“Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed under thy name,” exclaimed Madame Marie-Jeanne Roland as she mounted the platform to be guillotined during the Reign of Terror at the height of the French Revolution. More than two hundred years later, a similar reign of terror but this time in the name of religion was unleashed, particularly against the minorities of Pakistan, under the blasphemy laws introduced by General Zia-ul-Haq. In 1982 Section 295 B was added to the Penal Code prescribing life imprisonment for “defiling the Holy Qur’an” and in 1986 Section 295 C was incorporated mandating the death penalty for the “use of derogatory language in respect of the Holy Prophet.”
Blasphemy laws have existed in the statute books of British India since 1860 and in 1927 Section 295 was included to deal with “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious belief.” Thus the law was non- discriminatory and designed to protect equally all faiths. Furthermore, conviction depended exclusively on proof that the accused had deliberately injured or insulted another individual’s religious feelings. This was the law that prevailed in Pakistan during the first forty years of its existence and there was relative inter-faith harmony till the 1980s.
Zia-ul-Haq’s blasphemy laws are vaguely formulated and cater only to the sensibilities of Muslims. Even worse, they have been arbitrarily enforced. After its meeting in Geneva from 26 August to 2 September 2009, the World Council of Churches issued a statement which noted that
“on the testimony of a complainant, a person charged with blasphemy is immediately placed in detention. The penalty includes a mandatory death sentence for defaming the Prophet Mohammed and life sentence for desecrating the Holy Qur’an. Under the provisions of the present law, conviction is made possible without proof of deliberate attempt on the part of the accused. This is a violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution of Pakistan.”
Edmund Burke believed that bad laws are the worst form of tyranny and this has been vividly demonstrated by the blasphemy laws of Pakistan. Though 50 percent of the victims have been Muslims, it is the impoverished and under-privileged Christian minority, constituting a little more than 1 percent of the population, which has faced the brunt of the fanatical cleric-instigated violence. They have undergone imprisonment on frivolous unproven accusations, many have been killed and some even been burnt alive. Their homes have been razed to the ground, their places of worship destroyed, their sacred scriptures desecrated through an endless night of terror.
So intense has this persecution been that in desperation the Reverend John Joseph, the first Roman Catholic bishop from the Punjab, shot himself to death in a Sahiwal court on 6 May 1998. A few years earlier he had kissed the feet of a murdered Christian during the latter’s funeral and swore that his would be the next death because of the blasphemy laws.
Eleven years after Bishop John Joseph took his own life, a 22- year-old Christian, Fanish (Robert) Masih, was imprisoned in Sialkot for allegedly desecrating the Holy Qur’an. He was kept in solitary confinement even though it had been established that the charges against him were fabricated. He hanged himself in his cell on 15 September 2009.
Though innocent civilians have been ruthlessly killed in blasphemy- related mob hysteria as in the Gojra outrage of 30 July 2009 and also in cold-blooded pre-meditated violence, the two suicides poignantly demonstrate the loss of all hope. In the first, a learned man of the frock, who had taught his flock that all life was sacred, ended his own in the hope that this supreme sacrifice would rekindle the conscience of those in power and spur them to rescind the infamous blasphemy laws. In the second, a terrorized poverty-stricken youth had convinced himself that he could not escape the gallows for a crime he had never committed.
Justice cannot prevail if judges are intimidated and fear for their lives. In an editorial after Fanish Masih’s death, the Daily Times of Lahore recalled that a few months earlier hundreds of clerics wreaked havoc in a court after the judge had granted bail to a Christian couple who had been sent to prison for merely possessing a Qur’an. The accusation against them was that they had defiled the scripture because they were unclean as a community. Their plea that they had kept the holy book in their home out of respect for its teachings fell on deaf ears. They were subsequently charged with blasphemy but this did not deter the mob from ransacking the court.
The few judges who dared to oppose the tidal-wave of fanaticism became its victims. On 19 October 1997, Justice Arif Iqbal Hussain Bhatti was gunned down in his office in Lahore because in 1995 he had acquitted two Christian brothers accused of defaming the Prophet. So intense and immediate was the clerical reaction to the ruling that the brothers had to be smuggled out of the country and sent to Germany. The police did nothing to protect Justice Bhatti though they were aware that he had been receiving threatening letters from extremists who were so convinced about the righteousness of their cause that they had no hesitation in disclosing their identities and contact particulars.
In several instances the law enforcement authorities not only abetted but also participated in the violence which they regarded as retributive justice for insulting the Prophet or desecrating the Qur’an. In 1997 a frenzied mob of 20,000 which included 500 policemen went on the rampage in the Shantinagar-Tibbi Christian colony following reports about defiling the Qur’an.
On 24 May 2004 a police constable bludgeoned Samuel Masih to death as the latter had been accused of spitting on a mosque wall. The policeman had no qualms of conscience, no sense of guilt, no remorse. He said that as a Muslim it was his duty to kill Masih. This cannot be brushed aside as an aberration or as the outpourings of a demented, semi- literate mind because the contagion of religious extremism has spread to all levels of society. The constable was probably aware that barely four years earlier none other than a judge of the Lahore High Court, Justice Nazir Akhtar, had publicly declared that blasphemers should be killed on the spot.
Since the introduction of the blasphemy laws in the 1980s, the senseless slaughter of ordinary citizens, vandalism, arson and the destruction of churches – all brewed from an alarmingly fascist religious narrative – keep recurring with startling frequency. The symbiotic relationship between religion-motivated extremist violence and terrorism is obvious. The 30 July 2009 carnage in Gojra was the work of the banned anti-Shiia terrorist outfit Sipah-e-Sahaba and with each such incident the authority of the state is being progressively subverted.
The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan is no longer the exclusive breeding ground for terrorist outfits. Southern Punjab, the home of the Sipah-e-Sahaba and its offshoot the Lashkar-e- Jhangvi as well as other extremist groups notably the Jaish-e-Mohammad, shares that distinction with FATA. The seminaries in south Punjab, sponsored by these and other groups, churn out ideologically motivated diehards who have been responsible for sectarian killings, the slaughter of minorities and Muslims alike on concocted allegations of blasphemy as well as many of the most dramatic terrorist attacks in recent years. The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has not only earned a fearsome reputation as Al Qaeda’s foot soldiers in Pakistan but is also acquiring a global jihadist agenda.
The hackneyed refrain that Pakistan does not tire of reiterating ad nauseam in every international forum is that it condemns terrorism “in all its forms and manifestations.” However it has still not come to terms with the reality that violence against innocent civilians in the name of religion is one of these “forms” of terrorism which the government professes to staunchly oppose. Al Qaeda, the Taliban of FATA and the extremist groups of southern Punjab are mutually supportive and collectively constitute a triangle of terror that has been responsible for more than eight thousand deaths in the last one year. Indoctrinated youths from the madrassahs of the Punjab are trained to become suicide bombers in the tribal belt under the tutelage of Al Qaeda.
The nexus between blasphemy-related violence and the recurring incidents of terrorism is obvious. The ideological motivation is a distorted interpretation of religion. So long as the blasphemy laws remain in the statute books, vigilante death squads and terrorist groups like the Sipah- e-Sahaba will not be deterred from their criminal activities.
It is a shame that successive governments after the death of Zia-ul- Haq in 1988 have done nothing to repeal this law which is repugnant to Islam. The Qur’an does not prescribe punishment for blasphemy which, like apostasy, though a grievous sin will be punished only in the hereafter. The worldly punishments specified in the Holy Scripture are for crimes against society not for sins against God. The nineteenth century reformer Jamal ad-Din Afghani observed, “Every Muslim is sick, and the only remedy is the Qur’an.” Till the true teachings of the Qur’an are clearly understood, obscurantist clerics will continue to preach hatred and violence in the name of religion. There can scarcely be a greater blasphemy.