Pakistan's blasphemy laws are akin to Islamist mob justice

Response to Mumtaz Qadri's execution shows that Islamabad's conservative forces are openly backing the repressive law.

 |  5-minute read |   02-03-2016
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In January 2011, Pakistani politician Salmaan Taseer was assassinated by his own bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri. Taseer, who was serving as the governor of Punjab province, had spoken out against the Islamic Republic's controversial blasphemy law. He had come out in support of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was sentenced to death by a Pakistani court on charges of insulting the Islamic prophet. Bibi had consistently denied any wrongdoing.

Being a seasoned politician, Taseer was well aware of the risk he was taking. Four days before his assassination, Taseer wrote on Twitter that he was "under huge pressure" to "cow down" before the blasphemy law. But he refused to do so and added that he would continue to fight even if he was "the last man standing."

Taseer paid a heavy price for opposing the blasphemy law in his country. In November 2014, The Economist wrote, "The killing and incarceration of people on flimsy accusations of insulting Islam has long shamed Pakistan. Hundreds, often members of religious minorities, have been ensnared by blasphemy laws that leave victims with little chance of defending themselves against malicious claims. Cowed judges are unwilling to examine evidence for fear of profanities being repeated in their courtrooms. Outside the courts, mobs can be quickly incited to acts of murder by fire-breathing mullahs."

The former Punjab governor must have hoped that his struggle and later sacrifice would change the perception of those Pakistanis who are in support of the blasphemy law. But things have hardly changed. The response to the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, Taseer's assassin, makes it clear that conservative forces within Pakistan are still openly backing the repressive blasphemy law.

Thousands of Pakistanis poured on the streets of Rawalpindi to attend the funeral of the assassin. Associated Press reported that the gathering cheered anti-government and pro-Qadri slogans. In fact one person wore a shirt which read "I'm Mumtaz Qadri." He added that "I wouldn't hesitate to do the same."

We know that there is something terribly wrong with the psyche of a people when they choose to sympathise with the assassin instead of the one assassinated. For such people, Taseer was an enemy of Islam since he sided with a person accused of blasphemy. And it is perfectly fine to murder such people in broad daylight by pumping multiple bullets into their body. This is Islamist street justice. Taseer faced it on the streets on Islamabad while Charlie Hebdo staff met the same fate in Paris. Even Bangladeshi secular and atheist bloggers have been murdered in the past by Islamist extremists.

Societies across the globe need to realise that there can be no justification for extra-judicial killings. No matter what Charlie Hebdo cartoonists draw, nobody in the entire world has a right to attack or kill them. Secondly, freedom of speech and expression is indeed not an absolute right in many countries. Therefore, if a bunch of people feel that a certain individual has outraged their religious sentiments, they have the liberty to take that person to court.

But the offended people cannot be allowed to take the law into their own hands. In Pakistan, the last 25 years have seen the murder of 62 people accused of blasphemy. One needs to emphasise on the necessity of a fair trial because blasphemy accused in Pakistan appear to be executed more frequently by lynch mobs instead of the state. No individual can be executed by a mob on the street which obviously assumes his guilt and provides him with no opportunity to prove his innocence.

Thirdly, we actually need to figure out what really constitutes blasphemy. The Economist noted, "On November 25th (2014) a judge in Gilgit Baltistan sentenced the owner of Geo, Pakistan's biggest private television channel, to 26 years in jail for broadcasting a popular Sufi song about the prophet during a light entertainment show." It is hard to believe that such an incident actually occurred.

The learned judges should be able to differentiate between free speech, fair criticism, humour and blasphemy. If the owner of a television channel in Pakistan can be sentenced for airing a Sufi song, then no one in that country is probably safe from the all encompassing, totalitarian and ridiculous blasphemy law.

Fourthly and very importantly, can death ever be a punishment for blasphemy? Do we have the right to take a person's life just because he has said, written or drawn something blasphemous? Punishment for blasphemy should mandatorily adhere to the principles of natural justice. Capital punishment ought to be exercised in the rarest of rare cases. Insulting a religious figure is condemnable but death penalty for such an offence amounts to going overboard.

Legislators across the world can choose to retain blasphemy laws but they've got to amend them. Civilised societies cannot be sending people to the gallows for their blasphemous utterances. Penalties for such offences need to be altered while judges should learn to exercise caution and common sense while dealing with blasphemy cases on the basis of evidence. Victimisation of people under the guise of the blasphemy law must be ruled out.

It was reported last week that 40 state-run Iranian media houses have come together and raised $600,000 dollars to be offered to anyone who fulfils Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's fatwa by killing Salman Rushdie. The action of the Iranian media houses is a direct incitement to violence. Those who stand for free speech should immediately ask for the arrest of all those who were involved in raising money for the assassination of Salman Rushdie.

Such blatant calls for murder are an insult to free speech and those whose religious feelings are easily hurt need to especially stand up against this call for extra-judicial violence against an author. What they also need to condemn is the eulogising of the murderer of Salmaan Taseer.

Writer

Saif Ahmad Khan Saif Ahmad Khan @saifakhan

The writer is pursuing MA Convergent Journalism from AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.

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