Blasphemy law: An apparatus to sustain tyranny
The debate against the blasphemy laws must take into account the role it plays in Pakistan's foreign policy.
In Pakistan, if you have a land dispute, political rivalry, or just personal or professional jealousy or economic rivalry with someone and you are bent on settling your score, then teaching them a lesson is easier than you think.
You can make your enemies regret every day they have ever lived, especially if they are non-Muslims, Ahmadis, Zionists or “Hindu Zionists”. Although in Pakistan it may seem convenient to hire an assassin or kill them yourself - but why do things ‘illegally’ when you can destroy their lives ‘legally’ with popular support?
All it takes is a false accusation of blasphemy and propagandist newspapers like Ummat and Nawai Waqt will rally behind you, people on the street will burn and destroy public property in your support, the influential Islamic political parties of Pakistan will back you up.
Examples of false accusations which have been used are accusing someone of burning Quran, using pages from the Quran to clean toilets, vilifying Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and defending someone who has purportedly committed blasphemy. All of these involve direct desecration but accusations can be subtle. Even people challenging an interpretation of an Islamic text can be subject to the same treatment, all thanks to the so called ‘blasphemy law’ of Pakistan. This savage and oppressive blasphemy law is part of the Criminal Code of Pakistan; it has two sections namely Section 295 and Section 298. By law, only one witness is required to give testimony for these ‘crimes.’
A history of abuse
Thanks to this law, many people have been subject to severe treatment. According to a researcher, Mansoor Raza, between 1988 and 2005, Pakistani authorities charged 647 people, of which 50 per cent were non-Muslim, with offences under the blasphemy laws. In the past decade, perhaps 2,000 Ahmadis have been charged under the blasphemy law, according to the Ahmadi community. The issue is so sensitive that some people choose to stay in jail fearing public backlash which can also take the form of lynching. Zaibun Nisa, charged with desecrating the Quran, was arrested in 1996 without a trial. Soon after she was declared mentally ill but was not released until recently.
Government authorities make arrests to defuse tensions and prefer to keep the ‘blasphemer’ in jail. In some cases landlords have accused or threatened to accuse Christians to exploit debt/labour bondage arrangements. Ayub Massih, a Christian convicted of blasphemy, used to work as a farmer for a local landlord in exchange for a place to live. When he applied for government allotted housing which would have freed him of his obligation, the landlord filed charges against him for blasphemy. A human rights activist and Roman Catholic Bishop, John Joseph tried to find a lawyer willing to represent him but ended up taking his own life in the end when he realised he couldn’t help Ayub Massih anymore.
Another more dangerous form of retaliation is by militant Islamic organisations. Sipah-e-Sahaba has been involved in violence against Christians, which has also involved torching Christian homes. Even in the secured confines of a prison the ‘blasphemers’ are not entirely safe. Samuel Masih was arrested for spitting on a wall of a mosque. Later, a police constable used a hammer to kill Masih claiming that it was his divine duty to do so.
The defendants of blasphemers are also subject to the same ire whether it be lawyers, activists, or even judges. Judge Arif Iqbal Hussain Bhatti was assassinated in 1997 after he acquitted two people accused of blasphemy.
Currently, the case of Aasia Bibi, falsely accused of blasphemy, has garnered international attention. Major domestic and international organisations have called for repealing this barbaric law which is being routinely used to persecute minorities and settle personal grudges. Will Aasia Bibi receive a pardon? Will Pakistan repeal the blasphemy law?
Even if she does get a presidential pardon, Aasia Bibi will surely be targeted by the zealot mob and will probably have to move to another country. But the blasphemy law is unlikely to be repealed anytime soon.
This is because influential Islamists and landowners exploit this law to their own advantage and the Pakistani army (establishment) need this law to advance their foreign policy objectives.
Blasphemy law: A gift from the army
This blasphemy law is a gift to the Pakistani people from its army when it ceded to the demands of Saudi Arabia in return for financial and political support during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In return for Saudi money, Saudi cooperation in the development of Madrassas and spread of Ahle Hadith ideology, all required to build motivation to fight the Soviets, Pakistan imported the Hudood Ordinance and the current blasphemy law.
Apart from appeasing Saudi Arabia, these laws are also mainly to please Islamic militant allies such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed who have been important foreign policy tools against India. The introduction of these laws ensures that the mullahs will stay on board on foreign as well as domestic security issues.
Revoking the blasphemy law will undermine Pakistan’s policy of disruption of peace in Afghanistan and its militant support against archrival India. It is obvious that in order for the blasphemy law to be revoked a change in foreign policy is required. Once the foreign policy has changed, the Pakistani army can face the opposition from mullahs and militants since it will no longer need them to attain its goals.
Therefore, the debate against the ruthless blasphemy laws must take into account this crucial aspect of foreign policy that helps to sustain the national security state of Pakistan.