-ul-Haq’s Pakistan did the exact opposite, through Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code: “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”

By introducing the death penalty for blasphemy, General Zia officially sanctified vigilante justice. Many people accused of blasphemy have lost their lives at the hands of religious fundamentalists without even a proper hearing in a court of law; some others have been killed while on trial. The blasphemy laws have not just been used to ostracise the Ahmadis (a sect declared “non-Muslim” by Pakistan’s parliament in 1974) but Christians and Muslims have also been victimised under these black laws. Usually, the real reasons behind such accusations are property disputes, personal vendettas, family rivalry, and so on.

The blasphemy issue came under the spotlight once again last year when a lower court in Pakistan handed out a death sentence to a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. Aasia Bibi was the first woman to have been given a death penalty under the blasphemy laws. On November 20, 2010, Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer visited Aasia in jail where she filed a clemency petition for President Zardari. All hell broke loose after that.

The religious right started issuing fatwas against Taseer, and labelled him a blasphemer. Ironically, Taseer’s own party — the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) — issued no statement to refute these baseless accusations, thus isolating him. In fact, Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani went so far as to say that since he is a descendant of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), he cannot even think of changing the blasphemy laws.

Our political class has let us down, particularly the PPP. In a bid to appease the mullah brigade, this party is repeating the same mistakes its founder, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, made in the 1970s. In the end, the right-wing forces he appeased celebrated his judicial murder.

A recent blasphemy case highlights how preposterous this law really is. Syed Samiullah, a young student, was arrested for writing something blasphemous in his exam papers. Instead of getting the young lad professional psychiatric help, the professor who marked his paper reported it to the Intermediate Board. Sami is now in jail and extremely frightened. What is so “sacred” about a man-made law that penalises a 17-year-old boy for writing some blasphemous sentences in his examinations? Yet the religious right, with the support of their political allies, have now succeeded in ending all debate on this issue.

Pakistan is fast turning into a country where it is difficult for liberals to voice their opinions. It is not without reason then that analysts like Pervez Hoodbhoy think that a “clerical tsunami” is on the cards. Every nook and corner of our country has become a fatwa factory. Last week, a senator moved a privilege motion against a female human rights activist in the Senate because she had sent him a text message asking him to attend the chehlum of “Shaheed” Salman Taseer. Senator Mandokhel said that calling a “blasphemer” a “martyr” was in itself blasphemy. That a senator should make such absurd remarks on the floor of the House shows where this country is heading.

Right-wing forces are strong and getting stronger because of the covert and overt support they have been getting from Pakistan’s powerful military establishment for decades. On the other hand, liberal and progressive voices are weak and disparate. But this is no time to give up. On the contrary, it is time to fight back. The space that we have unwittingly provided to the religious and political bigots must be taken back. Otherwise, the future looks very bleak for Pakistan.

(Originally published in Indian Express)


Tazeen said…
excellent as usual :)
mehmal said…
thanks a lot Taz :-)

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