Monday, September 7, 2009

Minority Report: Shahbaz Bhatti just doesn't get it.

In a public statement issues on September 1st 2009, the Central Committee of the  World Council of Churches (WCC) called on the government of Pakistan to guarantee the rights of all minorities in (Pakistan). In a public statement on "The misuse of the Blasphemy Law and the security of religious minorities in Pakistan", the council stated that since the amendment of the Pakistani penal code to include the Blasphemy law, “Christians in particular have become targets of harassments and persecutions." This statement comes in the wake of the Gojra attacks in which Muslim mobs torched over a 100 christian homes, killing eight people  in Gojra, Punjab over allegations that someone in the Christian district had defiled the Quran.

Pakistan minister for minorities; Shahbaz Bhatti responded to this statement saying that the law had been abused by extremist elements and that it was now under review by the government. This response just highlights the level of disinterest of the ruling elite when it comes to minority rights. To claim that the infamous blasphemy law is merely being abused is ludicrous. The problem is not the abuse of the law, but the law itself.

Pakistan's blasphemy law consists of two amendments made during the regime of Zia-ul-Haq. The first amendment 295-B introduced in 1982 made derogatory remarks about the Quran or its desecration punishable by life imprisonment. The second amendment 295-C  came in 1984 promising a fine, life imprisonment and death to anyone making "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."  Six years later, the Federal Sharia Court, where cases having to do with Islamic issues tend to be heard, ruled, "The penalty for contempt of the Holy Prophet . . . is death and nothing else."

The most transparent problem with these amendments is that they curb the freedom of Pakistani citizens to express their views on the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad in any manner that they chose. In addition to this,  none of these amendments defines the terms  "derogatory remarks" or "desecration". This means that anything and eveything said about the Quran or Prophet can potentially be derogatory.  As the WCC puts it

The Blasphemy Law, while purporting to protect Islam and religious sensitivities of the Muslim majority, are vaguely formulated and arbitrarily enforced by the police and judiciary in a way which amounts to harassment and persecution.


The application of the Blasphemy law is a human rights nightmare. Upon the testimony of the compliant, the person charged with blasphemy is immediately jailed. Under the current provisions, conviction is possible even without proof of a deliberate attempt on the part of the accused. The accused tend to be members of religious minorities (Shiites, Ahmadiis, Chrisitians and Hindus). The charges are often related to political motivations or land claim disputes. Between 1988 and 2005, 647 people in total have been charged with blasphemy and though few have been convicted. Twenty of those charged were murdered soon after the charges were laid. Dawn provides details for many  of these cases here. I'm highlighting some below:

2008 – May: The Punjab police jailed Robin Sardar, a Christian physician, upon an accusation of blasphemy from a Muslim street-vendor who wanted to set up his shop in front of Sardar's clinic.

2008 – April 08: Jagdesh Kumar, a 27 year old Hindu worker, was beaten to death by fellow Muslim workers in his factory in Karachi on the charge of blasphemy. The incident took place in the presence of policemen. Some reports suggested that the victim was in love with a Muslim girl that angered the Muslim workers, who decided to teach him a lesson.

2005 – August 11: Judge Arshad Noor Khan of the Anti-Terrorist Court found Younus Shaikh guilty of defiling a copy of the Quran, and propagating religious hatred among society. Shaikh was convicted because he wrote a book ‘Shaitan Maulvi’ (Satanic Cleric) in which he mentioned stoning to death as a punishment for adultery was not mentioned in the Quran. The judge imposed a fine of Rs100, 000 rupees and sentenced him to lifetime imprisonment.

1998 – May 6: Roman Catholic Bishop John Joseph of Pakistan shot himself in the Sahiwal courthouse to highlight the case of Ayub Masih, a Christian sentenced to death for allegedly uttering blasphemous remarks against Prophet Muhammad. The death of the 66-year-old led to protests by Christians. Subsequently, the Lahore High Court ordered a stay of execution for Masih. His fate remains undecided.

1995 – July: Catherine Shaheen, a teacher in Lahore, Punjab, was denied her salary on grounds of blasphemy. Since then she has been in hiding because of threats against her life made by some fundamentalists.

1992 – January 06: Christian teacher Naimat Ahmar, 43, was butchered by a young member of a militant religious group, Farooq Ahmad, on the office premises of the District Education Officer in Faisalabad while on duty. Ahmad killed him because the deceased had reportedly used highly insulting remarks against Islam and Prophet Mohammed and by killing a blasphemer he had won his way into heaven. No case of blasphemy was registered against him nor was he tried by any court. Ahmar left behind a widow and four children.

1991 – October 08: Chand Barkat, 28, a bangle stall holder in Karachi, was charged with blasphemy by another bangle vendor, Arif Hussain, because of professional jealousy. Hussain decided to teach Barkat a lesson by accusing him of using derogatory language against Prophet Mohammed and his mother. Barkat was charged under section 295-C of PPC, however, he was acquitted by the Sessions Court for want of evidence.


These cases are only the tip of the iceberg. The rampant abuse of minorities under this law has gone on for far too long. The problem as I have repeatedly stated in the past is the inclusion of religion in the state apparatus. It is not the job of the state to protect the Prophet or the Quran from defilement. However, the state is responsible for protecting the life, property and dignity of all of its citizens. By blaming hate and intolerance against minorities on the abuse of the blasphemy law and rather than the law itself, Minister Shahbaz Bhatti undermines his credibility with the very people that he represents.


Photo by AP