COLOMBO: The Pakistan Prime Minister, Imran Khan, has been making visible and notable efforts to rein in Islamic radicals and give his concept of a ‘Naya or New Pakistan’ the stamp of religious moderation and inter-religious tolerance.

He has contained the latest violent agitation by the extremist Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) against the Supreme Court’s reaffirmation of the acquittal of the Christian lady, Aasia Bibi, in the now internationally known “blasphemy” case.

Over 70 activists of the TLP were arrested after pitched street battles in Karachi on Friday. Perhaps because of the government’s manifest determination to see that its writ was not challenged by mobs, there were no reports of Islamic extremist-led violence or even peaceful demonstrations against the January 29 acquittal of Aasia Bibi.

However, the build up to the violence on the streets of Karachi had held out frightening possibilities.

It was reported that gangs of activists were on a search of places in which the released Aasia Bibi and her beleaguered family could be hiding. The declared intention was to kill them.

And the threat could not taken lightly. When the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz ) was in power, Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab, and the Christian cabinet minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, were killed for speaking up for Aasia Bibi.

Mashal Khan, a Muslim university student in the Khyber Pakhtunkwah province, was shot and actually beaten to death by a mob of fellow students and university staff for alleged blasphemy.

Imran’s Radical Islamist Past

Unfortunately, before he became Prime Minister, Imran had played to the radical Islamist gallery with gusto, supporting all their demands made to the PML (N) government.

On November 5, 2017, radicals led by TLP chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi, started a protest against a change of wording in the official declaration of allegiance to the Prophet. As leader of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-i- Insaf (PTI), Imran publicly conveyed his best wishes to the protesters and advised his supporters to join the sit-in on the streets of Islamabad.

In his August 2018 National Assembly election campaign, he sided with the fundamentalist Barelvi Sunnis against the moderate PML (N). Strengthening blasphemy laws, establishing Pakistan as an Islamic welfare state, and supporting seminaries or madrassas were part of Imran Khan’s election manifesto.

As one commentator wrote: “He (Imran) mainstreamed fundamentalism, supported religious extremists, encouraged the militant narrative in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, funded the ‘Oxford of Jihad’, Haqqania Madrassa, offered to establish offices for the Taliban in Peshawar, and kept on visiting shrines to secure the fundamentalist vote bank across the country.”

Post-Election Avatar

However, after winning the August 2018 National Assembly elections, Imran reversed his policy. As Prime Minister, he swore that he would make Pakistan a non-discriminatory and just society as envisioned by its founding father, Mohd.Ali Jinnah.

Prime Minister Imran allowed Christmas to be celebrated openly, perhaps for the first time since the Zia-ul-Haq era in the 198os. He saw to it that no public event connected with Christmas was attacked by fanatics. He started the process of building a corridor between a historic Sikh shrine in Kartarpur and a Sikh shrine across the border in India to ease the flow of Sikh pilgrims between India and Pakistan. His government appointed Sikhs and Hindus to important offices which not previously opened to the minorities.

However, a month after assuming office, Imran found to his dismay that he could not accommodate Ahmadiyyas, however qualified they might be. He had to sack his economic advisor, Dr.Atif Mian, an Ahmadiyya, due to objections from fundamentalist Sunnis who consider Ahmadiyyas to be heretics. Dr.Atif had been rated as one of the world’s top 40 young economists. But fundamentalist forces in Pakistan had no use for such people if they were Ahmadiyyas. And Imran had to follow their diktat.

In October 2018, the Pakistan Supreme Court acquitted a Christian farm laborer, Aasia Bibi, who, had been sentenced to death by a High Court in 2010 for “blasphemy”. Judge Asif Khosa ruled that the accusation was based on vague, unsubstantiated and motivated charges made in violation of established Islamic principles. As soon as the acquittal was announced, TLP leader Pir Afzal Qadri and Maulana Khadim Hussein issued a fatwa to kill three Supreme Court judges, including the Chief Justice, who had ordered Asia Bibi’s release.

But with ambitious plans to usher in a ‘Naya Pakistan’, Prime Minister Imran Khan found the threat issued to the judges to be totally repugnant and sternly warned the TLP. Engaged in rescuing Pakistan from the financial mess it has been in, with fresh financial inputs and investments from abroad, Imran had to provide the international community conditions favorable for investment. Assassination of Supreme Court judges would have scuttled all investment plans.

The Pakistani military, anxious to curb extremism within the country and also friendly to Imran, backed his tough policy against the TLP.

Root Cause Needs To Addressed

But while this has paid off and the TLP has been put in its place, Imran has to look deeply into the problem of Islamic radicalism and weaken it at the root. If that is not done, it could raise its ugly head again to thwart his plans for a New Pakistan.

While everyone agrees that the blasphemy law cannot be repealed, given its political and social importance in a conservative Muslim country like Pakistan, the law can be made more rational and humane with safeguards in tune with internationally recognized notions of human rights and jurisprudence.

The blasphemy law, brought into being by President Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s, has so far led to the incarceration of 633 Muslims, 494 Ahmadiyyas, 187 Christians and 21 Hindus. The invoked parts of the Pakistani Penal Code are Sections 295-A (outraging religious feelings), 295-B (desecrating the Quran), 295-C (defiling the name of the Prophet Muhammad) and 298-A (defiling the names of the family of the Prophet Muhammad, his companion or any of the caliphs).

Under the Pakistan Penal Code relating to blasphemy, police have the authority to arrest the alleged offender without a warrant and can commence investigations without orders from a magistrate’s court.

During General Zia-ul-Haq’s rule the Federal Shariat Court was established in 1980. Its rulings are binding. In 1990, the Federal Shariat Court had ruled that death penalty is mandatory under Section 295-C.

Flaws Galore

According to a study done by Amnesty International, in most cases, accusations of blasphemy were made not because of any blasphemous act or speech, but because of professional rivalry, personal or religious disputes, hostility towards religious minorities, or greed for money and land.

Amnesty found that persons with mental disabilities were at a particular risk of being accused of blasphemy. A wide range of people can register complaints with the police, including those who were not direct witnesses. In some cases, the gap between the alleged incident and the filing of the case, could be several years. The police would rarely question the credibility of such accusations.

In some cases, police have arbitrarily detained family members to pressurize them to reveal the whereabouts of the alleged blasphemer if he or she is absconding.

As in the Aasia Bibi case, Islamic clerics wield significant power in the registration of blasphemy cases. Their opinions are often sought by complainants and the police. Unsubstantial evidence is accepted if a cleric backs a charge of blasphemy.

Blasphemy case trials often go on and on because of the judges’ reluctance to convict the accused as the only punishment for blasphemy is death. Judges are unable to make up their minds because of insufficiency of evidence.

Threats from lawyers ,clerics and other supporters of the complainants also adversely affect the justice system.

Lawyers pleading for the accused are sometimes threatened with death. Amnesty mentions the case of the murdered lawyer Rashid Rehman, who was defending a university lecturer accused of blasphemy, in illustration. Rehman was warned by fellow lawyers in front of the judge in a Multan court, that he will be killed if he continued to appear for the accused.

The blasphemy law is a convenient instrument in the hands of people who can mobilize a mob to get their rivals arrested, lynched or convicted. Agitators find it easy to mobilize a murderous mob if the accusation against a person is blasphemy.

The majority of those accused of blasphemy are Muslims themselves. But minorities like Christians, Ahmadiyyas and Hindus feel more vulnerable. Amnesty mentions cases in which the police had asked Christian residents of a locality, threatened with arson and murder, to flee for their own safety.

None Executed For Blasphemy Yet

Mercifully, Pakistan has not executed anyone for blasphemy so far. But vigilante mobs have killed at least 65 people for alleged blasphemy since 1990, according to the Centre for Research and Security Studies.

Prime Minister Imran Khan would go down in Pakistan’s history as a humane ruler if he is able to modernize and humanize the blasphemy law, if it is not possible to repeal it.