Scholars would struggle to find a single verse in the Holy Quran or the Sunnah and the Sira of the Prophet (pbuh) to justify the blasphemy law, let alone a death sentence for it.
Apologists would say that Islam is frequently attacked from hostile groups and Muslims are ‘easy game’ and venerable to insults and ridicule and laws are thus enacted to defend the Sacred. They point towards the recent mischief and blasphemies of Salmon Rushdie, Taslima Nasrin, the Dutch cartoonist Kurt Westergaard and the Jyllands-Postern controversy just to mention a few. On the other hand it is proposed that heresy and blasphemy are trivial allegations often made by zealots who feel intellectually insecure and their narrow mindedness only leads the way to a latter day Inquisition.
In any case, it is argued that these laws are testimony to religious intolerance and a form of legalised persecution against innocent people who happen to disagree with orthodoxy. Such measures therefore curtail freedom of speech and pose a threat to civil liberties.
Of course as with any law it can be open to misuse; sadly this happens with alarming frequency as in the case of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws where people found it convenient to ‘fix’ anyone they have a grudge against. Naturally minorities such as the Shi’ites, the Ahmedis and the Christians are always prime suspects and find themselves tangled in the mist of sectarianism instigated by mischievous elements.
Since the law came into force in 1986 some 1300 people were charged, overwhelmingly Muslims. However analysis shows Ahmedis and Christians are intentionally targeted. The only ‘victims’ in such cases are the accused themselves because a person’s ‘intent’ is not taken into account with such allegations. It may be possible that anyone could inadvertently say or write something that others would find offensive and blasphemous.
Tragically this is just what happened in the case of Muhammad Samiullah a 17 year college student who unconsciously wrote ‘remarks’ on an exam paper that have landed him in jail. The case of Aysia Bibi, a Pakistani Catholic woman accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammed as she interacted with other field workers is well known. She was sentenced to death last year and her case made international headlines.
In January 2011, the then governor of the province of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was murdered by one of his own bodyguard because he intervened in her case and sought a presidential pardon for her, describing the laws as ‘black’. In some quarters, the bodyguard has now become a “hero” for committing what was clearly a cold blooded murder. Another reformist and cabinet Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti , met a similar tragic fate at the hands of extremist, allegedly terrorist outfit Tehrike-Taliban. He was marked for ‘death’ on the basis of his Christian beliefs and for his commitment to amend the blasphemy laws. A dreadful ‘blow-back’ is how Sherry Rehman’s words describe the Gilani government’s recent appeasement policy towards the extremist fringe, even though the government decided under pressure not to revise these laws.
With threats from the combined forces of religious parties to besiege the federal capital, a parliamentary committee set up to merely ‘look’ into the issue was also suspended. It is apparent that the intellectual discourse in the country is being suffocated and waves of hysteria have come to rule the national psyche.
A number of eminent Muslim scholars including Javed Ghamdi and various rights activists were forced to flee Pakistan fearing for their lives. Others are lying low and include leading parliamentarians and academics who dare speak their minds. A few have already been shot in broad daylight while mosques have been bombed, seminaries and universities attacked, even the shrines of the saints and funeral processions are not spared. In this atmosphere of fear and intimidation the firebrand mullahs are left to rule the roost and rational voices are silenced.
Regrettably religion is all too often misused purely for political purposes - we see this time and again in the Muslim world where an extremist minority holds hostage the progressive and silent majority. In a recent article titled, ‘Welcome to 12th Centaury’ published in the International Business Times Palash Ghosh states that, ‘while the Arab Middle East is in turmoil over attempts to democratise the region and bring it into the 21st century, two thousand miles to the east in Pakistan, reactionary forces have further pushed back the calendar [to the 12th century.]’
He may not be far off - with guns to peoples heads the fanatical mullahs have rigged the current debate on blasphemy so deliberately in a pious way that no one can rationally disagree with the pro’s and con’s of any law be it Islamic or otherwise without being branded an apostate or puppet of the west. It’s troubling to note that no one bothered to mention the opinion of the Council of Islamic Ideology; the government’s own constitutional body on Islamic law is opposed to the death penalty for crimes except those for murder and terror on earth. It is stated in their comprehensive report that they find no other reasoning in Islam to support it for other offences. Prejudice and pressure from hardline elements must not stop us from doing the right thing otherwise we may come to live in a land where the one eyed lead the blind.
Amjad Hussain is a human rights campaigner and advocates freezing the death penalty in the Muslim world.