Blasphemy Law : Misplaced Honor And Tool For Victimization By Amna Khaishgi Copyright © 2002 qalandar Qalandar is an Islamic Interfaith magazine. --Editor Rita was a young woman living in a Christian slum in Karachi. She was the sole bread earner for her 12-member family, and her daily wage in a local factory made the survival of her family possible. Due to incessant harassment at work, Rita started working on her own. Her efficiency, hard work and sincerity gave her good assignments from the market. This scared her competitors, including her former employer. Since Rita was a woman and a member of a minority community, she was looked upon as easy prey. And the easiest threat was registering a blasphemy case against her. Rita was fully aware that the Muslim ‘lords’ of her area were capable of sending her to the gallows, as it was very easy for them to prove that she has dishonored Islam. She had no other choice but to give up the business on which she had invested all her savings. She moved to an unknown place with her family. Blasphemy in Pakistan means death, with or without evidence. The blasphemy law was introduced by Gen Zia ul Haq and was added to the penal code in 1982. As per the law, desecrating the Qur’an or making a derogatory remark about it is punishable with life imprisonment. To add to the confusion, judges have, on some occasions, reduced the term. In 1984, however, clause 295-C, usually referred to as the blasphemy law, specified that "derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet...either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly...shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine." Six years later, the stakes were raised when the Federal Sharia Court, where cases having to do with Islamic issues are heard, ruled, "The penalty for contempt of the Holy Prophet …is death and nothing else." Hence, over the years, the blasphemy law, instead of building and promoting a code of conduct for respecting Islam and its values, has produced mounting intolerance towards religious minorities. It has been used more and more for cases of political vendetta, land disputes, political or personal rivalry. The law became a way to challenge someone's identity, a powerful tool to intimidate anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim. The targeta of this law have largely been religious minorities, such as members of the Ahmadi sect (In the past decade or so, perhaps 2,000 Ahmadis have been charged under the blasphemy law, according to community sources). The Ahmadis, although they consider themselves as Muslims, were declared non-Muslims by Prime Minister Bhutto in 1974. Ten years later, they were denied the right to practice their faith. The list of victims also includes Christians, although the latest anecdotal evidence suggests that the pendulum is now swinging toward Muslims themselves. Interestingly, before the introduction of this law, no case of blasphemy or dishonoring Islam had ever surfaced in Pakistan. No non-Muslim was ever charged for blasphemy. But, after the introduction of the law, hundreds of non-Muslims have either been killed by the majority fanatics or made to flee from the country or put behind bars. Scores of them are also facing the death sentence. Although the Pakistani government, till date, has been unable to reveal the exact figures of the number of people charged under the blasphemy law, the State Department’s report "International Religious Freedom 2001," has provided some clues. Over the past three or four years, 55 to 60 Christians a year have been charged in Pakistan. That figure probably has not changed much since the law was enacted. And as evidence of that possible shift in who is targeted, the report says that three-quarters of those on trial for blasphemy in 2001 were Muslims. Bail is usually denied to those charged with blasphemy. Trials are expensive and can last for years. As most of the minorities are not economically strong, it is impossible for them to defend themselves regardless of their extent of involvement in such cases. Rita was wise enough to surrender and escape instead of facing the one-track law of blasphemy. The blasphemy case against Riaz Ahmad, his son and two nephews, all Ahmadis, who have been imprisoned since November 1993, is another case in point. They were detained on a vague allegation that they had "said something derogatory." Local people in Piplan and Mianwali district say that rivalry over Ahmad's position as village headman was the real motive behind the complaint against him. The trial is yet to begin. Anwar Masih is a Christian from Samundri in Punjab. He has been under detention since February 1993, when a Muslim shopkeeper alleged that he had insulted the Prophet during an argument over money. He has received no active resistance from human rights organizations. A Roman Catholic Bishop, Father John Joseph, a human rights campaigner, was perhaps the first and the only one who raised voice against the blasphemy law and took his own life on May 6, 1998. He failed to find a lawyer willing to take the case of Ayub Masih, a Christian convicted for blasphemy. Masih's family had applied for a government scheme that gives housing plots to landless people. The local landlords, who charged him with blasphemy, resented this because landless Christians work in their fields in exchange for a place to live. By getting a plot of land Massih would have escaped their bondage. In its latest report on Pakistan, Amnesty International notes: "Most of these cases are motivated not by the blasphemous actions of the accused, but by hostility toward members of minority communities, compounded by personal enmity, professional jealousy or economic rivalry…" The bishop's suicide put international pressure on Pakistan. The then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto approved two amendments to the penal code to reduce the abuses of Section 295. The number of arrests dropped, but the law remains intact. When Musharraf seized power in 1999, he talked about wanting to move Pakistan toward progress and tolerance. He suggested changes to the blasphemy law in April 2000, but withdrew them under pressure from religious elements the following month. Intolerance won the battle again and even a progressive leader like Musharraf could not do much to reverse the law. Parvez Masih is a recent victim of the law. He is a Christian, and works as a teacher in a village in Sialkot. On April 1, 2001, he was falsely charged as a blasphemer and was sentenced to death for a crime he never committed. He was running a school in his village. A Muslim teacher had also established his own school, but Parvez’s school attracted more students due to his dedication as a teacher. The Muslim teacher, with his grudge against the Christian teacher, ultimately implicated him in a blasphemy case. The poor man was subjected to an abuse of law just because of his faith. However, non-Muslims are not the only targets of those misusing the draconian law. Even Muslims are being harassed and killed on the pretext of the blasphemy. Mohammad Younus Sheikh, who was recently awarded death sentence in a blasphemy case, is an example. Sheikh was a teacher at the homeopathic medical college in Islamabad. His problems began in October 2000 when he made a mild response to a student's question, that before revelation of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad was neither a prophet nor a Muslim, as there was no Islam. For those who believe that prophethood was divinely preordained, this was blasphemous. The students took the matter to some local mullahs, who registered a case with the police. Matters moved rapidly as always happen in such cases. Sheikh strongly denied that he ever ridiculed or rejected the Prophet. On the contrary, he only raised a question of interpretation. Sheikh was born and raised in Pakistan and received part of his education in Ireland. He is a devout Muslim who is on record having said that the book that most inspires him is the Qur’an. He is the founder of Enlightenment, a society of like-minded Pakistanis who discuss Islam in the modern context. His father is a Hafiz, one who has memorized the Qur’an. But such attributes mattered little for those who believe that they are the sole interpreters of Islam. Among the very fond memories of my University days is one aberration. It was a discussion of Islamic history that turned to the relation of the Prophet with his wives. Except a few, the students felt offended by the contention that the Prophet was a human being. The teacher was threatened and we lost one of the best teachers in the campus. It appeared that a majority was more concerned about religious honor at the expense of dishonoring humanity. The clergy in the ‘Christian’ West ignore all sorts of weird sects, some of them with decidedly odd views about life and the hereafter. Their existence is tolerated, with a smile or a shrug of the shoulders, but no one asks the establishment to amend the law to have them declared as non-Christians. The argument that we are an Islamic state where things have to be ordered differently takes us nowhere. Calling ourselves an Islamic Republic should not be an excuse for indulging in irrational behavior. The blasphemy law has only acted as a catalyst to abuse the innocent in the name of religious honor. Is Islam so brittle and vulnerable that it can easily be dishonored by a so-called ‘insane’ statement? The miscarriage of justice is blasphemy, bad governance is blasphemy, the gap between rich and poor is blasphemy, social, political and economic discriminations are blasphemy. Are the so-called godfathers of the society in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan willing to file a death sentence against these?