by Perwez Shafi (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 12, Safar, 1432)
The assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer on January 4 at the hands of his own bodyguard has exposed the numerous fault lines criss-crossing the social fabric of Pakistani society over the blasphemy law. It has pushed the country toward two extremes drowning out rational and knowledge-based discussion.
The assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer on January 4 at the hands of his own bodyguard has exposed the numerous fault lines criss-crossing the social fabric of Pakistani society over the blasphemy law. It has pushed the country toward two extremes drowning out rational and knowledge-based discussion. The assassination also exposed weaknesses within the orthodox Islamic camp and the direction it is taking.
Briefly, a court judgment in early November started a chain of events reaching crisis point by early January. The Session Court, the lowest tier court in the country sentenced on November 11 a 45-year-old Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, under the blasphemy law. The mother of three children, she was accused of insulting Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Aasia Bibi maintains her innocence denying the insult allegation.
The West, which has demanded the scrapping of the blasphemy law, intensified pressure on the Pakistani government to free Aasia Bibi. The ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is a western secular political party of feudal lords, toeing the American line on most issues and owes its ascent to power through US-British intrigue. The standard procedure in such cases would be for the person to appeal to the High Court and if unsuccessful, to then appeal to the Supreme Court. President Asif Ali Zardari (of the PPP), however, bypassed that process and on November 19 stayed the execution, directing the federal minister for minorities to submit a report within three days.
The president’s representative, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer also intervened in the judicial process. To show sympathy with Aasia and to reassure the West, he and his family paid a highly publicized visit to the jail where he held a press conference promising to file a mercy petition on her behalf to the president. He went so far as to suggest that the appeal would be accepted. Religious and orthodox elements condemned his support for Aasia and his calls for changing the blasphemy law. Religious elements consider the blasphemy law to be divine in origin and, therefore, cannot be amended or worse, abolished.
On November 25 Shahzad Bhatti, Federal Minister for Minorities, submitted his report to Zardari. The report concluded that the blasphemy case against Aasia Bibi had been registered based on personal grudge and the story narrated in the official complaint to police (First Information Report or FIR) was concocted and mala fide.
By now demonstrations had started against Salman Taseer and heated debate erupted on media talk shows. Taseer also called the blasphemy law a “black law” and failed to clarify that he was referring to the man-made parliamentary procedural law, not the divine law. In December, the debate became more heated and madrasah students organized protest rallies.
Finally Mumtaz Qadri, a member of the Police Elite Force responsible for protecting VIPs, shot and killed Taseer on January 4 by pumping 27 bullets into him using his sub-machine gun. Then he dropped his weapon, put his hands up and when arrested, confessed to killing the governor because he had committed blasphemy against the Prophet (pbuh). The people immediately declared him a “hero” with orthodox ‘ulama nodding approvingly while the media went into a fit of frenzy.
After the assassination, discussion in the media turned to whether Taseer had actually committed blasphemy. Numerous high profile orthodox ‘ulama and religious personalities were brought on TV and asked about this as well as justification for the killing based on the Shari‘ah. The final question was, whether any person was allowed to take the law into his own hands. If so, would it not set a dangerous precedent in a society already divided along sectarian, linguistic, geographical and social lines? No religious personality could point to a single verse from the Qur’an despite asserting that a person deserved to die if he committed blasphemy. They kept switching between sources, sometimes claiming authority from the Qur’an, at other times from hadith and also cumulative evidence from Islamic history.
Did Taseer actually commit blasphemy? There was much talk about interference in the judicial process and support for changes to the blasphemy law. In a country where unpopular laws imposed by military dictators are routinely called “black laws” in political discourse, Taseer failed to clarify that he was referring to man-made procedural law rather than the divine law. This failure cost him his life. While there is no doubt about Salman Rushdie’s blasphemy in 1988 or that of the Bangladeshi woman Taslima Nasrin, no one has proved whether Taseer had committed blasphemy. His interference in a lower tier court case, high profile support for Aasia by visiting her in jail, attempting to get her off death row, and finally his vocal support for changing the blasphemy law to please the West were equated with committing blasphemy. This made him a target in a conservative society where love and respect for all the prophets, especially the final Messenger (pbuh) are deeply cherished values.
The motives of the killer are also controversial although not discussed in a dispassionate way. For instance, a person might commit murdr in a fit of rage aroused by passion when he or she is unable to bear insulting remarks against their beloved Prophet (pbuh) but Qadri did not decide on his own. Rather, he decided after listening to speeches by a certain imam that called Taseer a blasphemer who deserved to die. The imam further stated that whosoever carried out such an act would go straight to paradise. Did the political and/or religious lobby exploit him? According to available evidence, Qadri had decided four days earlier to kill Taseer; he did not hear Taseer utter any blasphemy directly.
Second, his job in the Elite Police Force was to protect the Governor and he had taken an oath to do so. Did he betray his oath and violate the trust? What does Islam say about employee-employer relationship, trust between them and their respective legal rights and responsibilities?
The PPP is the only political party on record as having advocated scrapping the blasphemy law. This provided the context to Qadri’s action. During the rule of the US-supported dictator General Pervez Musharraf, the PPP had sought UN help to abolish a “discriminatory blasphemy law” that it said had been used to discriminate against the poor, particularly non-Muslims. Fauzia Wahab, then coordinator of PPP’s human rights cell and now Minister of Information, had written to the UN claiming the “threat posed to civil society in Pakistan by the law.” Wahab told the media: “We want an end to this law as it is anti-human, this [law] is highly discriminatory and PPP has asked the UN to pressure the military regime to repeal it.”
There is evidence that like other laws, the blasphemy law is also being misused. In the 44-year period between 1938 and 1982 that spanned British rule, Pakistan’s independence in 1947 and the military dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq, not a single blasphemy case was registered against anyone. Until 1982, it was an offense for which bail could be obtained. There was no automatic death penalty; the only punishment was a two-year sentence. Once General Zia made the law rigid for his own political purposes to victimize opponents, both these features were made stringent. Blasphemy became a non-bailable offense with automatic death penalty, if a person was found guilty.
One argument advanced by the ‘ulama and religious political parties, when confronted over misuse of the law, is that the victims could always appeal to the higher court. This is true in all cases and for all laws. However, while in normal cases the timeframe to complete the appeal process from the lowest to the highest (Supreme) court is between 18 to 25 years, generally the person is granted bail during this time. In blasphemy cases, the person spends his/her entire life behind bars because it is a non-bailable offense. Even if ultimately declared innocent at the end of this long process, vigilantes and zealots of sectarian organizations would kill him as soon as he were freed.
The police have registered almost 22,000 cases against non-Muslims as well as Muslims since changes to the law were made in the 1980s. However, no death penalty has ever been carried out. There is another interesting fact. Currently almost 960 blasphemy cases have been registered; Aasia Bibi was the first woman to be given the death penalty. Of the 960 cases, 630 are against Muslims, about 125 against Christians, 20 against Hindus, and the rest belonging to other religions. So far nobody has been executed for blasphemy in Pakistan and those given the death penalty have had their sentences overturned or commuted on appeal.
These figures show that as soon as the blasphemy offense became non-bailable with automatic death penalty, it was used against the poor, whether Muslims or Christians. In a feudal society with low literacy, the landlords use the law against poor farmers unwilling to sell their tiny plot of agricultural land or refuse to offer their daughter to the landlord or his son for sexual pleasures.
This unfortunate trend becomes clear when we notice not a single case has been registered in large cities like Karachi, Lahore or Islamabad. Almost all the cases under blasphemy law are registered in small rural agricultural areas of southern Punjab, especially between Multan and Jhang where sectarian, religious, and feudal exploitation are the norm along with other petty issues.
The law is also used to settle sectarian and political scores and has nothing to do with blasphemy. For instance, a week after the assassination of Salman Taseer, the court sentenced Mohammad Shafi, 45, the imam of a masjid, and his son Mohammad Aslam, 20, who were arrested last April for removing a poster outside their grocery shop promoting a religious event in a nearby village. The poster allegedly carried Qur’anic verses. The Multan Court handed down life sentence and a fine of Rs. 200,000 (US $2,300) to the father and son. The accuser from another sect deliberately posted a poster about a religious event outside their grocery shop. When Shafi took it off he was accused of blasphemy, arrested and a case was registered against him. Defence counsel Arif Gurmani stated that the verdict was the result of inter-sect rivalry. “Both are Muslims. The case is the result of differences between Deobandi and Barelvi sects of Sunni Muslims,” he said. “Shafi is a practising Muslim, he is the imam of a mosque and he had recently returned from a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia… I am defending them because I am convinced they are not guilty of blasphemy,” he said.
Similarly, a medical representative named Muhammad, working for a pharmaceutical company presented his business card unsolicited to a shopkeeper hoping to sell him medicines. The shopkeeper was not interested. After the conversation ended and the medical rep was about to leave, the shopkeeper threw the card into the wastebasket. This triggered a case of blasphemy because he was accused of insulting the Prophet (pbuh) by throwing a card bearing his name into the wastebasket. Regrettably, most ‘ulama fail to see the exploitation, misuse and misapplication of the law.
A number of people have gone into hiding or moved to other countries fearing persecution by sectarian organizations for expressing views contrary to those held by others. Javed Ahmad Ghamdi, an Islamic scholar, fearing for his life, moved to Dubai because his views were not liked by some ‘ulama. Similarly, Zaid Hamid, a strategist and TV personality, had to go underground for more than a year because sectarian organizations like Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi had issued numerous fatwas against him. He was accused of being a successor (or khalifah) of his school days’ friend, Muhammad Yousuf Ali, who had become deranged claiming the Prophet (pbuh) came to him in his dreams. Leaders of sectarian organizations falsely accused him of claiming prophethood, which is indeed an act of blasphemy. Yousuf Ali was convicted by a court and imprisoned where other inmates killed him. Hamid has refuted the fatwas and rejected claims that he is a khalifah of his deceased friend, but to no avail.
In the case of Aasia Bibi, if the orthodox ‘ulama and religious leaders were convinced about the blasphemy committed by Salman Taseer, about which neither the government nor the judiciary took any action, then the proper course would have been for the ‘ulama of different schools of thought to convene a joint meeting and issue a unanimous fatwa about what they considered to be the act of blasphemy. They could say that since no government body was taking action against the offender, any person could put him to death (wajib al-qatl). But they did not do so. An environment of fear has been created in which anyone can be blamed for blasphemy on petty or sectarian grounds pushing the religious right toward extremism.
Failure of the religious right was more than matched by the imperial West that exploited procedural inadequacies in the blasphemy law to demand its complete abrogation. The ruling PPP and its leaders are more than happy to oblige to achieve the West’s nefarious designs. Pope Benedict has publicly appealed for Aasia Bibi to be freed unconditionally and scrap the blasphemy law. Even if there are procedural deficiencies the law cannot be amended based on the diktat of the West. The West considers this to be the challenge of the age and desperately wants to cut the bond of love between Muslims and the Prophet (pbuh). While the West’s sinister plans and hegemony must be firmly resisted with total intellectual and physical efforts, Muslims must not to fall into the trap by committing oppression in the name and love of the Prophet (pbuh).
Muslims are expected to uphold high moral standards so that while we are resisting the evil and injustice of oppressors we are, inadvertently or deliberately, also not perpetrating the same evil and injustice. In other words, moral and legitimate means must be used to achieve moral and legitimate goals. A Qur’anic ayah succinctly sums up the basis and principle of struggle and resistance against oppressors: “And never let hatred of anyone lead you into the sin of deviating from justice” (5:8). And a well-known hadith says: “Once a person becomes Muslim no one can take his life except by way of conviction [by a court established by the state].”