PAKISTAN: Abolish blasphemy laws entirely

The horrific mob lynching of Mashal Khan has raised many questions about the utility of an archaic and draconian law that has been misused with impunity. Pakistan’s blasphemy law is a mockery of rule of law, and in fact defies common sense. What is the utility of a law that allows people to challenge the writ of the state and rule of law, and dole out mob justice? For decades, the ruling elite against religious minorities and other vulnerable groups have only used the blasphemy law as a tool of oppression.

Mashal Khan’s case is the most recent example of this: the university administration instigated the students against Mashal on the pretext of blasphemy because he raised his voice against the university’s embezzlement of funds and jeopardizing students’ futures.

Blasphemy is an allegation that needs no proof in Pakistan. Charged mobs fall upon the alleged blasphemer without giving him a chance to explain himself. Reasoning with the mob mentality almost always proves futile. Moreover, the loopholes, internal inconsistency and subjective applicability of the blasphemy law has made it a favoured tool of the state and masses to remove any legal, social or economic impediment that they may face in their path to achieve their ulterior motives. In particular, academics, liberals, bloggers, writers and religious minorities are being targeted and forced into silence on the pretext of blasphemy. Underpinned by draconian laws such as sub sections A, B, C of Section 295 and sub sections A and B of 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code, this violence against minorities has been institutionalised and given impunity.

To date at least 68 people linked to blasphemy accusations have been killed by vigilantes or mobs since 1990 yet not a single person has been indicted of the crime despite having irrefutable evidences against the perpetrators

Additionally, the blasphemy law vests on mere intentions, which are hard to prove. The law prohibiting “insult” or “offence” to religion, or for “hurting the sentiments” of religious persons, may itself be “insulting” or “offensive” or “hurtful” to religion or to religious persons, if it prevents them from expressing their religious views because others find their religion offensive.

When states tries to base blasphemy laws on a single religious text, it is abundantly clear that different sectarian groups within a single religion interpret scriptures in a variety of ways, with different groups deciding that different declarations are ‘blasphemous’.

In 2015, for instance, the Christian community of Gujrat, Punjab province was charged upon by a murderous mob for using the word ‘saint’ for their late pastor. ‘Saint’ translated into Urdu means prophet, and the Muslim community misconstrued this to mean that the Christians were negating the finality of prophet hood, a key element of Muslim faith. The misunderstanding was deemed blasphemous, and resulted in the arrest of four Christians.

The police booked the men under anti-terrorism act and the case was heard before Special Judge, Ms. Bushra Zaman who acted prejudicially against the accused. Before sending accused persons to jail custody she said she was “disheartened” with the behavior of Christian, she even refused to listen to the arguments of the defense lawyer and also rejected the application for the provision of security in the prison for the accused.

Intellectual discourse and freedom of speech is another victim of the blasphemy law; curtailing freedom in the name of blasphemy or national security is the easiest thing to do when the state wants to deflect the truth of its corruption and misconduct. The cases of Salman Goraya and other bloggers is an indicative example of this. The bloggers were very vocal in their criticism of the establishment so the state decided to teach them a lesson by disappearing them. The government has declared them blasphemer and then surreptitiously sent them outside the country and now a case of blasphemy is filed against all five bloggers.

The intention of the government was to curb freedom of speech on social media. Many activists have raised their concerns that the state is perhaps relying on mob vigilance to do away with the bloggers after they are released.The state it appears seem to have resorted to its most lethal weapon- blasphemy -when all efforts to prove any charges against them have failed..

Blasphemy allegation is also used as excuse to cover up for land grabbing purposes. The powerful elite have been using blasphemy as tool to grab the ancestral homes of minority groups. In 2014, Joseph colony residents were driven out by the owner of a steel mill located nearby. When the Christian residents refused to sell the property to the owner of the mill he alleged blasphemy against the population to force them out. As per the victims, the mill owner played on religious sentiments of the people, registered a case against the residents of Joseph Colony, and set the colony on fire. The victims also alleged that the police were also involved in the “conspiracy.

Similarly, Governor Salman Taseer and Shabaz Bhatti had to pay the price for being critical, while politician Sherry Rehman had to go into exile. Even speaking against the law now amounts to blasphemy.

Shielding religion from criticism cannot be regarded as a social good. Criticism, which is false can be tested and met with legitimate counter-arguments, while criticism which is true should be heard for the sake of correcting errors. In some cases, criticism helps improve theology. In more substantive cases, criticism is essential to shedding light on immoral or unlawful practices carried out in the name of religion.

While Mashal Khan’s case is a classic case of the misuse of the law, it will not be the last if the law persists in its current form. On April 20, barely a week after Mashal’s brutal death, a case was reported of a man being killed by three women who alleged blasphemy committed by him 13 years ago. Mashal’s death should therefore spur civil society to raise its voice for the abolishment of a law that has taken so many innocent lives and perpetrated hatred and violence.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) urges the government of Pakistan to abolish the blasphemy law in its entirety, particularly the controversial sections such as A, B, C of Section 295 and sub sections A and B of 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code

In its stead, the AHRC urges parliamentarians to draft a new law for the respect of all religions and sects. The new progressive and pluralistic law should not give people authority to make their own interpretations of religion or scriptures. The law must also strictly bind the law enforcement agencies to act only on the written complaint of blasphemy; unsubstantiated blasphemy accusations should not be the starting point of any criminal investigation. Mosques must not be allowed to use their loudspeakers for inciting the community against any accusation of blasphemy and it must be declared as the crime.

While the law should be aimed at those who indulge in vilification or attack upon particular religions or upon the founders and prophets of a religion, the state should secure the fundamental rights of those engaged in bona fide and honest criticism.

The international community can play its part by withholding aid to Pakistan and pressuring the state to abolish blasphemy laws and protect minority rights as equal citizens of the state.