Changing the blasphemy debate

Published: September 5, 2012

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad. He has previously worked at The Express Tribune and Newsline

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.

 

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Reader Comments (41)

  • Umer
    Sep 5, 2012 - 11:18PM

    Blasphemy law is wrong. Period. You can’t kill people for faith as all faiths are essentially imagined as no one has seen God with their own eyes or have confirmed with Him what is really the true faith or the correct version of a faith.

    Practically Blasphemy law has generated more hate and none of the respect that it aimed to achieved so it has failed miserably in achieving its objectives at the cost of numerous tragedies, which could have been avoided had Blasphemy law not existed.

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  • John B
    Sep 5, 2012 - 11:21PM

    “abuse is inherent to any law that criminalises speech and conduct”

    Cannot be said any more emphatically. Repeal or not to repeal the law should be the focus. Well done.

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  • Vikas
    Sep 5, 2012 - 11:34PM

    Remove this kanoon PakistanRecommend

  • gp65
    Sep 5, 2012 - 11:38PM

    I applaud your courage in saying what needed to be said. Sadly, PPP has made it clear that they will not do anything to change the law. After the blowback on Taseer, Shahbaaz Bhatti and Sherry Rehman when she introduced a private member bill implementing some improvements in the law to prevent abuse. So not expecting anything to change. This whole Rimsha episode is an opportunity lost to set things right.

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  • Khalid
    Sep 5, 2012 - 11:43PM

    Clueless piece.

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  • Ejaaz
    Sep 5, 2012 - 11:51PM

    Why so much hot air in the english medium newspapers? The chrisitan girl is still in jail. Aisa bibi, the christian woman, is still in jail. Salman Taseer’s murderer is still around and still considered a hero by the lawyers community. Salman’s son is still a hostage. The non-muslims of pakistan are still living in fear and hunkered down for dear life.
    You cannot say what you write at a public meeting. You cannot write what you write in an Urdu newspaper. You will write is far more carefully, mure nunanced, more kowtowing to the gun toting thakedar’s of Islam. Change is not going to come this easily and this early. We have to go down the path we chartered out quite a ways yet.

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  • BlackJack
    Sep 5, 2012 - 11:53PM

    @John B:
    I have a different view. I believe that Taseer’s (and others) views on better safeguards to prevent abuse of the blasphemy law do not mean that they were in favor of the laws themselves, but were aware that pitching for total repeal as a goal could result in no forward movement at all, given its popularity among the masses (who have been brought up believing that Islam is in danger) and general intolerance endemic to a large section of the population; clearly Taseer was unable to imagine that even his opinions could be twisted to mean the same thing to these people. While I agree that total removal of the laws should be the logical and ultimate objective, its opponents should realize that they are an endangered minority, and need to pick their battles in a manner that gradual (and practical) modifications can be introduced immediately, rather than holding out for ideal changes that may take place if only Pakistan itself changes drastically for the better.

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  • Ken Bryant
    Sep 6, 2012 - 12:04AM

    I agree with everything in the article except its optimism. There seems to be no popular support for doing away with the laws, and much public opposition. I think the case of Pakistan is simply lost, for this generation and the next few. I urge my friends, who are civilized, to leave that country, which is not and will not soon become so.

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  • Satya S issar
    Sep 6, 2012 - 12:17AM

    People who have introduced the blasphemy law or justify it are real cowards. They have no faith in their beliefs. Or perhaps they know the weakness of their beliefs and want to protect them at all costs. A belief which is just and strong does not need protection. If you have strong beliefs , come out of your closets and REPEAL THIS ODIOUS LAW..

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  • numbersnumbers
    Sep 6, 2012 - 12:26AM

    The blasphemy law was MAN-MADE, and I wonder what the Prophet (PBUH) would think of the carnage and misery it had caused inside Pakistan over the years! If the Prophet (PBUH) was alive today, and spoke against this law as an affront to the spirit of peace of Islam, would another HEROIC MUNTAZ QADRI Gun him down?

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  • Sayyed Mehdi
    Sep 6, 2012 - 12:51AM

    Rightly said. Laws against incitement and hate speech are already enough to convict people who insult others’ religions with malicious intent. Blasphemy laws have to go.

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  • Parvez
    Sep 6, 2012 - 1:02AM

    There is no harm in dreaming, but in the real world one must try and achieve what one can realistically achieve. One step forwards is better than going backwards.

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  • kaalchakra
    Sep 6, 2012 - 1:45AM

    You may say what you must to soothe your conscience, but as the Great Poet of Islam Allama Iqbal said to the posterity: you ‘educated ones’ can never match the glory of Ghazi Illm Din Shaheed and Ghazi Mumtaz Qadri. Their name shall be written in golden letters and preserved forever, and yours, drawn in mud with a broken stick, to be washed away in the first rain.

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  • Dr.Boodhun
    Sep 6, 2012 - 2:18AM

    I commend such a well written article. I think the PUC is afraid that the blasphemy law has been so misused that its legality may be questioned.That is why they want punishment for the mullah-blasphemer and apparently shows compassion for little Rimshah. I think that a responsible Parliament should have the courage to repeal this illegal and immoral law; otherwise the country’s slow suicide will continue.

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  • Mirza
    Sep 6, 2012 - 2:21AM

    This black law belongs to the dustbin of history. It was made by Gen Zia, the worst dictator in the history of Pakistan. This law was supported and endorsed by the remnants and political offspring of Zia and never challenged in a court of law as against the constitution. In fact no law was rejected by the SC that was made and imposed by any of the dictators. This black spot on the face of Pakistani society must be thrown in trash forever. There should be no ifs and buts. However, I do understand that there is a vocal majority that is not opposed to this law, I am sorry to say that and most rightwing political parties support it.

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  • Umer
    Sep 6, 2012 - 5:10AM

    @kaalchakra:

    as the Great Poet of Islam Allama Iqbal said to the posterity: you ‘educated ones’ can never match the glory of Ghazi Illm Din Shaheed and Ghazi Mumtaz Qadri.

    Why did the “Great Poet” of Islam not do the great religious deed himself and got hanged for it if it was such a good thing to do? Seems the “Great Poet” of Islam had some reservations in leaving this world prematurely.

    I don’t think “Ghazi” Mumtaz Qadri existed in the time of “Great Poet” of Islam so it’s difficult to know his opinion on the “Ghazi” of current day.

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  • Ejaaz
    Sep 6, 2012 - 5:28AM

    @Mirza; ” I do understand that there is a vocal majority that is not opposed to this law, I am sorry to say that and most rightwing political parties support it.”

    A vocal majority ACTIVELY supports it and wants it. Not opposed is way way too weak for the sentiment in Pakistan for this law. ALL political parties support it. A few legislators oppose it and even they only want to modify how it is implemented.

    It is a matter of time before merely being a non-Muslim or a Muslim of the wrong madhb will be enough to be charged with Blasphemy. How can anyone not know the message of Islam in Pakistan? And then to reject it by being a non-muslim or following the wrong madhb has to be obvious Blasphemy.

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  • Mahakaachakra
    Sep 6, 2012 - 6:20AM

    @kaalchakra:

    Allama Iqbal himself probably did not appreciate the depth and practical dimension of his statement:

    Deen-i-mullah fee sabeel Allah fasad” (the mullah’s religion is just creating frictions)

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  • upkamath
    Sep 6, 2012 - 6:28AM

    @Ejaaz: I agree with you. But there is a good guide to where Pakistan is going. It has been tried in Europe lang back. You just got to read history of Inquisition, sanctioned by Pope; in Spain and Portugal.

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  • Haris Chaudhry
    Sep 6, 2012 - 6:52AM

    Kaalchakra says:

    match the glory of Ghazi Illm Din
    Shaheed and Ghazi Mumtaz Qadri.

    Really makes me sick reading about those that still admire and appreciate a murderer of a ghastly crime. A murderer who was paid and trained to protect the life of the very person he killed..So long as we have people like you in this nation, I dont believe that we can ever be reformed or become a civilized nation.

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  • Imran Ahsan Mirza
    Sep 6, 2012 - 7:13AM

    100% agree with the writer. There is no such thing as Blasphemy religious or irreligious. It is oonly meant to give power to clergy when they are unable to obtain it through electoral means. Repeal all blasphemy laws, all laws infringing upon the freedoms of various groups Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus and all laws made during General Zia era in the name of Islamisation.

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  • Sep 6, 2012 - 8:57AM

    Most Islamic societies are very rigid to change. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is creating a whole new city for women only and they think this is a positive step. That is just one example.

    The Muslim society in India too is rigid, but the Hindu influence is overwhelming that you see outliers like Sania Mirza and Katrina Kaif going about their business.

    Change can happen by opposite influences, but such influences do not exist in Pakistan anymore. Pakistan is purging itself of the tolerant, colourful and diverse Hindu culture for an Islamic identity.

    Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and Iran differ in terms of degree, now, not principles.

    Being a good judge of reality, I do not see this law going away or even changing for the better. As I noted the more Islamic the society becomes, the more rigid it gets and more opposed to modernity and its values.

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  • Observer
    Sep 6, 2012 - 9:26AM

    “Pakistan would be a saner country if these laws were banished from the books.”

    A well-meaning article. But from what book? Pakistan’s constitution is based on Islam and, in turn, Islamic scriptural books support blasphemy, apostasy etc. laws. So, unless Pakistanis are willing to take out Islam from the constitution, there is just no way to eliminate these Islamic laws. Until such a time, all this talk, however well-intentioned, is nothing more than going in circle around, and avoiding, the core issue.

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  • Indian Wisdom
    Sep 6, 2012 - 10:54AM

    @Ken Bryant:
    Agreed 100%. It will definitely take a few generations when we will see a really progressive and moderate Pakistan.

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  • Noble Tufail
    Sep 6, 2012 - 11:23AM

    Absolutely agree with you Nadir Hassan. YES the blasphemy laws should be deleted … so that mutual respect could prevail.

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  • Sep 6, 2012 - 1:04PM

    It looks to me that real muslims are coming forward and I am sure with God’s Will great change will take place.

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  • Parvez
    Sep 6, 2012 - 2:14PM

    @Mirza: Small correction to your comment which I agree with is that the Law was not made by Zia. It was on the books from the British times but ammended by Zia to please the extremist elements, knowing full well that it would be misused.

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  • Khawaja Ffaraz
    Sep 6, 2012 - 5:19PM

    can above all and including writer bashing blashphemy law can write or even utter a single word against western countries who sentence people denying HOLOCAUST? do you people even know how many countries arround the world have these law in different form?

    i am sorry to have shaken your thoughts please keep living in denial

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  • Wellwisher
    Sep 6, 2012 - 8:32PM

    The repeal of the blasphemy laws should be followed by declaring Pakistan as a SECULAR COUNTRY.

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  • sabi
    Sep 6, 2012 - 8:52PM

    This law was introduced by britians for minority Muslims to prevent from majority hindus.The purpose behind was to prevent sectarian voilance in united India.In Pakistan Law is inversed to prevent majority from minorities and ironically remains one sided as majorty is free to insult minorities religious sentiments.

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  • numbersnumbers
    Sep 6, 2012 - 9:20PM

    @Khawaja Ffaraz:
    Sorry, but I don’t recall anyone being killed by mobs, assassinated by his security team, or sentenced to death for denying the HOLOCAUST ever occurred! Comparing the HOLOCAUST denial laws to the Blasphemy laws shows that YOU are the one in DENIAL!

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  • Umer
    Sep 6, 2012 - 10:24PM

    After repelling the Blasphemy law there should be a law enacted to prosecute anyone supporting Blasphemy law, to prevent this mentality seeping in again in the society.

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  • shahid
    Sep 6, 2012 - 10:37PM

    No nation can develop if they insist on ideas/guidelines which are for alltime.

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  • Sep 6, 2012 - 11:05PM

    I support the blasphemy laws and want to enforce them more vigorously in Pakistan, as I want to see this country destroyed by the very law and return to the stone age. The political leaders of Pakistan are impotent and opportunistic so as not to either support or oppose these blasphemy laws. The Chief Justice say that he could invalidate any law passed by the parliament, then what is stopping him to repeal this law? This reveal his inner sole. What type of politicians, judges ruling Pakistan?

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  • kaalchakra
    Sep 6, 2012 - 11:35PM

    “I want to see this country destroyed”

    In your dreams, Fenyang. Whatever the enemies of Pakistan may do, neither the law will be repealed nor will Pakistan be destroyed.

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  • abhi
    Sep 7, 2012 - 12:34PM

    More and more people are writing openly against this law. it seems the mood in establishment is slowly changing. Good for pakistan.

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  • Sep 8, 2012 - 12:14AM

    @kaalchakra:
    Yes of course – but open your eyes and see through the window that we are traveling to the stone age and next and final stop is a big black hole.

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  • observer
    Sep 8, 2012 - 9:18AM

    Declare Pakistan a ‘Secular Polity’.

    Irrespective of the Supreme Court.

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  • elementary
    Sep 9, 2012 - 7:16PM

    @BruteForce: I can see yor deep passion for your own religion and way of life when you comment /analyze pakistan situation.
    It’s not Hindu but secular influence that sania Mirza and katrina kaif are able to do what they do.What pakistan needs is secular polity and not Hindu polity as you seem to suggest.

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  • Sep 11, 2012 - 9:16AM

    @elementary:

    India is secular not because the Minorities want it, but the Hindus want it. There isn’t a debate in India if India should be a Hindu or a Secular country, because the world view of both is not that different.

    In the land of the Kamasutra, the foundations of Indian culture are ever tolerant. When you are an Indian, you cannot escape the colourful influence of the Sanatana Dharma. Secularism as a spirit is alive and well in the Indian Culture.

    So, yes, even though I am close to atheism, its the vibrancy of Indian culture that I appreciate the most.

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  • salman
    Sep 11, 2012 - 3:51PM

    @kaalchakra: whether you like it or not, educated people are starting to see what a horrible law it is and that it has nothing to do with God. Pakistan will progress and such laws will be removed. We want a peaceful nation full of Salman Taseers not Mumtaz Qadris.

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