Recommend UsEmail this PageeGazetteAlislam.org
In the past few months, there has been a noticeable increase in religiously-motivated violence against minority communities, especially in Punjab. The most recent case is that of 20-year-old Robert Fanish Masih, whose mysterious death in the Sialkot district jail, where he was interned after accusations of defiling the Holy Quran, raises serious suspicions of foul play and murder. According to a press release by the Joint Action Committee, this incident is reminiscent of an earlier one in which Muhammad Yousaf, also accused of committing blasphemy, was found dead in jail and the authorities declared it to be a case of suicide.
Cases of murderous attacks against Christians by frenzied mobs have risen at an alarming rate. In March, a Christian woman was killed in Gujranwala where a church was attacked. On June 30, a mob destroyed more than 50 Christian houses in Bahmaniwala in Kasur district and looted and plundered the village. And on July 30, seven people were brutally murdered in the Gojra carnage.
The typical pattern in many of these cases is an accusation (usually false) of the commission of blasphemy by a rival. This is normally followed by announcements from mosques loudspeakers inciting people who then congregate and turn upon their own neighbours and erstwhile friends. As pointed out by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the local administration and police often collude with the perpetrators or, at best, stand by and do nothing, themselves fearful of the mob. The state becomes an onlooker instead of intervening to protect its powerless citizens against the heinous crimes committed in broad daylight.
As the large number of blasphemy cases in the past have demonstrated, the real motive for instigating the crowd often has nothing to do with blasphemy. Frequently, disputes over money, property or other pecuniary matters lead to false accusations of blasphemy. An accusation of blasphemy is invariably deployed as a weapon to browbeat others into submission. In the famous case of Salamat Masih, a 14-year-old accused of writing blasphemous words on a wall, the quarrel among children started over pigeon fights. Had human rights activists like Asma Jahangir not saved his life, our state was about to send an innocent person — a child — to the gallows. The horrific implications of law cannot be overstated.
What has enabled religion to be used as a weapon to incite raw passions against fellow citizens to murder them with impunity? The immediate cause is the pernicious and widely abused blasphemy law as enunciated in Chapter XV of the Pakistan Penal Code. Sections 295 to 298 of the chapter refer to offences related to religion. Section 295 provides that, “Whoever destroys, damages or defiles any place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defilement as an insult to their religion, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years or with fine or with both.” In 1927, the British government added 295-A which reads that “whoever with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of His Majesty’s subjects, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.” In 1991, the imprisonment term was extended from two to 10 years.
In 1982, at the peak of General Zia’s period, 295-B was added to include the desecration of the Holy Quran and to enhance punishment. This section reads as follows: “Whoever wilfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Quran or of an extract therefrom, or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.” The Majlis-e-Shoora designed by Zia further added 295-C, which reads: “Whoever by word, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) shall be punished with death or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.” In 1990, the Federal Shariat Court constituted by Zia hammered the last nail in the coffin of sanity and justice by declaring that Islam provides punishment for hadd which is mandatory, therefore the words “imprisonment for life” should be removed from Section 295-C. Now, the only punishment for blasphemy was death. Section 298 relates to the Ahmadiyya community and institutionalises systemic prejudice against their right to practice their faith.
Before the Federal Shariat Court provided for the mandatory death penalty, no case of blasphemy was registered under Section 295-B or 295-C. This judgment paved the way for murder and created the environment in which vigilantism was encouraged and promoted. Manzoor Masih lost his life in a wanton act of murder outside the Lahore High Court. One of the court’s judges, Justice Arif Bhatti, who overturned the conviction of Salamat and Rehmat Masih by a lower court, was murdered by the purveyors of a grotesquely distorted religion. Niamat Ahmar, a poet and teacher, was butchered in Faisalabad by activists of the Sipah-e-Sahab-e-Pakistan; Bantu Masih and Mukhtar Masih were killed in police custody by fundamentalists while the authorities looked on. In 2008, two Ahmadis were murdered when a television anchor declared their community wajib-ul-qatl (deserving to be killed).
How has the state enabled this travesty of justice, this steady descent into inhumanity? The blasphemy law is only a part of the story; the issue of religious inequality and discrimination is much deeper. The entire problem began with the Objectives Resolution of 1949 when the state began to move in the direction of a theocracy. Its passage, despite the objections of the non-Muslim members of the Constituent Assembly, became possible because Jinnah’s vision, as outlined on August 11, 1947, was overlooked. Subsequently, every Constitution of Pakistan (1956, 1962 and 1973) carried a section on Islamic provisions which mandated that all laws would be enacted in line with religion.
Religious discrimination and inequality are institutionalised within the state structure. Article 2 of the Constitution declares that Islam is the state religion and Article 2-A makes the Objectives Resolution a substantive part of the Constitution. Non-Muslim citizens cannot hold two of the highest offices of the land and Islamic provisions of the Constitution (Articles 227-230) are designed to ensure that all laws conform to the Holy Quran and Sunnah. Citizens belonging to other faiths are systemically excluded and relegated to a secondary position. The increasingly religious character of the Constitution, with General Zia’s Eighth Amendment protecting his draconian vision and measures, violates the principle of equal citizenship on which the entire edifice of democracy rests.
Every provision that reduces the citizenship status of groups of people contradicts Article 25 (1) of the fundamental rights chapter which pronounces that all citizens are equal before the law. Similarly, Article 8 (1) avers that any law, custom or usage that is inconsistent with the rights conferred by this chapter shall be null and void. It follows that all the provisions that create discrimination and inequality among citizens should be removed. As Pakistanis focus on the task of reformulating their basic law and re-imagining their state, it seems prudent to separate religion from politics, as their mixture debases both religion and politics – the former by associating it purely with the attainment of political power and militant activity, the latter by making some more equal than others. Merely repealing the blasphemy law is not sufficient; we need to transform the basic framework from which such laws flow.