Wednesday, January 05, 2011
BLASPHEMY LAWS ARE A BLASPHEMY
More than 500 Muslim scholars are praising the man suspected of killing a Pakistani governor because the politician opposed blasphemy laws. The group of scholars and clerics known as Jamat Ahle Sunnat is affiliated with a moderate school of Islam and represents the mainstream Barelvi sect.
The following is from the National Post.
Supporters of slain governor of Punjab Salman Taseer hold a candlelight vigil.
January 5, 2011 – 1:27 pm
With the summer sun bearing down on the agricultural heartland of Pakistan, farm worker Asia Bibi dipped her cup into a communal water bucket to quench her thirst. According to various accounts, an argument immediately ensued as Bibi, a Christian, was accused by her peers of making the water impure. As she rose to her defense, Bibi was accused again of blaspheming Islam and insulting its prophet. After 18th long months in prison, she was sentenced to death by a district court judge who based his conviction on hearsay.
But her story did not end there. The world now grieves the recent assassination of Salman Taseer, the Governor of the Pakistani Province of Punjab. Mr. Taseer spoke out against the injustice that was being perpetrated against Bibi and raised important questions regarding the place of the blasphemy laws within modern Pakistan. The debate regarding the laws played out in the streets over several days prior to his assassination with extremist parties stoking the emotional flames of their constituency and inevitably and inarguably, contributing to Mr. Taseer’s murder by one of his own bodyguards, who accused him of being an enemy of Islam.
Condemned by scripture in all three Abrahamic faiths, the act of blasphemy has long been exploited to justify persecution of minorities. While many nations have current blasphemy laws, punishment mostly ranges from imprisonment to fines. In the Netherlands the law came into effect in the 1930′s as a reaction to the Communist party’s call for Christmas to be excluded from the state’s list of holidays. In the UK as recently as 2007, a Christian group sought to prosecute the British Broadcasting Corporation over a television program that depicted Jesus dressed as a baby.
In the Muslim world, blasphemy laws were invoked in the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie in 1989. In Pakistan, the laws are a vestige of the extremist ordinances established by former ruler Zia-ul-Haq. Despite their existence for several decades, the Bibi case was the first where an individual charged with blasphemy was sentenced to death. In order for the sentence to be carried out, a higher court would be required to uphold it.
A large number of Pakistanis across the globe are not only embarrassed by the primitive justice that prevails in rural Pakistan, but also find themselves on the defensive when they read accounts of the blasphemy laws in the mainstream media. Indeed, missing from most widely read accounts of Bibi’s case and the depiction of the Pakistani nation is mention that the state was founded with minority rights explicitly protected under certain provisions of the constitution. Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah stated to the state’s minorities in 1947, “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”
The battle over the blasphemy laws represents the daily battle for the soul of a nation. Over the past several years, Pakistan has deteriorated into a volatile state where its citizenry are subjected to constant threats. Rarely a month goes by where the vibrancy of Pakistani life is not diminished by school and business closings, power outages and police checkpoints.
Yet in the fallout from the assassination, the current government of Pakistan remains unclear in its intentions. Numerous officials state that the repeal of the laws is not a viable political option and instead propose perpetuating the status quo by re-examining the concept of “proper implementation.”
Unfortunately, in their current form, the laws are written in vague and non-specific language. They permit prosecution for any form of disrespect including “indirect innuendo” against Islam or its prophet. The laws and the current state of sharia courts in rural Pakistan have not only fomented discrimination against minorities, but also unjust treatment of many Pakistani Muslims. Therefore, in their current state, nothing short of repeal would be sufficient. Now, more than ever, Pakistanis across the globe must speak up against injustice and push their politicians to reclaim the Pakistan that its founder intended to create.
Javeed Sukhera is a doctor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center.