April issue 2011

By | People | Q & A | Published 8 years ago

“Minorities are collateral damage in the battle for Pakistan’s soul”
– Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan Representative,
Human Rights Watch


Ali_Dayan04-11Q: Following the assassination of Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, calls for the repeal of the Blasphemy Law have become muted. Now one only hears a few feeble calls for amendments. Do you think the Blasphemy Law is now beyond repeal.

A: The last several months have shown us precisely how the Blasphemy Law can be abused. If there was any doubt about the fact that the law, if abused, can become an instrument of coercion and foster a climate of witch-hunting and vigilantism, I think now it is difficult for even its most ardent supporter to argue otherwise.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is of the view that the Blasphemy Law needs to be repealed, and we remain firm on that position.

Q: We know the law was introduced by General Zia-ul-Haq, but this is not common knowledge among the masses. The religious right has built the case that the law has been derived directly from the Quran and since it is God’s word, you cannot strike it down.

A: I think there are a couple of things that are very clear about the Blasphemy Law. One, the enactment of Section 295-C was a political act; it is not a religiously inspired piece of legislation at all. Its defence also remains a political act. This is all couched in the language of religion. The question increasingly being asked is, why do religious parties manage to mobilise successfully around this issue.

This occurs because every Friday, though mosques and sermons, religious parties mobilise around this issue. Secondly, repeal or amendments to the Blasphemy Law are equated by the religious right with blasphemy itself. In this exercise the religious groups have substantial support from sections of the Pakistani media, particularly the electronic media. Third, as we have seen since the beginning of this year, the government, which is led by the PPP, has found it expedient to capitulate to these demands, pander to them rather than confront them.

It is in the manifesto of the PPP that it would review all discriminatory legislation and the Blasphemy Law could certainly be seen as that. However, the PPP has failed to remain true to its manifesto and commitment despite that fact that its governor and minister have been killed. There are of course arguments, some persuasive, that suggest that the government’s retreat was a tactical one; that they hoped to diffuse the situation and then return to it later, afresh. But given that President Zardari and the government are so keen to emphasise their democratic credentials and emphasise that they are the last bulwark against the Talibanisation of Pakistan, there is a fundamental point they appear to be missing: Talibanisation is not combated on the battlefield alone; it is also combated by creating greater social space for plurality, progressivism and tolerance in society.

You create that space by ensuring that the state becomes a neutral arbiter between citizens, rather than a partisan sectarian actor. The reason religious political actors get so excited by legislation such as Section 295-C, which is just another provision of the Pakistan Penal Code, is because they know that it is a law that actually makes the state a sectarian party and any attempt to weaken or repeal it will ensure that the state ceases to be a sectarian, partisan party on their behalf. The whole furor about the Blasphemy Law is actually an attempt to hold on to power; it is about power, not about religion.

Q: Don’t you think the government and the judiciary are, in fact, almost culpable in the abuse of the law by their virtual silence?

A: The government finds itself in a difficult spot. The institutional arrangements in Pakistan are arrayed against it when it comes to the issue of 295-C and other related legislation. The government contends with [on and off] coalition partners such as the JUI. It contends with a judiciary that appears to be acting in defence of discriminatory legislation. It contends with a military that wishes to preserve its peculiar relationship with religion and religious militant actors, even today, as part of its national security. And of course the government battles its own lack of will to confront these very powerfully entrenched actors.

There are laws in Pakistan that address incitement to violence and murder itself, but the Pakistani state has proved itself incapable of establishing its writ and the rule of law. What is even more shocking is that Pakistan’s ‘independent’ judiciary, which ought to be taking a proactive position on this matter, is taking the opposite position. It is shameful that the judiciary is willing to uphold laws that are discriminatory, violative of fundamental rights, that create lawlessness in society, and encourage vigilante justice and mob violence.

In the last three months we have seen in a series of instances the judiciary playing that role. Take what the Lahore High Court did: it stayed President Zardari from issuing a pardon to Aasiya Bibi. HRW is of the view that the prevention of the pardon was a clear case of the court overstepping its constitutional authority. The Pakistani Constitution is absolutely categorical on the President’s right to pardon. The convention is that the President waits for the legal process to be exhausted before issuing a pardon. But it is not the law. The law states that the President can remit or commute any sentence passed by any court. In preventing the pardon, in preempting it in fact, the court did something quite surreal. It actually stopped an executive action from taking place. And, by doing so, compounded the suffering of a woman who was unjustly convicted under a discriminatory law.

HRW believes that there can be no rule of law without an independent judiciary. But we also believe that an independent judiciary must be held to the highest standards. Unfortunately, even the media is too scared to hold the judiciary accountable.

Q: Is the media scared or do sections of it have their own agendas?

A: There is, of course, a vast array of the Pakistani media that is in sympathy with the Islamists and discrimination and bigotry. There are despicable elements within the media. And I think a section of the media has played a criminal role around this debate; it has incited violence. And it has fanned the flames of discord, disinformation and violence around the debate on 295-C.

The retrogressive elements in the media comprise two sets of people: genuine ideologues, who believe in an anti-rights agenda and a shrill, bellicose faux nationalism. This is structured around hatred of the West, propagation of a delusional view of Pakistan’s place in the world, and a distaste for democracy.

The second set of people in the media are far more problematic. They confuse the desire to excel professionally with dispensing with any kind of moral framework or values. I think people like them should be made aware that if their exhortations on television come true, they will be hanging from the lamppost along with everyone else.

But, in a sense, one of the great threats to media freedom today emerges from the judiciary. HRW has investigated this matter, and it is our view that there are three centres providing the greatest threat to media freedom today in Pakistan. These are the judiciary, the Taliban and the military and its intelligence agencies. So when you have that kind of ideological compact between three actors, all of whom exercise varying levels of coercive power — legal and extra legal — in a sense it becomes the path of least resistance for the media to follow a policy of condoning the agenda of these actors. It is easier than not for the media to plug a line that will keep the judiciary, military and the Taliban happy.

While the Taliban are enemies of the Pakistan state, and the military has no legal standing to intervene in media matters, the judiciary actually uses legal tools to muzzle the media.

Q: What kind of engagement is there between HRW and the Pakistan government and judiciary?

A: We have advocated at the highest levels with the government of Pakistan on all matters concerning human rights. We are not concerned only with the Blasphemy Law, we are also concerned with abuses in counter-terrorism operations with the Taliban or Taliban suspects. The important thing is, either human rights are indivisible and they apply to everybody, or in effect they apply to nobody. You cannot pick and choose on this matter.

We believe those who commit crimes against civilians — the Taliban for example — that amount to war crimes, should be held accountable. But, they should be held accountable through due process of law. Equally, we say those fermenting violence in defence of the Blasphemy Law should be held accountable. And finally, we say that those who are the victims of the abusive laws should be given judicial redress.

Q: What do you think of the Federal Shariat Court?

A: The Federal Shariat Court is part of Zia’s Islamist bodies. It was imposed on Pakistan by a military dictator and it has consistently acted against fundamental rights, ruled against human rights and a non-partisan dispensation of justice. The FSC is, in that sense, a sectarian body, and in need of immediate abolition. But I do not hold out much hope that the government will move to abolish it.

Q: Given the bleak backdrop, whom can Pakistanis turn to for salvation?

A: It is very important that various actors in Pakistan hold their relevant institutions accountable. It is therefore, for lawyers and lawyers’ bodies to hold the judiciary accountable. I have found Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) President Asma Jahangir’s comment that perhaps the amendments to the Blasphemy Law were mistimed, disappointing. Again, this disappointment is contexualised by the understanding that the SCBA, even if not Ms Jahangir herself, is a body comprised of many retrogressive elements and as President of that body, Ms Jahangir cannot take the kind of strident positions that she took previously in her avatar as a human rights activist. However the question is, when is a good time to propose amendments to the Blasphemy Law?

Q: There has been much debate among civil society activists about whether it is the time to go out and fight or play safe. What do you think?

A: Civil society’s a role is to advocate with political parties, to encourage them to engage in reform. It is the role of political parties to recognise civil society as a very crucial stakeholder in the polity, to take their views on board given the place they enjoy.

In Pakistan is, there is often the idea that civil society and politics are distinct entities. Civil society will not effect meaningful, institutional change in Pakistan. It will be done through the political class. So civil society needs to find actors within the political class which are its allies, and urge them to implement a rights agenda, and to hold those allies accountable when they do not implement that agenda.

Q: Recently, Fazlur Rahman stated that the misuse of the Blasphemy Law could be discussed. Then, Rehman Malik said the government would consult the JUI and Fazlur Rahman on how the issue should be approached and what amendments should be made. Should the JUI be allowed to lead this debate?

A: If the JUI-F wants to act as an empowering agent for human rights, any human rights activist or civil society will support the JUI in that action. So the issue is not whether the JUI tables the bill or whether Sherry Rehman, Bushra Gohar or the government of Pakistan do so. The point is that Section 295-C is an instrument of abuse and there has to be an understanding of that, and of the fact that seeking a change in 295-C does not amount to blasphemy. If the JUI-F appears to be seeing common sense belatedly, well thank you JUI-F.

Q: Would you say that the last few years have been particularly bad for minorities?

A: The situation for minorities in Pakistan has been progressively deteriorating since 1974, from the point where the state decided it would determine who is Muslim and who is not. That is where this slide began.

It was very, very acute under General Zia-ul-Haq, and now because we are living in a time of heightened militancy and extremism, the minorities suffer from a kind of double jeopardy, where they have all these instruments of legal persecution arrayed against them and they have an increasing level of social persecution and shrinking space.

It is fascinating that Pakistan’s legal structures, its political debate and its religious parties spend so much time on issues concerning minorities and ensuring that they remain persecuted given that they are such a miniscule proportion of the population. Actually it is not about the minorities. They are collateral damage in the battle for the soul of the Pakistani state.

Q: Do you feel there is still hope? Can the state be saved?

A: My business is hope, so I do see hope. I feel that the position Salmaan Taseer took was remarkable. He proved to be a remarkable man, exceptional within the Pakistani framework, for holding the position that he did and espousing in as forthright a manner that he did his position against intolerance and bigotry. I think Shahbaz Bhatti was a remarkable person. Given that he was a Christian, given that he found himself in this very difficult place, given he articulated his position on this issue with great care, but yet never compromised on his principles, is I think a sign of incredible maturity and great bravery.

Throughout Pakistan’s history there have been people who have been remarkable. Asma Jahangir is an incredible individual. Her struggle against the Blasphemy Law and against discrimination in Pakistan in general has been awe-inspiring. And when the history for the struggle for rights is written, Asma Jahangir’s name will be there in golden letters. These remarkable people are not acting in isolation; they represent the sentiments of a large swathe of the Pakistani people. But those people are scared, they feel besieged, and they are under attack. It is unnerving for the bravest to be in that position, and the people I am talking about are ordinary people. When those people — that substantial swathe — see people like Asma Jahangir, Salmaan Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti, and Sherry Rehman speak up for them, they feel empowered. That is why retrogressive forces in Pakistan now feel that they must kill these people, that they have no other option. It is a sign of the desperation the right-wing, the anti-human rights forces in Pakistan feel. They know the tide of history is against them.

Related Article:
No Reprieve
Just over three months into 2011, and already numerous blasphemy cases, murders and acts of vigilantism on religious grounds have been reported.

Farieha Aziz is a Karachi-based journalist and teacher. She joined Newsline in 2007, rising to assistant editor. Farieha was awarded the APNS award for Best Investigative Report (Business/Economic) for the year 2007-2008. She is a co-founder and Director at Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum of Digital Rights.