Blasphemy Laws Reflect Pakistan's Intolerance
Pakistan's blasphemy laws perpetuates discrimination against minorities
NEW DELHI: A few days after Pakistan marked a year since the twin blasts at Peshawar’s All Saints Church where 90 people died and over a hundred were injured, a 70-year old Scot jailed on blasphemy charges was shot and wounded by a policeman at the Adiyala jail.
These incidents, along with several others, represent the growing intolerance in Pakistan toward its minorities. In this most recent incident, Muhammad Asghar, originally from Edinburgh, was jailed in 2010 under Pakistan’s blasphemy law for writing letters to people claiming he was the Prophet.
Asghar’s case is by no means unique. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) released in 2014 states that “abuses are rife under the country’s abusive blasphemy law, which is used against religious minorities, often to settle personal disputes.” The report notes that at least 16 people were on death row for blasphemy and another 20 were serving life-sentences in 2013. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) stated that 34 people were charged with blasphemy in 2013.
The blasphemy laws, which relate to Section XV Articles 295-298 of the Pakistan Penal Code, are indicative of the growing intolerance and religious radicalisation in Pakistan. Although the Pakistan Penal Code always had a provision to safeguard against blasphemy, it was only in the 1980s that Islam was singled out receiving specific articles. In 1982, under General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, the death penalty and life imprisonment were added as punishments relating to the law.
The laws themselves are quite expansive. They prohibit expression that is intended to wound “religious feelings,” and deliberate or malicious acts intended to “outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs;” the laws specifically, through the provisions added in the 1980s, prohibit defiling the Quran and insulting the Prophet Muhammad, his wives, family or companions. The “misuse of epithets, descriptions and titles” is also prohibited. Following the 1982 amendment that introduced the death penalty and life imprisonment, an amendment in 1992 made the death penalty mandatory for individuals convicted of making derogatory remarks about the prophet. Since then, successive governments - both Benazir Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf expressed their commitment to amend the law - have failed to introduce measures to change the law, succumbing to pressures by extremists and clerics.
Critics of the blasphemy law have often been targeted, a famous example being Governor Salman Taseer who was assassinated by his guard after defending a Christian woman accused of blasphemy three years ago. In 2011, Pakistan’s Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was gunned down after he campaigned for changes to the law - specifically the provision that judges be required to investigate cases of blasphemy before registering cases and a measure for punishment for false accusations. In July 2013, two brothers who were charged with defaming the prophet were shot dead as they stepped out of a courtroom.
The blasphemy laws exist in the social-cultural-political context of targeted attacks on religious minorities, who, in addition to Ahmadis include Christians, Hindus, Kalasha, Parsis, Sikhs, and Shia muslims. In January 2014, a bomb targeting a bus of Shia pilgrims returning from Iran in Pakistan’s troubled Balochistan province, claimed 22 lives. According to HRW 400 Shias were killed in 2013 in targeted attacks across Pakistan. At least 200 Shias, mostly from the Hazara community, were killed in Balochistan in and around the provincial capital of Quetta. In January 2013, a suicide bomb killed 96 Hazaras and injured at least another 150. In February 2013, a bomb in a vegetable market in Quetta’s Hazara town killed 84 and injured 160. In March 2013, 47 Shias were killed and 135 were injured in Karachi when a Shia-majority neighbourhood was targeted.
In March 2013, several thousand Christians were forced to flee their homes in Lahore following allegations of blasphemy against a local resident, Sawan Masih, as a mob of thousands looted and burned homes and churches. In September 2013, just about a year ago, a suicide bombing during Sunday Mass at a Church in Peshawar killed 90 people and wounded more than 130.
Amongst the most targeted minorities are the Ahmadis. The Ahmadis consider themselves Muslim, but are categorised as non-muslim under the constitution for disputing the claim that Prophet Muhammad was the last messenger of Islam. The community has been banned from mosques in Lahore as groups accused them of “posing as Muslims.”One of the most violent attacks against the Ahmadis was in 2010, when Taliban insurgents attacked two Ahmadis mosques in Lahore killing more than 85. In addition to violent attacks, the minority sect is often targeted by the use of the blasphemy law against them, a recent example being the arrest of Masood Ahmad, a member of the Ahmadi sect, after he was secretly videoed reading a translation of a verse from the Quran earlier this year.
Earlier this year in May, an American volunteer cardiologist belonging to the Ahmadi sect, who was visiting Pakistan was shot dead by gunmen. Mehdi Ali Qamar had taken his wife, son and cousin to a graveyard in Punjab to offer prayers when the attack happened.
In August, an angry mob in Gujranwala district attacked and burnt five houses wherein members of the minority Ahmadi community resided, killing three people. The victims were a 55-year old woman and two girls under the age of ten; an unborn child also died due to suffocation.
These attacks are the basis of reports that indicate that sectarian violence is increasing in Pakistan, a fact taken cognizance of earlier this year by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan who told a session of the senate that 1710 people have lost their lives in incidents of sectarian violence across Pakistan.
According to Khan, the highest number of deaths were recorded in Balochistan with 675 deaths in sectarian related violence, followed by 431 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 204 in Sindh, 146 in Punjab, 149 in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), and 100 deaths in different incidents of sectarian violence in Gilgit-Baltistan.
A report by the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS), the “Pakistan Security Report 2013” traces this rise in sectarian violence to 2011, from when it has steadily increased every year. According to a database maintained by the South Asian Terrorism Portal (SATP), although the incidents of sectarian violence attacks have declined in Pakistan, the lethality of attacks have increased leading to more deaths. SATP recorded 128 sectarian attacks, resulting in 525 deaths in Pakistan through 2013, as compared to 173 such attacks and 507 killed in 2012, demonstrating a substantial rise in lethality, from 2.93 to 4.11 fatalities per attack.
The problem with data sets relating to violence in Pakistan is that they are largely provisional based on newspaper reports, and hence, there is variation in the numbers. That said, the security situation in Pakistan does seem to be reflecting a dangerous trend toward the worse, no matter which data set is employed in the analysis. Trends indicate that barring Punjab, sectarian violence has risen in all provinces in 2012, and even in Punjab, while deaths have not increased from 2012 to 2013, the incidents of sectarian violence have.