Friday, October 21, 2016

Pakistan: Dubious blasphemy laws

The current set of Pakistani blasphemy laws owe their form and content to Zia’s Islamisation drive  that added multiple clauses and penalties to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad

Times of Ahmad | News Watch | US Desk
Source/Credit: Deccan Herald
By Bhopinder Singh | Oct 21, 2016

The ongoing judicial saga in Pakistan against the execution of Asia Bibi has taken a curious twist with one of the three judges, Justice Iqbal Hamid-ur-Rehman recusing himself from hearing the final appeal. This, ostensibly, since he had heard the linked case involving the former governor of Punjab state Salmaan Taseer.

Asia Bibi, belonging to the minority Christian community, has been convicted under the notorious and dubious, blasphemy laws. In 2010, she was sentenced to death by hanging in a district court. This has since pricked the collective conscience of the progressive world and some educated quarters within Pakistan, like Salman Taseer, who stood up for her against the blasphemy laws, and paid the ultimate price of getting executed in cold blood by his own security guard.

Blasphemy, like terror is an ambiguous and undecided issue for the Pakistani establishment. It is a political hot-potato that typifies the multitude of contradictions in the Pakistani narrative. Genealogically, Pakistan was born of the concept of “two-nation theory” that is premised on a separate state for Muslims – yet, a powerful case for secularism was envisaged by the Qaid-e-Azam (father of the nation) Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in his policy speech on August 11, 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 or 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”.

This contradictory ambiguity at birth has retained the opportunity for the rulers of Pakistan to twist the interpretation to suit the political expediency and necessities of the times that be. While the Pakistani military (which officially  ruled for 35 out of the 70 years of independence) is institutionally inclined towards secularism (but for the reign of General Zia-ul-Haq, who sowed the seeds of overt Islamisation), the civilian politicians have invariably been susceptible to pander to the religious bigotry of the mullahs for electoral gratification and crowd-sourcing.

Geographical contiguity to Afghanistan had led to the massive influx of monies to support themujahidin movement of the 1980s. The pumping of support by the western powers (on the last leg of the cold war) and by the generous doles of the Gulf monarchies resulted in debilitating infusion of militancy and puritanical strains of Islam within the Pakistani mainstream. Since then, the proliferation and regressive agenda of the Wahhabi-inspired madrasas in the Pakistani hinterland and frontiers has changed the societal fabric from a secular and inclusive approach, towards an aggressively intolerant framework that is at short fuse with the myriad minorities. The dangerous slide into religious extremism soon morphed into terror groups, which besides impacting the neighbourhood (India and Afghanistan) has earned Pakistan the notoriety as the hub of global terror.

The current set of Pakistani blasphemy laws owe their form and content to Zia’s Islamisation drive  that added multiple clauses and penalties (including “death, or imprisonment for life” to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad – as in the case of Asia Bibi, which if carried out, will be the first person to get executed for blasphemy, though over 50 people have been murdered by the restive populace even before the formal trial got over).

A simple accusation of blasphemy is enough to make a case against the vulnerable minorities. Therefore, a disproportionately high number of minorities like the Christians, Hindus and evenAhmediyas (declared non-Muslim, since 1973) are the targets of blasphemy accusations. Basic electoral sensitivities have ensured that the political parties have not made any corrective or protective changes for the targeted minorities.

Fundamentalist lobbies

Pressure from the powerful fundamentalist lobbies, religious parties and wary citizenry has relegated the support for Asia Bibi to the very limited fringes of the educated classes. International support for her case is seen conspiratorially as yet another example of western interference, compromise of Pakistani sovereignty or as an affront to the Pakistani judicial system. No contrarian view to the blasphemy law is allowed to be expressed or tabled without an implied threat of accompanying violence. Soon after Taseer’s murder, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister for Religious Minorities (a Christian himself), was shot dead in broad daylight for espousing the case Asia Bibi.

This case is reflective of the leadership paralysis that has gripped the Pakistani establishment and tests its resolve to effectively counter the implosive tendencies. Already, murmurs of judges getting apprehensive about their personal security is doing the rounds. Earlier, the upholding of the death sentence to Mumtaz Qadri, the guard who killed Salman Taseer, had forced the Supreme Court judges to retreat shamefully from the backdoor in order to escape the public wrath of punishing a man, seen to be supporting the spirit of the blasphemy laws.

Given the current Pakistani background, the will of the lawmakers and the judiciary to take an unbiased stand in the Asia Bibi case is suspect. It is only the military establishment which can somehow step in and take an unpopular position of standing up to the blasphemy laws. For all its intrigues, complicities and murk, the Pakistani military is essentially against the mullahs/clergy in the battle for institutional supremacy in Pakistan. However, it is also a past-master in duality of approach (for example, it is firm on Pakistan-facing terror groups while being supportive of the India-facing and Afghanistan-facing terror groups).

Often, the faultlines in Pakistan are genealogical and unfixable as they are a means of ensuring relevance to the said institutions. Tension and terror in the neighbourhood is an existential requirement for the Pakistani Army, sectarian violence and religious pandering is a tool of political relevance for the politicos and the retention of poverty and ignorance an invaluable hook for the clergy.

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