In my previous essay on this blog, on the foolishness of the legislation that is now before the Vidhan Sabha or legislature of the Punjab Government that would render “blasphemy” an offence punishable with a life sentence, I adverted to the application of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, a close study of which suggests just how vulnerable such legislation is to exploitation not only by the state but by those who terrorize the population in the name of adherence to Islam. Political repression is a problem in every country in South Asia, and the recent crackdown on human rights activists in India, and the arrest of the acclaimed photographer and social activist Shahidul Alam in Bangladesh, are ominous signs of how the repressive apparatus of the state has been deployed to stifle the freedom of speech and create a climate of fear in which agents of the state can act with utter impunity.
The problem in Pakistan is, if anything, more acute. There is widespread agreement among scholars, experts, political commentators, and those who have been keenly observing developments in Pakistan that the country has been overwhelmed by political turbulence in the last two decades. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are quite innocent of any real self-reflexivity and are impervious, in their own fashion, to critiques of a notion of “human rights” which often has done little except serve, even if inadvertently, imperialist regimes. This is apart from other, equally pressing, considerations of the questionable ontological bases of conceptions of ‘rights’. Nevertheless, whatever the soundness of such critiques, the reports of these organizations and other similar human rights group do furnish something of a barometer by which we may judge how far states are observant of the rights of their subjects and whether they treat most of their subjects with dignity.
Going by these reports, Pakistan’s record on the human rights front has been abysmal. Successive reports over the last five years of Human Rights Watch, quite possibly the most respectable international organization of its kind in the world alongside Amnesty International, provide unimpeachable evidence of the breakdown of the rule of law and the arbitrary dispensation of justice. Extrajudicial killings and political assassinations are all too common, corruption in the police forces is rampant, and security for common people can no longer be even remotely guaranteed by the state. But let us begin with this fact: The official religion of Pakistan is Islam. That was not the case at the inception of Pakistan, even if the country was founded as a Muslim-majority state. Though there are small numbers of adherents of other religions, principally Hindus and Christians, Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. There is substantial and even conclusive evidence, which emanates from a wide array of sources, that religious minorities are at grave risk in Pakistan—though, again, having said this, one must also allow for the fact that there are equally reliable reports and ethnographies of Hindu communities which suggest that Hindus continue to have a place in Pakistani society.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, in its 2014 Annual Report, expressed alarm at the declining environment for religious tolerance in Pakistan and went so far as to recommend that it be designated, alongside nations such as Saudi Arabia and North Korea, a “Country of Particular Concern” (p. 8). Once again, we shall have to leave aside the politics of this commission, and the question of why it should be viewed as having any real standing: the right that American organizations have arrogated to themselves to pontificate on the shortcomings of others is much more than suspect. “The past ten years”, state the report’s authors, “have seen a worsening of the already-poor religious environment in Pakistan” (p. 10), and they add that “in the past year, conditions hit an all-time low due to chronic sectarian violence targeting mostly Shia Muslims but also Christians, Ahmadis, and Hindus” (p. 80). Though the Ahmadis, or Ahmadiyyas, accept all five pillars of Islam and are rigorous adherents of their faith, Pakistan is the only country in the world to have them officially declared non-Muslims since, in addition to the Prophet, they also accept Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) as a Messiah. (Ahmadis face considerable persecution in Bangladesh; however, they have not officially been branded as ‘kafirs’.) The Second Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan as well as Ordinance XX of 1984, promulgated during the military administration of General Zia-ul-Haq, not only deprive Ahmadis of their religious rights but even debar Ahmadis from reading the Quran, reciting the Kalima (the Muslim creed), or from joining other Muslims in prayer. The level of religious intolerance in Pakistan towards those who are deemed as heretics may be gauged from the fact that an Ahmadi who uses the Muslim greeting, “As-salam alaykum”, has committed a criminal offence under the laws of Pakistan and can be prosecuted accordingly. One does not have to accept the authority or even legitimacy of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom to come to such conclusions.
A recent December 2014 report by the London-based Minority Rights Group, the most respected non-governmental global organization of its kind, furnishes more decisive evidence of the climate of religious intolerance in Pakistan and the “daily challenges faced by Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus and other groups in the country.” The executive summary of the report, entitled Searching for Security: The Rising Marginalization of Religious Communities in Pakistan (London: Minority Rights Group International, 2014), states that though minority religious communities “have suffered discrimination in Pakistan for decades, their persecution has intensified in recent years and has now reached critical levels” (p. 3). Among other forms of discrimination, the report notes “the frequent use of blasphemy laws” (p. 3) to denigrate non-Muslims and points out that the extremists among some Sunnis, who constitute the vast majority in Pakistan, view Shias as apostates and have thus directed violence at them. Apostates, the authors stated unambiguously, may “face regular hostility from extremists and public calls for members to be killed” (p. 8).
Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary both define an apostate as a person who “renounces a religious or political belief or principle”, and furnish the following words as synonyms: traitor, defector, turncoat, deserter, among others. The December 2013 report of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, Political and Legal Status of Apostates in Islam, makes the point that apostasy is no longer a crime anywhere in the world except in Muslim countries (p. 7). Twenty-seven countries where Islam is the only or the predominant religion inflict punishment on apostates or blasphemers, including those who are “atheists, secularists, and freethinkers” (pp. 6, 8). Pakistan is not among those eleven countries—including Sudan, Yemen, and two countries that see themselves as implacable foes of each other, Iran and Saudi Arabia—where apostasy is a capital offence, punishable by death, and there are no explicit anti-apostasy laws in Pakistan. However, this report is unequivocal in its description of the consequences for apostates in Pakistan: “Other countries without apostasy laws, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, use blasphemy and other religious protection laws to persecute apostates” (p. 6). The report describes the introduction of blasphemy laws (Sections 295-B, 295-C, and 298A-C) into Pakistan’s Penal Code in the 1980s and the restrictions henceforth on the right to freedom of speech with regard to religion, and states that “since then, it has been extremely dangerous to express dissent against Islam.” Though apostasy itself is not explicitly punishable, blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan under the Pakistan Penal Code: defiling the name of Muhammad carries a death sentence, as affirmed by the federal Sharia Court which in 1990 ruled that defiling Muhammad’s name is “death and nothing else” (p. 67). Moreover, it is important to emphasize that blasphemy laws are, in fact, stringently enforced: between 1986 and 2010, at least 1,274 people were charged under the law.
The Political and Legal Status of Apostates highlights other features that need to be underscored. A charge of blasphemy is often a cover for an ordinary crime: now, five years after the publication of this report, the Pakistani press reports the death of a young artist, Qutab Rind, who was killed by a landlord on account of an alteration over rent and then falsely accused of blasphemy. An accusation can be made falsely, and often is made, without any consequences for the accuser though the accused might face enormous risks including oppression by an enraged public. Owing to the number of false accusations, the government in 2005 passed a law requiring the police to investigate accusations of blasphemy before filing charges, but this law is not always followed and certainly has not precluded mob justice. The report thus notes a climate of vigilante justice; in other words, even where the state may not take action against an apostate or a blasphemer, this does not preclude people from taking the law into their own hands. The report notes that “at least 51 people accused of blasphemy were murdered before their respective trials were over” (p. 67); the newspaper report from last month on the death of Qutab Rind states that “nearly 70 people had been lynched to death in Pakistan on blasphemy charges whereas another 40 are currently on death row or serving life sentence for blasphemy charges in Pakistan since 1990.” As is well known, and as was reported widely in Indian, British, and American newspapers, the Governor of Pakistan’s Punjab Province, Salman Taseer, a Muslim, was assassinated in broad daylight on 4 January 2011 for his opposition to the blasphemy laws; so was, ironically, the Minister for Minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, specifically for his support of Asia Noreen Bibi, the first woman sentenced to death, allegedly for defaming the name of Muhammad, under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
There is corroboration for the views stated in the report The Political and Legal Status of Apostates in Islam in various other authoritative reports from organizations in Canada and the US. Let me return to the afore-mentioned report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, where it is argued that blasphemy-like codes in Pakistan have stifled religious freedom and emboldened extremists to commit violence. In the report’s own words, “In Pakistan, such codes fuel extremist violence threatening all Pakistanis” (p. 3), and again: “Pakistan’s laws and practice are particularly egregious in this regard, with its constantly-abused law penalizing blasphemous acts with the death penalty or life in prison” (p. 27). The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, in collaboration with the UN Refugee Agency, issued a report in 2013 entitled Pakistan: Religious conversion, including treatment of converts and forced conversions (2009-2012) which again substantiates these finds. The report states, and I quote, “In all mainstreams of Islamic jurisprudence abandoning Islam is considered a capital crime, particularly for men”. This is true for those who have converted to another religion as it of those who have abandoned Islam without taking up another religion.
With all this evidence from a neighboring country before it, does the Punjab Government want to push forward a blasphemy laws to protect worshippers from blasphemers? Emphatically not; indeed, wherever such laws are to be found in India, they should be summarily scrapped.