Why Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law Must Be Abolished
Blasphemy accused scholar Junaid Hafeez’s death sentence serves as yet another reminder of the horror of Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law. Hafeez’s conviction has been condemned by activists, but unjust punishments awarded under the blasphemy law cannot be fully addressed without questioning the law itself. The colonial-era blasphemy law was strengthened by Pakistan’s parliament during the Islamization process initiated by military dictator Zia-ul-Haq in the late 1970s. Statistics show that in several cases the blasphemy accused were murdered or lynched before their trials were over.
There have been instances of the blasphemy law being used to settle personal scores and persecute minority communities – simply out of bigotry and intolerance. Blasphemy-related violence has claimed several lives over the years and it continues to be used as a tool to silence progressive voices and oppress religious minorities. But there has been little or no debate on the subject in public discourse or among stakeholders. Even criticizing the law is perceived to be tantamount to committing blasphemy.
In April 2017, National Assembly passed a resolution seeking introduction of ‘safeguards’ in the blasphemy law to prevent its misuse, following the brutal killing of Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan student Mashal Khan over blasphemy charges, but the move was not followed through. An earlier attempt made by Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader Sherry Rehman to amend the blasphemy law was withdrawn after the murder of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in 2010 at the hands of his own guard for daring to defend blasphemy accused Aasia Bibi.
When Aasia Bibi was recently absolved of the charges after 8 years of wrongful incarceration, recently-retired Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa had vowed not to tolerate the misuse of the law in the future. He had also reprimanded representatives of extremist group Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) who moved the court against the acquittal.
But even after the court’s acknowledgment of the fact that a woman from the minority community was wronged and that the trial was unfair, there have been no efforts to end the plight of other victims of the blasphemy law languishing in jails. Junaid Hafeez’s previous lawyer Rashid Rehman was gunned down in 2014 in his office. The lawyers’ group that ran a hateful campaign against Rehman in the lead up to the murder allegedly coerced the Multan court judge into convicting Junaid Hafeez. A statement by Junaid Hafeez’s counsels after his death sentence alleged that ‘lawyers operation as mafias’ pressured the judge and influenced the verdict.
Until the blasphemy law is in place, progressive minds like Junaid Hafeez and vulnerable religious minorities like Aasia Bibi will continue to be hounded.
It is important to note that the blasphemy law is not only misused by rogue extremist individuals, but state has itself engaged in using the law for ulterior motives. In 2017, five bloggers critical of the government and the powers-that-be were abducted and later released after a few weeks. While they were still in captivity, the then interior minister Chaudhry Nisar suggested that the missing bloggers were engaged in blasphemous activities online and hinted at the possibility of booking them under the blasphemy law. The state at the time was trying to silence dissent under the garb of going after ‘blasphemers’. Later after their recovery, the said bloggers were absolved of blasphemy charges by Islamabad High Court (IHC).
When some elements were busy proving that the missing bloggers were involved in blasphemous activities on social media in a bid to justify their abduction, 22-year-old student Mashal Khan was lynched to death by a mob comprising his fellow students in Mardan over false allegations of blasphemy on social media. The environment created by the government during its anti-blasphemy drive and public messages issued by Federal Investigative Agency (FIA) asking people to report blasphemous content encouraged those wanting to take law into their hands and teach ‘blasphemers’ a lesson.
This dangerous approach has sadly continued. Those seen as threat due to their criticism of the establishment are often accused of blasphemy by troll armies running smear hashtags on social media. Politicians also routinely use blasphemy allegations against each other. In a country where the allegations of blasphemy lead to mob violence and lynching, government and political leaders ought to create a narrative against this senseless violence instead of peddling the same bigoted rhetoric. This violence will end only when the draconian blasphemy law is done away with for good.