The case of Asia Bibi has commentators in Pakistan’s media speaking out against the nation’s blasphemy laws, archaic leftovers from Gen. Zia-u-Haq’s dictatorship in the 1980s – a relic more of Zia’s strategy to secure his grip on power than any personal religious zeal.
While no legal execution has occured under these laws, dozens of individuals are sitting on death row, and over a thousand people have been convicted of violating these laws. Worse, the laws are often used to justify violent acts of vigilantism. The threat of accusation, conviction and death hangs over the heads of Pakistan’s religious minorities.
But it’s not only Pakistan’s religious minorities who are threatened by the blasphemy laws, which are used as a tool to eliminate political and business competition. Today’s Washington Post describes the case of Muhammad Shafique, a Muslim who was convicted and sentenced to death two years ago in a politically motivated blasphemy charge.
Today, an air of regret permeates Kulluwal. Shafique’s accusers fled town, and their relatives now say the allegations were lies. Many residents call the case a setup fueled by political and personal rivalries. But as Shafique waits on death row, his appeal stuck in Pakistan’s glacial courts, no one is quite sure what to do.
“The situation at that time was emotional. It was the responsibility of the police to sift through the facts and find the truth,” said Chaudhry Safraz Ahmed, 42, a community leader whose father was one of Shafique’s accusers. “That did not happen. And Shafique is behind bars.”
Kalsoom Lakhani, on her blog Changing Up Pakistan, writes that the laws not only institutionalize religious discrimination, they provide a justification for religious hatred that normalizes violent acts.
The most tragic part of Aasia Bibi’s case is that it was not the first of its kind and it’s by no means the last. Last April, more than 50 houses were set on fire by an angry mob in Gojra, again in Punjab province, burning at least seven Christians alive. Much like the Ahmadi case a few weeks ago, when authorities bowed to the hysteria of a mob and made a grieving family exhume the body of their relative, the police in these situations cower to the masses. Because, you see, intolerance and prejudice in Pakistan are encased by the pristine cowardice of law. And that, over all reason and rationale, reigns supreme.
In their book, The Age of Sacred Terror, Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon discuss how legal justifications can mean the difference between whether someone chooses to commit a violent act. They refer, for example, to the fact that Israeli radical Yigal Amir sought a religious ruling prior to his assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. While some religious violence is committed by individuals unswayed by authority, granting a legal or religious justification for violence and discrimination propagates these acts in society. Making clear that violence and religious discrimination are neither justified nor tolerated can greatly reduce such acts.
Sherry Rahman, a parliamentarian from the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has submitted legislation to amend the blasphemy laws to reduce the death sentence to a 10-year imprisonment and to require punishment for filing false claims or inciting religious hatred.
Sadly, Pakistan’s main religious party, the Jamaat-i-Islami, has threatened to “lay seige to the parliament” if the body takes up the amendment. The Jamaatis claim that the proposed amendment is a threat to religion in the country.
Our strong tradition of religious protection and tolerance in the United States should serve to dispel any myths that amending or repealing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws will result in a rise of irreligious sentiment. Americans are very religious while simultaneously carefully guarding individual religious freedom.
At its core, religious freedom is really less about religion and more about freedom. Are groups like Jamaat-i-Islami more concerned with an unlikely proliferation of irreligious behavior, or losing a tool to intimidate and control the people? In a nation that is overwhelmingly Islamic both in its population and its culture, religion is not under threat in Pakistan. What needs protection is the progress made to secure democracy and justice for Pakistan’s citizens.
As a democracy, Pakistan’s laws should reflect the values and priorities of its citizens. But just as we in the US should not allow the law to be used as a tool to threaten or intimidate Muslims and other religious minorities, Pakistan’s constitution should provide protections for all Pakistanis.