Pakistan’s tenets of the faith

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan endanger lives as well as freedom of speech.

The country of Pakistan was created primarily to allow the Muslims of the subcontinent to practise their religious beliefs freely. It would be fair to assume, then, that Pakistan would also provide ample space to its religious minorities. Inevitably, though, the rationale for an independent country was translated into making Pakistan a model Islamic state. To date, there is no near-consensus on what that means.

After independence, the ruling elite employed Islam as a central theme for nationhood. However, when the occasion arose to implement Islamic laws, the politicians shied away from this, comprehending the risks involved. Islamisation would naturally empower the orthodoxy, relegate religious minorities and women to second place, and pose challenges to modern governance. Initially, some com­promises were made in the name of religion, many of which were detrimental to the rights of women. All personal laws (family laws and rules of inheritance) were based on religious tenets and a preamble was adopted in the constitution that paid lip-service to the democratisation of Pakistan "as enunciated by Islam".

General Zia-ul-Haq, a dictator and unscru­pulous political actor, used Islam as a pretext for waging war in Afghanistan and adopting an aggressive stance towards India. By advancing a more orthodox version of Islam, he was able to hold on to a repressive regime and quell any opposition. Zia's first pieces of legislation were the hudood ordinances, introduced in 1979. Hudood laws made all sex outside of marriage punishable for both males and females, with stoning to death as hadd punishment (which has never been carried out). The lesser sentences are imprisonment and 30 lashes of the whip, or ten years' imprisonment, which were routinely executed. Women were greater victims of this law on two counts. First, the loss of virginity led to a presumption that zina (sex outside marriage) had been committed. Second, rape victims had to prove a watertight case or risk being accused, even where they had pressed charges.

There used to be very few women in prisons, but this changed with the introduction of the hudood laws. Initially, hundreds of women were hauled into prison, until a small but energetic women's movement forced Zia to modify his plans and stop them further degrading the status of women. Instead, he turned his attention to religious minorities to keep the rigid and bloodthirsty mullahs satisfied.

The Ahmadiyya sect in Pakistan was declared non-Muslim by parliament in 1974, when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was prime minister. Muslims have a strong animosity towards Ahmadis - some advocate killing them for holding heretical beliefs. In 1984, Zia introduced harsh penal laws that banned them from calling their places of worship mosques or professing their religion openly. Pakistan's courts validated these laws on the premise that Ahmadis were posing as Muslims, which in itself was heresy and therefore punishable.

This was not enough to abate the orthodox fervour of Zia's cronies, who began to demand harsher punishments for blasphemy. This led to the addition to the penal code of Section 295C, which prescribes a mandatory death penalty for anyone who, through "either speech, writing" or other visible representation or by way of "imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly", defiles the name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad.
Initially religious minorities were accused of violating the law, but later Muslims were also implicated. The elderly, physically and mentally disabled, women and children were accused and convicted. Very few convictions were upheld, due to a lack of evidence. But in a large number of cases the accused were murdered before arrest or during trial. Some were murdered while in prison and no inquiry has ever been held over these deaths in custody.

Sanction for jihad

The fear of being accused of blasphemy rose, especially among the non-Muslim population of Pakistan. Voices were raised to repeal or at least amend the law. Human rights groups documented incidents of alleged blasphemy and were able to demonstrate that a disproportionately large number of accusations were made by Muslim clergy and that a huge number of them were false. The accused were almost always helpless in the face of intimidation and a frightened or biased judiciary.

The right wing, meanwhile, took up the cause of retaining the law. Successive governments kept both sides hopeful. They promised both to end misuse of the law and to leave it be, as it portrayed true tenets of the faith. This indecision emboldened Islamists, who openly vowed to kill anyone who dared to criticise the law.

Tragically, in January 2011, the governor of Punjab was murdered in broad daylight in Islamabad. He had visited a young Christian woman jailed for blasphemy, and had called for a change in the law. In March, the minister for minority affairs, a young and courageous Christian activist, was gunned down in Islamabad. Several others are on the hit list of the militants.

It appears that the worst is yet to come as political instability increases. Past experience has shown that the Islamists gain space when civilian authority weakens. The proliferation of arms and official sanction for jihad have made militant groups a frightening challenge for the government. Pakistan's future remains uncertain and its will to fight against rising religious intolerance is waning.