A cleric in Peshawar has offered Rs500,000 to anyone who will kill a Christian brick-kiln labourer, Aasia Bibi, sentenced to death for blasphemy by a district court. Maulana Yousaf Qureshi of Peshawar’s famous Mahabat Khan Mosque is outraged that some people are talking of letting the accused go free and repealing or amending or procedurally correcting the law that has terrorised minorities in Pakistan and has become a global index of intolerance of the Pakistani state.
It is a measure of the fanatic excess of the said Yousaf Qureshi that he should encourage all citizens to kill with the blandishment of money, reducing Muslims to paid killers while the process of law is unfolding in the case of Aasia Bibi. Confirming fears that some Pakistani clergy is interfacing with terrorists, he has called on the “mujahideen and Taliban” to kill her, probably knowing that the ferocious terrorist of Bajaur, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, had already made a statement to that effect earlier.
Maulana Qureshi belongs to the Deobandi seminary of Jamia Ashrafia that arose as one of the powerful sectarian madrassas under the patronage of General Zia in the 1980s, even issuing a fatwa against the Shia during the rise of Sipah-e-Sahaba in the country. Qureshi says: “No president, no parliament and no government has the right to interfere in the tenets of Islam.” But the fact is that it is parliament that has made the law, and since parliament is subject to human folly it is equally subject to correction.
What is wrong with the blasphemy law? Simply, it does not accord with the idea of universal justice in so far as it places the burden of proof on the accused. The part of Article 295-C most prone to misuse is where it says that the offender shall be punished if he insults the sacred name of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) “by words either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly”. The official interpretation of the Article lays down further that insult offered to any of the Prophets mentioned in the Holy Quran would also attract the death penalty.
In the case of Aasia Bibi, mitigation was present but was not allowed. The Christian woman was extremely poor, possessed minimal consciousness, and not literate enough to understand what was happening to her. A higher court may soon decide that mitigation was present but was ignored by the district court for various reasons. In many past cases, the lower courts were seen to be under pressure from extremist clerics present inside and outside the court. No one has ever been hanged for blasphemy in Pakistan. Judicially speaking, no one has committed blasphemy in Pakistan since the coming into force of this law. But innocent people have been made to suffer.
A ‘larger bench’ of the Lahore High Court in 2002 observed that “blasphemy cases had increased in recent times and were increasingly defective in evidence.” The court asked the police to get blasphemy investigated by at least two gazetted officers, to prevent the lowly functionaries of the police station, like the ‘muharrir’, to register a blasphemy case.
Nothing has changed since 2002 except that the power of the clergy in the face of a weakened state has increased. Terrorism has weakened the writ of the state and the vulnerable sections of the population are at the mercy of those who would use Islam to satisfy their urge to use violence. Not always conscious of the reasons behind the weakening of the state, we often point to the rise of extremism in the country. Extremism cannot take root unless the state that dispenses justice is weak.
And why has the state become weak? Because it has allowed multiple centres of power to emerge through the practice of proxy jihad. The state was attracted to the use of non-state actors because its nationalism mandated it to fight unequal enemies. Wiser ways of overcoming the superior enemy, like making rapid progress in education and achieving high economic development, were ignored by an establishment dominated by military thinking. One can only hope that this will change soon.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 5th, 2010.