There is news that the Gilani government in Islamabad might lean on an old Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) recommendation on the ‘humanising’ of the blasphemy law to prevent victimisation of innocent Pakistanis under it. The CII report, unearthed in the ministry for religious affairs, says the government could put in place certain procedural routines to prevent the abuse of the law by a society increasingly vulnerable to religious extremism.
The report says there should be a pre-FIR investigation by the police every time someone is accused of blasphemy; concrete evidence must be demanded and accused persons provided with legal defence; a ‘first class’ magistrate should supervise the police investigation prior to advising the registration of the FIR; and after the FIR is registered, the case must go directly to the High Court of the province.
The government is under pressure from the phalanx of political and religious opposition to not do anything to alleviate the suffering of the people victimised by the blasphemy law. The political parties are quiet, some of them having actually helped stiffen the law into its present diabolical shape, especially Section 295-C which awards the minimum punishment of death without ascertaining whether blasphemy has occurred by intent or unintentionally. The clergy is out in the streets scaring off politicians by adding xenophobia to their campaign in favour of retaining the law, saying ‘foreign masters’ are dictating the government.
Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer had the moral courage to come to the help of an illiterate Christian woman accused of blasphemy. But he was taken aback by the backlash he has received from clerics and by the rejection of his humane gesture by the PPP federal law minister. President Asif Ali Zardari will not pardon the Christian woman as Mr Taseer mistakenly thought; and no one will even think of smuggling the poor woman out of the country.
The CII recommendation says nothing new and we don’t know how old the recommendation is. We do know that in the early 1990s, the PPP and PML-N both tried to water down the extremism of the blasphemy law without much success. The police did not carry out the new routines, blaming public pressure.
The Lahore High Court has shown bias in favour of the law rather than correcting the abuses that happen because of it. The present High Court has stayed the president from granting pardon to the latest victim, but a retired judge of the High Court Justice (retd) Nazir Akhtar has given a statement in favour of the dreaded law to confirm the bias of the conservative judiciary in Pakistan. As a sitting judge of the Lahore High Court, he used to tell people at social gatherings that they should kill the blasphemer instead of invoking the law against him.
Will the new CII, under Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani of the JUI-F, supinely accept the old recommendations, even as the JUI-F hits the streets together with the old MMA parties to oust the PPP government through a violent campaign in favour of the blasphemy law? Some members of the old CII were cowed by clerical reaction and one had actually left it under pressure from mounting extremism. It is not likely that the new members will support even procedural changes, especially as Maulana Faqir Muhammad of the Bajaur Taliban, a close ally of al Qaeda, has sworn to get even with the supporters of the anti-blasphemy law opinion in Pakistan.
Moral courage has vanished in an environment of intimidation. The conservative man in Pakistan has become more outspoken and more extreme; the moderates have looked at the battlefield and, seeing it bristling with odds against them, have bowed out of the contest of ideas. The debate is clearly bifurcated. It has not even started in Urdu. In English, it is getting nowhere because of the idiom’s lack of influence on national thinking.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 21st, 2010.