Monday, January 24, 2011

The Oppression of Pakistan's Man Made Blasphemy Law

It is very sad to hear about Pakistan's blasphemy laws and how they are used to intimidate religious minorities within Pakistan. Here is some background about these laws:
For background, here is the text of the original law introduced into the Indian Penal Code by British colonial rulers in 1860:
Section 295: Injuring or defiling place of worship, with intent to insult the religion of any class:

“Whoever destroys, damages, or defiles a place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defilement as an insult to their religion, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”
Here is the version of one of the added clauses which have caused so much acrimony in Pakistan, as amended in 1986 by Pakistan’s then military ruler, General Zia-ul-Haq:
Section 295-C: Use of derogatory remarks, etc, in respect of the Holy Prophet (pbuh)

“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 Muhammed (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life and shall also be liable to fine.”
The amendment loses any acknowledgement of intent. Yet intent is not only a fundamental part of any legal system but also an essential attribute of faith. Indeed when Britain abolished its own archaic blasphemy laws in 2008, and these were replaced with laws against inciting religious and racial hatred, the idea of intent was retained.

The row which caused Taseer’s death was about amending the Pakistani penal code to reintroduce the concept of intent and end the death penalty. It was never about repealing the laws, nor about allowing people to insult Islam or the prophet Muhammed. (Pakistan, blasphemy, and a tale of two women, Reuters.)
A lot of attention upon those laws have occurred due to the murder of Salman Taseer, an MP who wished to reform the law in order prevent it being used to abuse religious minorities.

Salman Taseer was driven to speak out against the abusive nature of this law because the tragic case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, a mother of five, who has been sentenced to death.

While working in the fields last June, she was sent to fetch water. When some of the other woman refused to drink it because it had been carried by a Christian, a spat ensued about the merits of both religions. The other women later went to a cleric and complained that Bibi has blasphemed the name of the Prophet Muhammad.

A complaint was filed and Bibi was charged, convicted, and given a death sentence. (Some Christians in Pakistan convert fear into safety, Toronto Star.)

The abuses of this infamous blasphemy law are well documented. Here is one particularly disgusting case which well illustrates how abusive this law is:

Here's the case when an Ismaili Muslim, Naushad Walyani, was charged with blasphemy for simply throwing away a business card of a man named Muhammad.
As protests and appeals for the freedom of Asia Bibi mount, the controversial blasphemy law has claimed another victim from a religious minority, this time of the Ismaili Muslim sect that is headed by the Aga Khan. The episode proves, if proof were ever needed, how the blasphemy law harms Pakistani civil society of [sic]. The incident took place in Hyderabad, the second city of the province of Sindh. Naushad Walyani, a doctor, is in prison for a seemingly trivial gesture. A pharmaceutical salesman, Muhammed Faizan, visited him on December 9 to sell certain products. The doctor ''after taking the business card of the sales representative threw it in the trash'' writes a local newspaper. Clearly annoyed by the gesture, Faizan returned later with some colleagues to "teach the doctor a lesson". A violent quarrel broke out between the two.
The agent threatened to report the doctor for blasphemy for not respecting the sacred name engraved on the business card. According to local media reports, on December 10 Faizal's colleagues attacked the doctor, who, following a complaint to police under the Blasphemy Act was arrested and is now awaiting trial. His apology and the assurance that he "had no intention of insulting the Prophet by throwing the card in the trash' has served no purpose. The complaint was supported by local religious leaders.
And when you consider that Muhammad happens to be the common given name in the world that is unutterably obscene.

In another case two Muslims were sentenced for life after alledgedly removing a poster on their store which contained Qur'anic verses.
A Pakistan court has jailed a Muslim prayer leader and his 20-year-old son for life on controversial blasphemy charges in the rural centre of the country, court officials said Tuesday....Mohammad Shafi, 45, and his son Mohammad Aslam, 20, were arrested in April last year for removing a poster outside their grocery shop advertising an Islamic event in a nearby village which allegedly contained Quranic verses. (Court convicts imam and son for blasphemy, AFP.)

(That reminds me of a story I read in one of Jean Sasson's books, either Daughters of Arabia or Princess Sultana's Circle. These books are about a Saudi princess known only by the alias Sultana. One of Sultana's daughters became somewhat fanatical in her faith after attending the pilgrimage to Mecca, much to the annoyance of her family. At one point she suggested that the family could not throw away the newspaper because the newspapers contained verses from the Qur'an. Her family were not impressed.)

No wonder the Pope has called for this law to be repealed.

The mere accusation of blasphemy is often enough to whip an angry mob against the unfortunately accused, as may be seen in the terrible case of Latif Masih, 22, who was murdered on November 18, 2010 by his accusers after being granted bail.

The murderer, one of his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, seems to have been motivated after hearing polemics against Taseer by Islamic religious authorities:
Qadri told a judge Monday in written testimony that he decided to kill Taseer after he attended a gathering on Dec. 31 organized by Shahab-e-Islam, a small Islamist group that operated in his neighborhood in Rawalpindi, just outside the capital, Islamabad. He said speeches given by a cleric leading the group, Qari Hanif, and another member, Ishtiaq Shah, played a major role in his decision. (Sermons motivated killer of Pakistani politician, Yahoo News.)
Just as the forces of reaction did all they could to maintain racial segregation in the South of the US so those who wish to preserve these abusive laws in Pakistan have done all they could to make sure the government will not change this law.

Before the murder a national strike was held by those supporting the abusive law.
Violence flared Friday as police and protesters clashed during a mass protest strike that closed businesses across Pakistan over a bid to end the death penalty for blasphemy. Police said protesters near the home of unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari in the financial hub of Karachi pelted stones as they shouted slogans including "We'll sacrifice our lives -- we'll save the sanctity of the Prophet". (Violence as Pakistan strikes over blasphemy law.)
The murder of Salman Taseer, among other things, seems to have intimidated some Christians into converting to Islam, as documented in this heartbreaking Toronto Star story, Some Christians in Pakistan convert fear into safety.

Although only about 10% of the country vote for Islamist parties they are highly organized and thus are able to wield an impact upon society much greater than their voting figures suggest.

Alas many of the politicians within Pakistan appear to have meekly followed the Islamists' lead are refusing to consider changing this abusive law. The current government insists that no change is being contemplated, even before Taseer's murder.
Pakistan's prime minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani on Tuesday reiterated that the government does not intend to amend the country's controversial blasphemy law, under which a Christian woman has been sentenced to death.

"Everybody trust me. The government trusts my statement and even the opposition parties believe whatever I promise to them," he told Muslim scholars and spiritual guides from the mystical Sufi strand of the faith.

"You (Sufis) belong to me. Why don't you trust when I say that government would never amend the Blasphemy law?" added Gilani, who hails from a revered Sufi family. (

Pakistan: Prime minister confirms govt has no plans to amend blasphemy law )
Furthermore the Interior Minister has discouraged people discussing the problems caused by this law.
Interior Minister, Rehman Malik on Thursday reiterated that government has no intention to bring any amendment in blasphemy laws, owing to its sensitivity, the people should not play up the issue after the government categorical stance on the subject....The Interior Minister announced to block all un-Islamic materials put on various websites and urged people to inform government if they found any matter of blasphemy on the Internet. He said the government has highest regards for judiciary and its decisions are being implemented in latter and spirit. (Malik for blocking un-Islamic content on websites)
Former Pakistani leader Musharraf, who is currently attempting to re-enter politics, has stated that the blasphemy law must not be repealed.

Even the editor of a newspaper stated to a BBC reporter that Govenor Taseer deserved to be killed, saying incorrectly that the law is divine, completely disregarding the fact that the law is man made and was amended into its current abusive form in 1986. (Alas this particular radio interview is no longer available.)

No wonder so many are willing to protest in support of this abusive law, if even such a presumably intelligent and educated man can carelessly and thoughtlessly believe that the man made law in question is actually divine.

Asia Bibi's current situation in prison has been reported upon by Compass Direct News.
The female warden tasked with Noreen’s security the day Taseer was killed told Compass of the Christian woman’s reaction to the news.

“I was escorting her for her routine walk on the evening Governor Taseer was gunned down,” said the warden, who requested anonymity. “We were passing by a barrack when the news broke out on TV that the governor was dead … She stood there in shock for some time, and then she started screaming and crying.”

The warden added that she helped Noreen back to her cell, “as she could barely walk and kept weeping.”

“She cried all evening and also refused to have supper,” the warden said. “The governor’s killing shattered her
However it appears attempts are being made to keep her safe.
Masih [Asia Bibi's husband] said prison authorities had improved Noreen [Asia Bibi]’s security considerably after Taseer’s killing.

“She’s being kept in a separate cell with a warden deployed 24 hours for her security,” he said. “Only I am allowed to meet her, but even I am searched completely before they bring her out for the meeting. I just hope and pray she keeps safe inside the prison.”

Still, prison officials have reportedly said she will be transferred to another prison soon because of security concerns. ...

Sheikhupura District Jail Superintendent Sheikh Khalid, who recently assumed charge, told Compass that Noreen was the most “high value” inmate of the prison and that he was not going to take any chances regarding her security.

“She is on the hit list of several extremist organizations,” he said, “and there are reports that she might be targeted inside the jail – moreover, she has a 30 million rupee [US$350,000] prize on her head. This is enough incentive for anyone to kill her.”

He said the prison had enhanced its security measures, and additional forces have been employed to guard the premises at night.

“No one except her husband can meet her,” Khalid said. “I have also directed her not to eat anything given to her by any person other than the wardens deployed for her security. We are trying our best to keep her safe, but life and death are in the hands of Allah.” (Jailed Pakistani Mother Living in Constant Fear, Husband Says, Compass Direct News.)
It is good that some are still nevertheless speaking out against Pakistan's abusive blasphemy law.

It is clear that this law is being used to oppress religious minorities within Pakistan and therefore needs to be removed to insure the security and rights of the members of religious minorities so that they may live peaceful and productive lives as citizens of Pakistan.

(Hat tip to Jihad Watch for providing most of these links. I do not agree with everything that is written there.)

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