April issue 2011
While Pakistan has been living under an increasingly murky sky for years, it has grown darker and more ominous since Aasiya Bibi’s conviction for alleged blasphemy in December 2010. Following that, close on the heels came the murders of Punjab Governor, Salmaan Taseer, and Minister for Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti. And it didn’t end there. The dark cloud of fear and intimidation has not receded. Since the two high-profile murders, there has been an alarming rise in the number of people accused of blasphemy as well as in the number of cases filed, and several other people — minorities and targets of sectarian wars among them — have fallen prey to vigilante justice and cold-blooded murder.
Not surprising then, that when the news of convicted blasphemer David Qamar Masih’s passing away while serving a jail term was received, it sounded alarm bells. Did he really die of a heart attack at age 52, as the jail authorities claimed, or was it yet another case of the law-enforcers playing judge, jury and executioner? Who can blame people for speculating, given the numerous instances where jail wardens or other prisoners have killed inmates in jail on charges of blasphemy. And if it is not in jail, it has been outside of it. On March 4, Mohammed Imran, who was acquitted of blasphemy charges a year ago, was shot dead on the outskirts of Rawalpindi.
In the most recent case that was reported on March 26, a man by the name of Yaqoob was accused of using abusive language against the Prophet (PBUH) in Gilgit. Announcements from mosques galvanised people from nearby houses, who took to the streets and dispersed only when the police arrested and booked the accused. This was preceded by a similar incident in Lahore’s Badami Bagh area, where a mob collected to burn down the Full Gospel Assembly (FGA) Church after clerics announced from their pulpits that the parishioners had burnt pages of the Holy Quran. While the police reached in time to prevent the mob’s attack, it did not arrest anyone — neither those attempting to commit arson, nor the clerics who were instigating murder. But that was not unprecedented. For example, the imam of the Mohabbat Khan mosque in Peshawar, who vociferously announced head money for Aasiya Bibi in the event of the court acquitting her, remains scot-free.
The increasingly intolerant and dangerous prevailing climate can be gauged just by a glance at daily reports. In late January, a dispute between two sisters-in-law led to one, Amina, a Muslim, accusing the other, Zahira, a Christian, of blasphemy. Following the allegation, Zahira’s house was broken into and she and her mother were beaten. In early February, sectarian differences led to an attack on a religious procession, resulting in the death of two people. In mid-February, in Multan, a teacher who was accused of blasphemy by a student was not only suspended, but savagely beaten up by residents, instigated by mosque announcements and text messages, due to which he sustained life-threatening injuries.
Several cases have been reported in these three months where arrests have been made and people booked under 295-B (defiling the Quran) and 295-C (using derogatory language against the Prophet (PBUH)), and there have been convictions where courts have handed down life imprisonment and death sentences. In Multan, a prayer leader and his 20-year-old son were sentenced to life imprisonment for alleged blasphemy; in Bahawalpur, a sessions court put a man charged under 295-C and 298-A (use of derogatory language against holy personages) on death row, and another man was awarded a life sentence after he was found guilty of defiling the Quran by a sessions court.
Numerous other cases have been reported, many of them undoubtedly motivated more by personal rivalries and sectarian or religious differences than any real offence. As a leading religious scholar put it, “who would be foolhardy enough to risk his life by blaspheming in this climate — unless he/she is on a suicide mission.” Thus, when in February Muslim residents in Faisalabad charged Agnes Bibi, a Christian woman with blasphemy, and it later transpired this was in order to acquire a piece of land she held, it came as no surprise. In fact, today just about anything — from wearing a wooden pendant around one’s neck allegedly bearing “blasphemous” inscriptions against the Sahaba, removing a poster from outside of one’s shop, tying a shoe to a flag post with a holy symbol on it and even an exchange of SMSes — can be construed as blasphemy, and all these have actually been grounds for FIRs.
The question that begs to be asked then is, what kind of evidence is considered as proof or otherwise of the crime of blasphemy in a court of law? Are SMSes, sim cards, accounts by warring neighbours and the like enough proof of awarding people life imprisonment and death sentences? And what in the instance that an accused is not of sound mind, as in Karachi, where medical reports of a man accused of burning pages of the Holy Quran clearly indicated he was a psychiatric patient. Or for that matter, what of a minor, such as the 17-year-old who was charged with blasphemy for answers he wrote in an exam paper?
Since the introduction of the Blasphemy Law to Pakistan’s Penal Code — which it must be emphasised happened during the Zia era — to date, whenever any government has announced the intent to amend the Blasphemy Law to curb its abuse, religious groups have taken to the streets, vehemently denouncing the government’s proposition. Each time they have been successful in building pressure and forcing the government to back down from its intent. So, not surprisingly, this time too the religious lobby succeeded in making the PPP retreat from its avowed attempt to consider amending the law. So much so, that contrary to the facts, PPP members claimed no committee was ever constituted to even consider touching the law. Even more telling was how the party did not issue a forthright condemnation of the assassination of their governor and minister, till long after the events. In fact, it was not until late March, when President Zardari addressed parliament, that there was an official condemnation of the murders of Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti.
But what next? Should this be interpreted as a sign that the government is finally ready to apprehend and try the killers, and put a stop to the abuse of the Blasphemy Law? Interior Minister Rehman Malik’s recent statement while speaking to Reuters in London would indicate so. He said “[the Blasphemy Law’s] misuse is being … taken into account and party leaders … will meet to try to reach a consensus on the law.” However, when he qualified this by stating this would happen “as proposed by Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman,” it left less room for optimism. While the Maulana stated earlier last month, “If a law is being misused against minorities, we are ready to discuss this (matter),” this came after blaming Governor Taseer for the fate he met because of what he said about the law, refusing to condemn slain minister Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder, and issuing warnings against amendments to the Blasphemy Law.
The question is, what form of abuse and what number of casualties will force state institutions to take cognisance of the criminal acts being aimed at its citizens? Hate-mongering, the creation of an atmosphere of threat and intimidation and the stymying of open discourse on the issue has led to the loss of several lives, government functionaries and common citizens alike.
While the government has miles to go in this regard, the onus is also on the judiciary. With powers to take suo moto action, why hasn’t it acted against those inciting violence or conversely, instructed the government to take action? Why does it confine itself to issuing notices only on issues like the NRO and the hiring and firing of government functionaries? How is it that the rule of law is not a concern?
Rights groups, activists and members of civil society have gone hoarse shouting about the abuse of the Blasphemy Law. When the words blasphemy and Taseer became taboo, they continued uttering them in the public sphere, condemning murder as it should be condemned, rather than inventing excuses for it in the name of religion. Breaking the silence on the issue of blasphemy and religious extremism, reaching out to fellow citizens and initiating a dialogue on this issue, and reclaiming public spaces increasingly being taken over by the religious right has been a burgeoning concern.
Citizens for Democracy (CFD), an umbrella group of citizens, labour unions and rights organisations, formed in December 2010 to lobby against the misuse of religion in politics, launched a letter campaign in March, seeking to do exactly that. The letter was addressed to the heads of state institutions and those in power, to demand that they uphold the rule of law, take action against murders and those who incite hate and murder, and ensure the protection of all citizens, especially against acts of vigilantism justified in the name of religion. While thousands of signatories from all walks of life responded to the call, the right-wing brigade has, by using the pulpit and the streets, managed to muster ever-growing and infinitely more numbers to demonstrate its strength.
So while civil society must continue to lobby, ultimately, change will have to be effected at many levels, not least among these the policy level, and time is already running out.
Interview: Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch
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.