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Pakistan: Unjustified Violence in the name of Islam

Dr. Sanchita Bhattacharya

An English Literature Professor, Junaid Hafeez of government-run Bahauddin Zakariya University, held for six years after being arrested for blasphemy over Facebook posts was sentenced to death on December 21, 2019, by a Pakistani court. He had returned to teach in Pakistan after studying as a Fulbright scholar at Jackson State University in Mississippi.Pakistan has some of the harshest blasphemy laws in the world. Interestingly, Hafeez’s case represents a new, and increasingly common blasphemy allegation stemming from social-media posts. Islamic hard-liners among Hafeez’s students accused him in 2013 of being behind anonymous posts on some secular-orientated Facebook pages.After his arrest, he was charged with blasphemy based on the posts and other material found on his computer.

Much more international attention was given to the recent case of a Pakistani Christian woman, Asia Bibi, a farmhand who was accused by fellow villagers of making remarks insulting to Islam.Bibi was sentenced to death and was in jail for nine years before her case ended up in the Supreme Court, where she was acquitted in 2019. The decision sparked angry street protests and threats. She fled the country after the ruling, accepting asylum in Canada.

According to the latest World Report, 2019, published by Human Rights Watch, at least 17 people remain on death row in Pakistan after being convicted under the blasphemy law, and hundreds await trial. Most of those facing blasphemy allegations are members of religious minorities.Blasphemy allegations and related rhetoric from both private actors and officials increased in 2018. However, the government did not amend the law and instead encouraged discriminatory prosecutions and other abuses against vulnerable groups.Moreover, according to the Report, the Ahmadis in Pakistan face increasing social discrimination as militant groups and the Islamist political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) accuse them of “posing as Muslims.” The Pakistan Penal Code continues to treat “posing as Muslims” by Ahamdis as a criminal offense. They were effectively excluded from participating in the 2018 Parliamentary elections: to vote, Ahmadis are required to declare they are not Muslims, which many see as a renunciation of their faith.

The practice of condemning an individual or a particular group for following ‘certain religious practices’ in the name of blasphemy has intensified acts of violence in Pakistan.Lately, the ‘pretext’ of blasphemy has been devised in Pakistan, not only to maltreat religious minorities, but also prominent political figures, as was evident in the case of  the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti the Federal Minister for Minority Affairs. Both were brutally murdered in 2011 for questioning violence related to allegations of blasphemy. Taseer was killed by one of his body guards, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, who had reportedly been incensed by the Governor’s efforts to secure marginal amendments to the Blasphemy Law, as also his advocacy of Asia Bibi. Bhatti was killed on March 2, 2011, by unidentified militants, who fired 30 bullets at him and managed to escape. Pamphlets from two self-styled Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) factions, Fidayeen-e-Muhammad and al Qaeda Punjab Chapter, were found at the incident site, which declared, “anyone who criticises the blasphemy law has no right to live”.

In the initial phase after the creation of Pakistan, there were no legal provisions for religious discrimination. However, changes occurred during the military regime of Zia-ul-Haq (1978-1988) and the Blasphemy Law was promulgated in 1985. In 1990 the punishment of life imprisonment, which sought to penalise irreverence towards the Holy Quran and insulting the Holy Prophet, was included. In 1992, the government went a step ahead and introduced the death penalty for a person held guilty of blasphemy under Blasphemy Clause 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code. Crucially, this was done under the ‘democratic’ government of Nawaz Sharif. The clause thus reads:

“Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine”.

The Blasphemy Law is extremely draconian because crimes related to it need no proof of intent or evidence to be presented after allegations are made and does not comprise any penalty for false allegations. Furthermore, most of those who are accused in blasphemy crimes in Pakistan spend years in prison, waiting for a hearing.

As is evident from contemporary trends, the targets in these cases of violence are mostly minorities, both within and outside the realm of the ‘majority sanctioned Islam’ – often preached by the clerics to instigate and enlarge divisions in an already-fragmented Pakistani society. According to Human Rights groups the law, is frequently used to settle personal disputes, strangely targeting religious minorities: Christians, Hindus, or members of minority sects of Islam, and, increasingly, those declared ‘deviant’ by extremist Salafist-Sunni formations.

The blasphemy laws were introduced in claimed attempts to bring Pakistan more in line with ‘Islamic principles’. In its place, the laws have complicated the connection between religion and democracy, and have raised questions concerning religious tolerance and Islam. In principle, blasphemy laws are supposed to defend the accused till there is proof of guilt. But, in case of Pakistan, the wordings of the laws have converted them into tools of religious bigotry and violence.

Making the legal position worse in December 2013, the Federal Shariat Court ordered the Government to delete life imprisonment as a punishment in blasphemy cases, stating that death was the only sentence in cases of conviction and awarding any other punishment would be unlawful.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, while purporting to protect Islam and the religious sensitivities of the Muslim majority, are vaguely formulated and subjectively enforced by the police and judiciary in a way that amounts to the torture of religious minorities. The prevailing Blasphemy Law is consuming Pakistani society from inside, giving legitimacy to heinous crime and human rights violations in a country that is ranked 153rd out of 163 countries in the 2019 Global Peace Index. The climate of hate, apathy and vengeance in the system, often underpinned by state policy and law, aggravates violence in all possible forms, together withatrocities against women, terrorism, sectarian killings, extremism and blasphemy related death and crime.

The Writer is a Research Fellow Institute for Conflict Management