Why Pakistan's blasphemy law will come back to haunt it

It is important to remember the ordinance was passed by Zia-ul-Haq, a dictator, and we cannot separate the law from the lawmaker.

 |  5-minute read |   18-01-2017
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Last week - in a move widely celebrated across Pakistani social media - a case was registered in Pakistan's courts in the aftermath of the alleged kidnapping of four secular activists, including renowned academic and human rights advocate Salman Haider.

The case didn't revolve around government complacency in their lack of response for an immediate investigation into the abduction of these citizens, or against the control of social media by the draconian Pakistani establishment. It called for the prosecution of these kidnapped individuals under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which underlines the mandated punishment for blasphemy - death.

This case was registered by the chair of the civil society of Pakistan, Muhammad Tahir, who justified his actions on the ground that these activists were admins of social media pages that "not only posted inflammatory content against state agencies but were guilty of the worst kind of blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)".

pakistan-activists-d_011817022559.jpg Activist and academic Salman Haider was reported missing on January 7.

While protests have erupted in the UK and other western countries with Muslim communities against the abductions and the untimely filing of the blasphemy case, the liberal pushback in Pakistan has been disturbingly lukewarm.

Even the most outspoken secular activists seemed to tailor their message to something along the lines of "we're not saying they did the right thing, or the blasphemy law shouldn't be applied in this case, but they should be brought before a court of law".

That is an awfully meek opposition to a law which didn't even exist for half of Pakistan's history. But their opposition or lack thereof, is understandable. Surely, the murders of Salman Taseer, Sabeen Mehmud, Rashid Rehman and others who stood up are fresh in their memory.

But that is the trap we have fallen into on both sides of the ideological spectrum: that the kidnappings or bursts of violence are in any significant way related to religion. It is about power, and the fact that underpinnings such as religion reinforce it, does not make it any less of what it is.

Within this last week, there were reports of another missing person feared abducted - Maulana Abdul Wasim, a prominent member of the Majlis Tahafuz-e-Khatam-e-Nabuwat.

He is no radical liberal vying for a secular Pakistan; in fact, the organisation he is affiliated with is linked to attacks against the Ahmadi minority.

This break in "trend" is in no way an anomaly. In Balochistan, thousands of citizens who fall in no way contrary to Pakistan's religious mainstream have been kidnapped.

Last year, the Pakistan parliament passed the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, more commonly known as the "cyber crime" law, which gives the government immense agency to put down dissent on social media. But repression by its very nature is uncontrollable and, hence, unsustainable.

What Pakistani officials need to realise, regardless of whether they were complicit in the kidnappings, is that the power to put down the powerless is not a smoking gun - it is a boomerang that will come back and strike them when they abandon the annals of power for those who come after them.

We have seen this before in recent history with the seizures and arrests that accompany each successive administration targeted at officials appointed by previous administrations. The blasphemy law has only extended the power of the state to do this.

It is important to keep in mind that the blasphemy ordinance was passed by Zia-ul-Haq, a dictator, and we cannot separate the law from the lawmaker. The legislature was intended to reinforce the ruling elite's grip over the masses, and it continues to do so today.

The more powerful the establishment, the worse it is for the present establishment, for people will come and go, but the power of the institution will stay, ripe for exploitation by the men and women of the day.

That is not to say that respect for the Prophet is not paramount - respect for religious ideas and principles is an important facet of theological democracy. However, we do naught but disrespect the said religion when we use it to abuse the power that comes with the weight of the blasphemy law.

Religion has been used to justify many of our worst actions in human history. We must abandon any pretence of love and respect for religion before they unravel the religious haven we crafted for ourselves 70 years ago. The state must do this not for us, or democracy, or even for Islam.

It should do this purely in self-interest, because this monstrosity that it has created is one that no one can fully control, and one that has, and will affect the state's own interests in the future.

It is time to put away the blasphemy boomerang before it swings back and strikes us when we least expect it.

Also read: Why Pakistan is the culprit is to blame for Sabeen Mahmud's murder



Hamza Tariq

The writer researches and writes on South Asian affairs at the Hudson Institute’s South Asia Program, as well as at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

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