A hydra-esque monster has reared its head again in Pakistan, as the country’s controversial blasphemy laws retake center stage.
A prominent Pakistani director, Syed Noor, is about to release a film in which the hero kills a man for blasphemously proclaiming himself a prophet. The central theme of the movie, called “Aik Aur Ghazi” (One More Holy Warrior), is that anyone who dares to commit blasphemy should be killed.
Noor’s film comes in the wake of the assassination of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab and an outspoken critic of the blasphemy laws. The governor’s killer, Mumtaz Qadri, said Taseer deserved to die for speaking out against the laws. In return for his brutality, Qadri has been met with overwhelming support from the public — he was showered with rose petals on his way to the antiterrorist court in Rawalpindi days after committing the murder, and just last week received Valentine’s Day cards from his supporters. Many of these supporters will undoubtedly flock to see Noor’s film.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws criminalize any insult to Islam and its last prophet, and any attempt to alter them is met with life-threatening opposition. Parliamentarian Sherry Rehman, who was spearheading a move to reform the laws, was practically confined to her home because of death threats; recently, the government asked Rehman to withdraw a bill proposing amendments to these laws fearing a massive public backlash. This latest subjugation of the antiradical voice in a society fighting a war on extremism has been a major setback.
While Muslims have been charged under the blasphemy laws, it is the marginalized religious minorities who have suffered the most. The persecution of minorities in the name of religion dates back to the founding of Pakistan in 1947, created after a bitter struggle for independence by the Muslims of India — who were a minority themselves. Following the country’s creation, the notion of Pakistan as a land solely for Muslims began to dominate the public narrative and translated into massive political, economic and social biases against religious minorities.
This discrimination was legally institutionalized through section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, commonly referred to as the blasphemy laws, which were made part of Pakistan’s constitution in the 1980s by the dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. The rest of the damage was done during the democratic rule of Nawaz Sharif, now the head of Pakistan’s leading opposition party, when life imprisonment was excluded from Section 295-C and the death penalty became the sole fate for anyone who insults Islam, the prophet Muhammad or the Holy Koran.
To obtain legal conviction for blasphemy, it is not mandatory to prove intent. In the southern city of Karachi, a man from the minority Ismaili sect of Islam was accused of blasphemy after throwing the business card of a man named Muhammad, also the name of the prophet.
Among the minorities of Pakistan, the Ahmadiyya community has had it the worst. Ahmadi Muslims, widely believed to be heretics of Islam, were constitutionally deemed non-Muslims in the early ’70s, and have since been subjected to violent attacks, the most recent of which was a 2010 assault on Ahmadi mosques, which killed 98 people. In Pakistan, just being an Ahmadi is synonymous with being blasphemous to Islam. In 2009, four Ahmadi boys between the age of 14 and 16 were arrested on charges of blasphemy.
The Christian community also comes under attack from these laws again and again. Two major incidents include the Shanti Nagar massacre in 1997 in which 2,500 Christians had to flee their village, and the Gojra Riots of 2010, when eight Christians were buried alive. In both cases, blasphemy was cited as the reason for the attacks.
The most high-profile contemporary blasphemy case in Pakistan is that of Aasia Noreen Bibi, a Christian laborer from a small village in Punjab. A 46-year-old mother of three, Aasia Bibi was sentenced to death by a district court on November 8, 2010, after more than a year of imprisonment. Although blasphemy cases against women are not unheard of, Bibi is the first woman to have been sentenced to death for this crime. The dispute that lead to Bibi’s death sentence began in June 2009, when her fellow Muslim workers reportedly told her that they would not drink water from the same glass she had touched because it was not allowed in Islam. Research by Jinnah Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank, shows that Bibi did not have a lawyer through her trial and did not even understand the blasphemy law or the nature of charges against her.
Supporters of the blasphemy laws belong to all sects of Islam — Sunni, Shia, Barelvi, Deobandi and Wahabi. Despite their intersect hatred for each other, extremists from each group have been united in discriminating against Pakistan’s religious minorities. Some liberal factions have stood to oppose them, including human rights activists and people from the educated middle-class.
The late governor Taseer was one such liberal voice. Taseer had promised Bibi that a mercy petition on her behalf would be submitted to the president and assured her relief. Soon after, he was shot dead. His assassination reduced the remaining hopes for Bibi’s release.
Today Pakistan is a battlefield between two forces. One clings to religion for the justification of its identity. On the other side is a small group of vocal liberals. Meanwhile, the majority of the country fends off poverty and starvation, and is too busy making ends meet to bother with candle-lit vigils to protest against discriminatory legislation. If there is to be any end to such persecution, the Pakistani state and its society will need a Herculean effort to put this hydra down.
Rabia Mehmood is a Pakistani journalist currently working at Need to Know. You can follow her Twitter feed @Rabail26.