A five month pregnant woman and her husband beaten up by a mob and burned alive in the very same kiln where they worked. A child with mental challenges (reportedly Down’s Syndrome) jailed for ‘allegedly’ desecrating the Holy Qur’an, the Muslim scripture. A colony set ablaze by self-righteous defenders of the faith which ended up costing the lives of eight Christian men, women and a child and damage to a church. In any society with human decency and compassion such barbaric acts would boil the blood of masses. Yet those who cry for Gaza and Burmese Muslims (as they should) refuse to utter a single protest against the atrocities committed in our very own backyard. And yet when we speak about it publicly we are accused of defaming Pakistan. Of being unpatriotic. We are asked to move away. See no evil,speak no evil,hear no evil – such is the state of institutionalised hypocrisy running across board in Pakistan.
Shama and Shahzad, a couple working at a kiln in Kot Radha Kishan, were not the only ones who lost their innocent lives to blasphemy laws in Pakistan. The law is a gift from colonial British Raj and was further Islamisised under Pakistan’s very own Francisco Franco, General Zia-Ul-Haq. There are hundreds of Muslims as well as non-Muslims languishing in jail, the most noted case being that of Aasia Bibi, while a recent increase in the surfacing of blasphemy cases has been seen.
As it goes, Shama and Shahzad,the Christian couple were bonded labour and when they demanded their wages they were locked up for two days by the owner of the kiln, Yusuf Gujjar. The allegation of blasphemy against Islam followed,upon the dubious testimony of a rag-and-bone collector. And from there on the self-appointed warriors of Islam deemed it unnecessary to take a judicial route to justice and beat the couple and proceeded to burn them alive in the very same kiln where the couple worked. Reportedly Shama’s sister (the families of both the spouses worked there as well) took away her child while they were being dragged to be burned alive. One shudders at the thought of what would have happened to that child had the sister not come in the way. In either case, the child’s world was not a bed of roses to begin with and would be much more painful and troublesome from now on, just as the world of Aasia Bibi’s innocent children who can not afford the respite of even a single day due to an ‘allegation’ of blasphemy against their mother. What does it say about our justice system when a mere allegation turns the lives of people upside down and damage them beyond repair? Call it the 21st century inquisition or witch hunt for that is exactly what it is, helping the feudal lords and privileged class maintain their morally corrupt hang on the working class and the destitute. And now, the fire has spread beyond, with one of the leading self-proclaimed ‘secular’ parties, MQM, alleging blasphemy charge against the leader of another major ‘secular’ party, namely PPP (though MQM retracted later on). No one seems to be safe,anymore. Not even the privileged elite intellectuals.
During the press conference at Lahore Press Club discussing the issue of Shama and Shahzad, a whole panel stretching across the stage tried their best not to bring up blasphemy laws (except for the only two women in a whole panel full of men,including a leader of Awami Worker Party, a Leftist party) and turn it into a particular case of working class versus ruling class rather than coupling that fact with a more general take on the blasphemy laws as well (this being despite some people urging them to speak on the laws). Following the press conference, the demonstration outside chanted against the ‘misuse’ of blasphemy laws. My heart recoiled. Could you blame them,given how the killing season is here again? Yet those who can speak up,thanks to class differences, chose to keep quite.The ‘Leftist’ friends tell me there is no need to speak up because it is so dangerous. Yet they meet up at cafes in DHA and discuss radical changes needed. Ruling class leftists and liberals of Pakistan, are they not an entertainment in their own right?
In theory, at least, the intention of the accused must be proven. Section 295-A of the Pakistani Penal Code read: “Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the ‘religious feelings of any class of the citizens of Pakistan, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations insults the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, or with fine, or with both. (italics are my own)
Section 295-B reads: “Whoever wilfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur’an or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.” (Italics are my own)
Section 295(C) prohibits defiling the name of Prophet Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam.
The laws extend to Section 298, with 298-A and 298-B being persecuting Ahmadiyya under blasphemy laws for things such as preaching their faith or calling themselves ‘Muslim’.
Such laws would make Ibn-e-Sina (who openly questioned the existence of God), Al Razi (whose writings would make even the liberal Muslims uncomfortable), Ibn Hazm (who challeneged the ‘Mullah’ mentality of his time),Jalaluddin Akbar (who started a whole new religion altogether) and other ‘Muslim’ historical figures blasphemers,yet they remain revered by the Pakistani Muslims and are often quoted as the symbols of Islamic civilization’s contributions to the world. One wonders what the fate of Muhammad Iqbal and Jinnah might have been if they were born today.
Given the lynch-mob mentality that has become so pervasive, no one seems to be bothered about the ‘deliberate’ and ‘malicious’ intentions or the meaning of ‘wilfully’, terms which in-themselves seek explanation and interpretation by the courts. And so, anything goes, with cost to human lives and properties. Usually the cases are based on mere allegations that would fall apart with a single stroke of reasonable doubt such as the one which led to a Christian couple in Gojra being charged with blasphemy: that they were sending blasphemous text messages. As if religious minorities do not suffer the worst already. No one seems to be asking as to who in their right mind would do such a thing when the mentality of ‘Good Muslim’ seems to be endemic and in the air? According to Pakistan Today’s report although the couple admitted the action, they claimed it was a forced confession, which highlights another aspect of the blasphemy laws: how authorities deal with the accused (perhaps because they are unwilling to take on an unruly mob and impose rule of law with potential costs to their own lives but also due to their own arbitrary justice) which is best demonstrated by the case of an Assistant Sub-Inspector axed a prisoner accused of blasphemy. In another case a policeman killed a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic with blasphemy).
In the very same Gojra, in 2009, a mob set alight houses and Church of the Christian community which, ironically, comes under the acts covered blasphemy laws. But in a land where almost every other hand is jumping up for the ‘Holier Than Thou’ Muslim-ness,these facts do not amount to much.One could have laughed in the prior times when the Mullahs took to street demanding that Bible be banned in Pakistan since it contains ‘blasphemous’ content.But no more. They did and it was a sign of the coming times where we’d be accused of challenging Mullah’s Mullah-ism in the name of Islam and trying to save Pakistan from religious lunacy. What we see in front of us is the ‘Arabizing’ of the land which has always taken pride in its own version of Sufi Islam, inclusive and reasonable. We laugh(ed) at these Mullahs while they did their shenanigans and today they are a noose around our necks. When the Nazis started off people did not take them seriously and the political elite did not look at them as a threat. Such are the ways of the fascism,religious or secular, aided by the complacency of those privileged and safe in their elitist towers high up in the skies.
Change the wordings to include Shia,Ahmadiyya,Christian and anyone who does not fit the criteria of a Sunni Heterosexual Muslim Man and it seems Martin Niemöller’s famous ‘First They Came For‘ text speaks to and about Pakistan. And the signs are already there. Given the poverty and limited opportunities Pakistani religious minorities find themselves in, coupled with their class, the blasphemy laws have been notoriously used to settle personal scores, property feuds et al and the cases have been documented by Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, among other bodies. Nevertheless, the spineless politics and lack of political will means no change, not even a minimal one. The voices which were freely demanding the repeal of blasphemy laws at the time of the assassination of Salmaan Taseer in 2011 are now nowhere to be seen. Even those who were urging the path to reform of the blasphemy laws to make them more strict and limited have become silent. Yet the Mullahs who have been clearly shown to incite against the accused roam free.
The judges seem to be less and less willing to take a principled stand as is evident by the Lahore High Court upholding death penalty for Aasia Bibi (However, At the time of writing this piece the Supreme Court finally granted bail to a British national of Pakistani origin, Muradur Rahman, who was accused of blasphemy by none other than Pakistani journalist Ansar Abbasi. The Sindh High Court had refused to grant bail to the accused and the Supreme Court lamented the “delay in conclusion of his trial” which they found to be “unconscionable”.)
Amongst all this the theologians who decry blasphemy laws as quintessentially un-Islamic seem to be given no air time while the those inciting masses seem to be enjoying the hot seats on talk shows. From the son of Maulana Abdul Maudoodi to Dr Khaled Zaheer to Javaid Ghamdi there are theologians speaking against it. But their fault is they are not on the payroll of the masters. In a country run by macho patriarchal lords, it took a woman with a spine, Sherry Rahman, to bring blasphemy laws to the attention of the parliament. After Salmaan Taseer‘s assissnation ended with PPP leadership turning their backs on their very own deceased late Governor of Punjab and after Taseer’s murderer, Mumtaz Qadri, was showered with garlands by the lawyers, making a mockery of their profession, silence took over.
We must ask ourselves pertinent questions: Is possible for us to claim to be a ‘democracy’ and expound notions of ‘free speech’ and ‘free thought’ when that part of sociopolitical structure, religion and religiosity, remain beyond the power of reason, critique and debate? How does one talk about a religious law whose very own wording makes it hard, if not impossible, to discuss it? What use is a justice system when a false allegation against another leads to either a FIR where the actual blasphemous words are not mentioned (since repeating them would,it is said,make a blasphemer out of complaining party as well) or an unruly mob bent upon committing any atrocity against human decency in the name of a religion they claim to be a ‘religion of peace’? Will the world listen to Pakistani Muslims when they decry being equated to ISIS and Al Qaeda when we Pakistanis have vigilantes in our own backyards and those who are sane and compassionate, even if in majority, are silent? How would it be possible for us to create a ‘naya Pakistan’ (New Pakistan) if we are unwilling to ignore the legacy of Zia-ism? Would the Naya Pakistan have place for religious minorities and dissent? How will productive and progressive Islamic discourse in this country build when the blasphemy laws keep getting used against dissent?
Unless we find courage to call spade a spade and demand what is just and reasonable there will be many more Shama and Shahzad in the bleak future that is hovering over Pakistan.