The Kafkaesque reality of Pakistan's blasphemy laws

Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, is under police investigation for alleged blasphemy after making the case on television for the law to be re-examined and for the death penalty to be removed.

In Franz Kafka’s novel, The Trial, the protagonist Josef K. is unexpectedly arrested by two unidentified agents from an unspecified agency for an unspecified crime. For the duration of the story, neither Josef nor the reader knows what he is supposed to have done, even when he is eventually killed for his crime.

The situation surrounding Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws is not dissimilar. The law means that anyone found guilty of defaming the Prophet Muhammed can be sentenced to death. Many facing such accusations have been forced into hiding or killed by mobs before they even stand trial.

Blasphemy laws in and of themselves are not unusual: many countries across the world have legislation which restricts what one can say about religion. The problem in Pakistan comes from the exceptionally harsh penalties, and the light burden of proof. The law sets out no guidance on what constitutes blasphemy, no standards for evidence, no requirement to prove intent, and no safeguards to punish those who make false allegations. This means that, essentially, the standard for blasphemy is whatever offends the accuser. As such, it is frequently used to persecute minorities or settle personal vendettas.

Witnesses can refuse to repeat the alleged blasphemy in court, in case they themselves become culpable. There have been stories of judges refusing to hear evidence defending the accused for fear of offending religious zealots. Blasphemy is a non-compoundable crime, meaning that cases cannot be settled out of court. Once a charge is filed, it is difficult for the case to be quashed, and the accuser cannot simply drop charges. It is not unthinkable that someone could be accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death without ever being told exactly what they are meant to have said and thus being unable to disprove it. Suddenly, Kafka’s Josef F doesn’t seem quite so surreal.

That blasphemy laws are a serious impediment to freedom of speech goes without saying. But the extent to which this is true has been highlighted yet again in recent days, with the news on 21 February that Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, is under police investigation over allegations of blasphemy.

The basic facts of the case are as follows. In late 2010, before Rehman had been posted to the US, she lodged a private members' bill seeking to abolish the death penalty for blasphemy after Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman, was sentenced to death. Two other politicians who were campaigning for a change to the law were murdered soon afterwards. Salman Taseer was shot in January 2011, and Shahbaz Batti in March 2011. Blasphemy reform was shelved soon afterwards.

On 30 November 2010, before Rehman’s private members' bill had been thrown out, she appeared on Dunya TV’s news programme, Dunya Meray Aagay. She repeated her calls for the law to be re-examined and for the death penalty to be removed. Remarks she made on the show prompted Muhammad Faheem Akhtar Gill, a marble dealer in Multan, to lobby police to register a case against her for blasphemy. After nearly three years of persuasion, his efforts have been successful, and the police have started an investigation under the orders of the Supreme Court. Given the aforementioned problems with the blasphemy legislation, the media cannot report what Rehman is supposed to have said, in case newspapers fall foul of the law. People are clearly curious: a Google search for “Sherry Rehman - what did she say” yields 21,800 results.

That a lawmaker should face a criminal investigation for discussing a parliamentary matter is, once again, Kafkaesque. The law of parliamentary privilege applies in Pakistan. It gives members of parliament legal immunity for actions done or statements made in the course of their legislative duties. The idea underpinning this law is that parliamentary business shouldn’t be impeded by restrictions on free speech. In the United Kingdom, where libel laws are the biggest drag on free speech, MPs cannot be censured for defamatory statements made while they are in the Houses of Parliament. Given that blasphemy laws are arguably the most significant restriction on free speech in Pakistan, it would not be unreasonable to expect a similar immunity.

Of course, parliamentary privilege covers lawmakers while they are actually in parliament – and when Rehman was speaking to Dunya TV, she clearly was not in the parliament building. But the fundamental fact remains: the blasphemy reform bill was passing through the legislature and a lawmaker is now facing charges for discussing it. A crucial part of a functioning democracy is the ability to openly and publicly debate significant legislative changes before they are passed into the statute book. If proposed legal changes cannot be openly discussed without politicians facing prosecution, it has serious ramifications for the very functioning of the Pakistani state. It is the public that will suffer if laws and policies can’t be debated and scrutinised.

The blasphemy law has created and facilitated a culture of vigilantism. As soon as someone has been accused of blasphemy, they live under the threat of death. When the young Christian girl Rimsha Masih was falsely accused of blasphemy last year, her family was forced into hiding. According to the Islamabad-based Centre for Security Studies, at least 52 people accused of blasphemy have been killed since 1990. Many die at the hands of angry mobs before they are convicted. Given this high threat of violence, it is perhaps unsurprising that politicians are afraid to touch blasphemy law.

In Pakistan, as in my countries across the world, those who shout the loudest end up wielding the most power. Unfortunately, extremist or conservative elements are more than capable of invoking religion to stir up mass outrage and violence. There is no doubt that this has had a chilling effect on free speech across the board; campaigners working in areas from women’s rights to internet censorship can find themselves dismissed as blasphemers or immoral people, and facing the associated backlash.

Politicians should not be above the law (a particularly sore point given recent corruption allegations), but nor should they be penalised for doing their jobs. A situation where the reform of a particular law cannot be discussed in case the discussion itself breaks that law is worthy of a Kafka story, but not of a healthy and functioning state.


Sherry Rehman, who was appointed Pakistan's ambassador to the US on 23 November 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

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

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After the “Tatler Tory” bullying scandal, we must ask: what is the point of party youth wings?

A zealous desire for ideological purity, the influence of TV shows like House of Cards and a gossip mill ever-hungry for content means that the youth wings of political parties can be extremely toxic places.

If you wander around Westminster these days, it feels like you’re stepping into a particularly well-informed crèche. Everyone looks about 13; no one has ever had a job outside the party they are working for. Most of them are working for an absolute pittance, affordable only because Mummy and Daddy are happy to indulge junior’s political ambitions.

It’s this weird world of parliament being dominated by under 25s that means the Tory youth wing bullying scandal is more than just a tragic tale. If you haven’t followed it, it’s one of the most depressing stories I’ve ever read; a tale of thirty-something, emotionally-stunted nonentities throwing their weight around at kids – and a promising, bright young man has died as a result of it.

One of the most depressing things was that the stakes were so incredibly low. People inside RoadTrip 2015 (the campaigning organisation at the centre of the scandal) cultivated the idea that they were powerbrokers, that jumping on a RoadTrip bus was a vital precondition to getting a job at central office and eventually a safe seat, yet the truth was nothing of the sort.

While it’s an extreme example, I’m sure it happens in every political party all around the world – I’ve certainly seen similar spectacles in both the campus wings of the Democrats and Republicans in the US, and if Twitter is anything to go by, young Labour supporters are currently locked in a brutal battle over who is loyal to the party, and who is a crypto-Blairite who can “fuck off and join the Tories”. 

If you spend much time around these young politicians, you’ll often hear truly outrageous views, expressed with all the absolute certainty of someone who knows nothing and wants to show off how ideologically pure they are. This vein of idiocy is exactly where nightmarish incidents like the notorious “Hang Mandela” T-shirts of the 1980s come from.

When these views have the backing of an official party organisation, it becomes easy for them to become an embarrassment. Even though the shameful Mandela episode was 30 years ago and perpetrated by a tiny splinter group, it’s still waved as a bloody shirt at Tory candidates even now.

There’s also a level of weirdness and unreality around people who get obsessed with politics at about 16, where they start to view everything through an ideological lens. I remember going to a young LGBT Republican film screening of Billy Elliot, which began with an introduction about how the film was a tribute to Reagan and Thatcher’s economics, because without the mines closing, young gay men would never found themselves through dance. Well, I suppose it’s one interpretation, but it’s not what I took away from the film.

The inexperience of youth also leads to people in politics making decisions based on things they’ve watched on TV, rather than any life experience. Ask any young politician their favourite TV show, and I guarantee they’ll come back with House of Cards or The Thick of It. Like young traders who are obsessed with Wolf of Wall Street, they don’t see that all the characters in these shows are horrific grotesques, and the tactics of these shows get deployed in real life – especially when you stir in a healthy dose of immature high school social climbing.

In this democratised world of everyone having the ear of the political gossip sites that can make or break reputations, some get their taste for mudslinging early. I was shocked when a young Tory staffer told me “it’s always so upsetting when you find out it’s one of your friends who has briefed against you”. 

Anecdotes aside, the fact that the youth wings of our political parties are overrun with oddballs genuinely worries me. The RoadTrip scandal shows us where this brutal, bitchy cannibalistic atmosphere ends up.

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.