Blood upon the altar

Published: Fri, 12/31/2010 - 09:48 Updated: Fri, 12/31/2010 - 09:51

The absurd allegations of 'blasphemy' being hurled around in Pakistan would be funny if they weren't life threatening. In the current atmosphere, the mere allegation of blasphemy can be used to incite mob violence. Over 30 alleged blasphemers have been murdered so far, many not even formally accused, ever since blasphemy became punishable by death under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code. Motives have been found to range from personal enmity and financial rivalry to land disputes.

The military dictator General Ziaul Haq had in 1986 imposed additions to Section 295-A, which the British colonists had introduced to punish those who offended religious sentiments. Section 295-C initially prescribed life imprisonment for those found guilty of disrespect to Prophet Mohammed, on him be peace; in 1992, the option of life imprisonment lapsed and death became the only and mandatory punishment for those convicted under the section. According to a study by the National Commission for Justice and Peace, 1,058 persons - 51 per cent of them, Muslims - have been accused under Section 295-C since 1986. 

The issue arose again in December after a district court handed down the death sentence to a Christian woman, Aasia Noreen, for blasphemy. A year and a half ago she had argued with some Muslim women who refused to drink the water she had offered them because she was Christian. (In fact, this is a class issue. They wouldn't have refused water from a white Christian.) The case is now before the Lahore High Court which must either confirm the death sentence or acquit her. 

But Aasia's life is in danger even if she's found innocent. A Jamaat-e-Islami-affiliated cleric in Peshawar has announced Rs 5 lakh as reward for anyone who will kill Aasia if she is acquitted. 

The 'religious right' has been out on the streets calling for Aasia's execution, protesting the president's right to pardon her, and slamming attempts to even discuss or amend the law. 

Meanwhile, an even more absurd case cropped up. A medical representative in Hyderabad accused Dr Noshad Valyani, a family physician, of blasphemy for discarding the  visiting card bearing his name, Mohammed Faizan. (People are now wondering if they should stop naming their sons Mohammed.) 

Complaints in both cases were lodged days after the alleged incident - a typical pattern. Clearly, the blasphemy law is being used as a political tool to arouse passions and keep certain persons and parties in the limelight. This blatant exploitation of the law has led the Council of Islamic Ideology, Pakistan's foremost constitutional advisory body regarding Islamic injunctions, to propose procedural amendments to guard against such misuse. Even the most virulent defenders of the blasphemy law privately admit that it is flawed and needs amendment. 

There is no blasphemy law in Islam, say scholars like Dr Khalid Zaheer. He holds that the Qur'an does not even hint at a worldly punishment for blasphemy. Instead, it urges Muslims to ignore what the blasphemers say, to not be a part of them when they blaspheme, and to create circumstances that do not allow blasphemy to take place (details at http://bit.ly/fy5mDs).

Many Muslims believe otherwise because of incidents in Islamic history in which people were killed apparently for blasphemy. However, "only those people lost their lives according to the divine law who refused to accept God's message when it was clearly delivered to them by the messenger," explains Dr Zaheer. So death was a punishment to be meted out to the enemies of the messengers during their lifetime. "Such incidents have nothing to do with the issue of blasphemy in our times." 

If Muslims want to retain a blasphemy law, they must ensure that (a) it does not involve capital punishment, as according to the Qur'an, capital punishment can only be given to murderers and those who take the law into their hands (Qur'an; 5:32), and (b) it encompasses all religions and is equally applicable to Muslims and non-Muslims. "Don't use abusive language against their false gods lest they should use the same language against yours in retaliation." (Qur'an; 6:108)

There is clearly a need for debate on amendments to Pakistan's man-made blasphemy laws. Meanwhile, all Pakistanis, no matter what their political or religious beliefs, must agree to a basic principle: no one has the right to murder regardless of religious beliefs.

This story is from print issue of HardNews