Politicians who mean well on the injustice of the blasphemy laws, precisely because they are scarcer than genuine fast-bowlers in Indian cricket, have to aim low and even lie a little when talking about the issue. Take the case of the sadly deceased Salmaan Taseer. Although he never said as much, I have no doubt that the slain governor would have seen the very existence of these laws as an affront to the human right to espouse unpopular speech and a means of specifically targeting vulnerable minorities. For him, as for me, Pakistan would be a saner country if these laws were banished from the books.
Yet, the cause Taseer gave his life for was not the repeal of the blasphemy laws, but their reform. He wanted to make it harder for innocent people, who had not actually blasphemed as defined by the law, to be arrested and put on trial. He never actually called the laws themselves hideously intolerant and unbecoming of a civilised country. Even this mild dissent was enough to send Mumtaz Qadri and his many thousands of fans into an orgy of murderous rage.
It is understandable that politicians striving for incremental progress on a fraught issue would deviate from an absolutist position on the blasphemy laws. The rest of us should not succumb to that temptation. Right now, the chief battleground in the debate over these laws — to the extent that such a one-sided discussion can even be called be a debate — is the fate of Rimsha Masih. The case for her release and the punishment of those who accused her of blasphemy is so obvious that there is a danger we may actually end up legitimising the larger rationale of the blasphemy laws.
A minor Christian girl who possibly suffers from a mental disability should not be jailed, tried or convicted for blasphemy. That much we can all, including, surprisingly enough, the Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC), agree on. Let us not fall into the trap, though, of surrendering the debate to those who think the only problem with these laws is that they do not place a high enough burden of proof on the accuser. And certainly, let us not delude ourselves into believing that the PUC can be even a temporary ally. Sure, when arguing the case for Rimsha’s release we can use the “even the PUC agrees with us” line as a debating point. But the focus should remain on the injustice of the blasphemy laws themselves, not the abuse of the laws.
Focusing on the way the laws are supposedly misused is being used as a utilitarian tactic to slowly change minds. What this approach ignores is that abuse is inherent to any law that criminalises speech and conduct. As long as we buy into the logic that the majority group deserves to be protected from any offense or criticism, we will continue to see minority groups be repressed for their beliefs. And when cases aren’t as clear-cut as that of Rimsha’s, we will be left speechless because there will be no obvious ‘abuse’ of these laws.
The repeal of the blasphemy laws should only be the first goal in a much larger fight. The biggest threat to those accused of blasphemy comes from enraged mobs and a society that doesn’t have a stake in protecting the defenseless. We won’t change society in a day but we need to begin by changing the terms of the debate to make them more favourable to our cause.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 6th, 2012.