Could this be the beginning of the end for Pakistan's blasphemy laws?

A positive move by local police after a Hindu temple was attacked.

Most people have heard of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Carrying the death penalty of life imprisonment for anyone who criticises the Prophet Muhammed or the Qur’an, it gained renewed international scrutiny this year after Rimsha Masih, a young Christian girl apparently suffering from Down's Syndrome, was arrested in Islamabad. She was subsequently freed and a Muslim cleric now stands accused of fabricating evidence against her.

While it was highly unusual that she was freed at all – alleged blasphemers are rarely let off, and even if they are released, are at high risk of vigilante justice – the jumped up charges against her were less so. As I wrote last year, the light burden of proof means that the law is frequently used as a weapon against Pakistan’s religious minorities:

“Hardly any evidence is required - the accuser can even refuse to repeat the blasphemy in court for fear of committing the crime himself - and so the law is frequently used as a means of settling personal scores or stirring up sectarian tension.”

But could that be changing? Here in Karachi, protests against the anti-Islam film that have caused rallies across the Muslim world turned violent. One of the incidents on 21 September was an attack on a Hindu Temple on the outskirts of the city. Protesters attacked the Sri Krishna Ram temple, breaking religious statues, tearing up the Bhagavad Gita (the holy book), and assaulting the temple’s caretaker.

Community leaders took the unusual step of going to the police, who have announced that the case against nine attackers has been registered under Section 295-A of the blasphemy laws. This lesser known section, which covers the “outraging of religious feelings”, can apply to any religion and carries a fine or imprisonment of up to 10 years.

Of course, this case does not represent a sea-change in attitudes just yet. For a start, no one has been charged, or even arrested. But it was a positive move by local police, if only because Pakistan’s religious minorities are frequently too frightened to speak out at all. Numbering about four per cent of the population, this small minority of Christians, Hindus and Islamic sects such as the Ahmadis (regarded as non-Muslims) translates to nearly ten million people, the equivalent of the population of Tunisia. It is not an insignificant number.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has offered measured support for the move, with the chair, Zohra Yusuf, saying that she has never heard of another blasphemy case registered against Muslims for damaging a house of worship. However, she pointed out that blasphemy laws are never used when Ahmadi houses of worship are attacked, as the often are. Four attacks on churches in Karachi earlier this year have also gone unpunished.

But the potential application of the blasphemy law against Muslims and in defence of a minority faith is an interesting development. Past events have put paid to any political appetite to change or scrap the law. Last year, two ministers who criticised it were assassinated, with the reform shelved soon afterwards, and it retains mass support. If the law is not going to be eliminated or modified (which looks extremely unlikely), it could at least be made fairer in its application. Anything that reduces its power as a hammer with which to beat minorities is a step in the right direction, however modest.

Rallies have been held against the anti-Islam film in Pakistan. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Britain's shrinking democracy

10 million people - more than voted for Labour in May - will be excluded from the new electoral roll.

Despite all the warnings the government is determined to press ahead with its decision to close the existing electoral roll on December 1. This red letter day in British politics is no cause for celebration. As the Smith Institute’s latest report on the switch to the new system of voter registration shows, we are about to dramatically shrink our democracy.  As many as 10 million people are likely to vanish from the electoral register for ever – equal to 20 per cent of the total electorate and greater than Labour’s entire vote in the 2015 general election. 

Anyone who has not transferred over to the new individual electoral registration system by next Tuesday will be “dropped off” the register. The independent Electoral Commission, mindful of how the loss of voters will play out in forthcoming elections, say they need at least another year to ensure the new accuracy and completeness of the registers.

Nearly half a million voters (mostly the young and those in private rented homes) will disappear from the London register. According to a recent HeraldScotland survey around 100,000 residents in Glasgow may also be left off the new system. The picture is likely to be much the same in other cities, especially in places where there’s greater mobility and concentrations of students.

These depleted registers across the UK will impact more on marginal Labour seats, especially  where turnout is already low. Conversely, they will benefit Tories in future local, Euro and general elections. As the Smith Institute report observers, Conservative voters tend to be older, home owners and less transient – and therefore more likely to appear on the electoral register.

The government continues to ignore the prospect of skewed election results owing to an incomplete electoral registers. The attitude of some Tory MPs hardly helping. For example, Eleanor Laing MP (the former shadow minister for justice) told the BBC that “if a young person cannot organize the filling in of a form that registers them to vote, they don’t deserve the right to vote”.  Leaving aside such glib remarks, what we do know is the new registers will tend to favour MPs whose support is found in more affluent rural and semi-rural areas which have stable populations.  

Even more worrying, the forthcoming changes to MPs constituencies (under the Boundary Review) will be based on the new electoral register. The new parliamentary constituencies will be based not on the voting population, but on an inaccurate and incomplete register. As Institute’s report argues, these changes are likely to unjustly benefit UKIP and the Conservative party.

That’s not to say that the voter registration system doesn’t need reforming.  It clearly does. Indeed, every evidence-based analysis of electoral registers over the last 20 years shows that both accuracy and completeness are declining – the two features of any electoral register that make it credible or not. But, the job must be done properly.  Casually leaving 10m voters off the electoral resister hardly suggests every effort has been made.

The legitimacy of our democratic system rests on ensuring that everyone can exercise their right to vote. This is a task which shouldn’t brook complacency or compromise.  We should be aiming for maximum voter registration, not settling for a system where one in five drop off the register.