Pakistan has laws for blasphemy that entail a potential death sentence for anyone who insults Islam, the religion they hold sacred . Many tell a tale of how these laws have been misused to harass smaller faiths and unethically aimed at minorities. The wrongdoings concerning religion were first written by India’s rulers in 1860, and were drawn-out in 1927. After the partition of India in 1947, Pakistan inherited these laws. During the course of 1980 and 1986, General Zia-ul- Haq added many clauses to the laws. He craved to “Islamicise” them and to separate the Ahmadi community, as they were declared “non-Muslim” in 1973, from Pakistan’s overwhelming Muslim population.
What exactly does the law state?
The law legislated by the British made it a crime to:
- disturb a religious assembly
- trespass on burial grounds
- insult religious beliefs and intentionally destroy or defile a place or an object of worship.
The maximum punishment under these laws ranges from one year to 10 years in jail, with or without a fine.
The government of Pakistan has added a few rules since then:
- In 1980, making derogatory remarks against Islamic dignitaries was made an offence, carrying a maximum punishment of three years in jail.
- In 1982, another clause prescribed life imprisonment for “willful” destruction of the Quran.
- In 1986, a separate clause was inserted to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad and the penalty recommended was “death, or imprisonment for life”, in that order.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) an organization has been recording blasphemy cases for decades. It states that Muslims are in majority of those booked under these laws, closely followed by the Ahmadi community. National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) listed a total of 633 Muslims, 494 Ahmadis, 187 Christians and 21 Hindus that have been accused under innumerable clauses of the blasphemy law since 1987. The majority of these cases were for desecration of the Quran; minimal was blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad.
Vast majorities of people in Pakistan back the idea that blasphemers should be punished, but there is little understanding of what the religious scripture says as opposed to how the modern day law is acted upon. When his bodyguard assassinated Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in 2011, it split Pakistan, some addressing his killer as a martyr. A month after the murder, Religious Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian by religion who was against the laws, was shot dead in Islamabad, emphasizing the threat faced by critics of the law. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are irreconcilable with its ambition of being a modern, democratic, full Muslim state respected by an international community. Pakistan has made almost effort in reforming its severely unsound law involving blasphemy. These laws discriminate against other religious minorities and thus, further extend religious intolerance in society. Minorities in Pakistan have no luxury of disdaining their difference. Since 2001, about eighty holy sites have been defiled, killing more than 1,200 participants, most of them from other religious minorities.
Former policeman Mumtaz Qadri was executed recently, five years after he gunned down Salmaan Taseer, then governor of Punjab. Taseer had pushed for reforming the strict laws on blasphemy, as human rights groups say these laws are habitually abused to aim at the vulnerable with made-up cases. The northern city of Rawalpindi, hometown of Mr. Qadri, also the headquarters of Pakistan’s powerful army, was choked with crowds of highly emotional mourners. Funeral prayers were a gathering with an estimated 50,000 people. Rose petals were thrown at the ambulance bearing Mr. Qadri’s body as it made its way to the park, with members of the crowd clamoring to touch the vehicle.
Like Mr. Qadri and most Pakistanis, they follow the Barelvi version of Islam. The Barelvis are acutely sensitive to any perceived insult to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, who is protected under the country’s blasphemy laws.
Pakistan has been known for some time for its blasphemy laws in 2009 a Christian woman called Asia Bibi (pictured above) was alleged in a disagreement over her drinking the same water as Muslim berry pickers. She was condemned to death but not executed instantaneously. Five years ago, Taseer voiced some support for Bibi and criticized some of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, and as a result his own bodyguard assassinated him. For this crime Qadri was executed by hanging, but his assassination of the man he was supposed to guard multiplied and received widespread support. There is even a mosque in Islamabad that was named after him.
During the final week of March, a group of protestors, all religious conservatives, camped in front of the parliament building in Islamabad. They represented a movement called Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool, which means “We Are Here for You Prophet Muhammad”. It sprung up almost a month ago after the memorial march of Mumtaz Qadri. He was executed on February 29 for gunning down Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab province, for his precarious position toward Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
The protestors began their march in the city of Rawalpindi on March 27, and they had advertised their movement as the “chehlum” which is the 40-day death commemoration of Mumtaz Qadri. Chehlum is intended to be an occasion for family and friends to get together and pray for the soul of the deceased. Nevertheless, March 27 marked 28 days, since his execution. The protestors had their morbid reasoning for the divergence that was stated as ‘Qadri had used 28 bullets to kill Taseer.’
These strange and somehow stagnant laws have divided the nation of Pakistan, on one side you have tyranny, those who are brutal in might, enormous in numbers, fearful in tone, and cruel in action. On the other you have compassion.
Photo Credit: Flickr,haztroir,CC-ASA 2.0