By Ajai Sahni and Ambreen Agha
Aye Allah ke dushman: Islam mein Gustaakh-e-Rasool ke liye hukm sirf aur sirf qatl ka hai…
(O Enemy of Allah, the punishment for blasphemy in Islam is only and always death)
Pamphlet left at the site of Shahbaz Bhatti’s assassination by Fidayeen-e-Muhammad and al Qaeda Punjab Chapter.
A dime-a-dozen religious bigots promptly resurfaced on March 2, 2011, when Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, was killed in broad daylight in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city, for his open opposition to the country’s controversial blasphemy laws. Unidentified militants fired 30 bullets at Bhatti, and managed to escape. Pamphlets from two self-styled Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) factions, Fidayeen-e-Muhammad and al Qaeda Punjab Chapter, were found from the incident site, which declared, “anyone who criticises the blasphemy law has no right to live”.
Meanwhile, the British Broadcasting Corporation reported that it had received a four month old video recording in which the murdered Shahbaz Bhatti declared he had been threatened by religious extremists, but was not afraid to die. Bhatti disclosed that he had received threats from the Taliban and al Qaeda, but would not stop “speaking for the oppressed and marginalised Christians and other minorities”. Bhatti was supposed to be under heavy security, but security personnel were conspicuous in their absence from the scene of his assassination. Nevertheless, Federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik claimed, on March 3, 2011, that ‘foolproof security’ had been provided to Bhatti: An escort of 15 armed personnel had been provided to the Minority Affairs Minister, but he did not avail it during his preferred and frequent destinations (sic).”
The Bhatti assassination coming in the wake of the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer on January 4, 2011, promises to be just another link in the continuing chain of high profile killings in retaliation against any effort to dilute, amend or even criticize Pakistan’s perverse blasphemy laws. Taseer was killed by one of his own bodyguards, even as others stood by as mute spectators to the outrage. Several other critics of the blasphemy law, prominently including Sherry Rehman, a former Information Minister, who had piloted a Private Member’s Amendment Bill in Parliament, seeking alterations in the blasphemy law, have death fatwas issued against them by the extremists. Rehman was forced by her Pakistan People’s Party colleagues to withdraw the Amendment Bill, in the wake of the Taseer assassination. Worse, many of those accused of blasphemy are simply murdered even where they have been exonerated by the courts, or before any judicial determination of their ‘guilt’ can be made. On March 4, 2011, just two days after the Bhatti assassination, Mohammad Imran, who had been released by the courts after the prosecution failed to produce any evidence against him on a blasphemy charge, was gunned down by three masked men on the outskirts of Rawalpindi, the garrison city adjacent to Islamabad. It is significant that, according to one media report, 18 cases of blasphemy were reported in January 2011 alone. One particularly twisted case included a charge of blasphemy being brought against a mentally challenged child, Idrees Khan, who allegedly torched pages of the Holy Qur’an on February 27, 2011. The law has not only been an instrument in the hands of extremist elements, but has been exploited in numerous cases of personal enmity or criminal conspiracies to dispossess individuals of property or possessions. This, indeed, was dramatically illustrated in the most recent case of blasphemy registered against a Christian woman, Agnes Nuggo from Faislabad. Reports indicate that Nuggo had herself sought to abuse the blasphemy laws a few weeks ago, by falsely accusing three Christians, with whom she had quarrelled, telling a local Imam that they had insulted the Prophet Muhammad. She subsequently admitted her error and withdrew the charges, only to be accused of blasphemy by her Muslim neighbours, who she alleges, are seeking to dispossess her of their lands. In this latter charge, the same Imam who she had made the earlier complaint is now testifying against her.
It is crucial to recognize that it is the extremist undercurrent of Pakistan’s official creed and order that provides the context of the severe and systemic discrimination to which Pakistan’s tiny minorities are routinely subjected. Discrimination and oppression are built into the Constitutional, legal and institutional framework. This is compounded enormously by an enveloping and state-supported culture of religious bigotry, religious polarization and extremism, propagated through governmental, educational and dominant social institutions. While the Constitution formally guarantees the freedom to every person “to profess, practice and propagate his religion”, there is a range of insidious laws that circumscribe this freedom and create an order that is consistent with Abu Ala Maududi’s doctrine that, in Pakistan, the “law of the land will be the law of the majority. Minority can safeguard their religion but cannot promote it.” The Constitution itself qualifies the freedom of speech and expression with the corollary, “subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam”. It is this clause that has enabled the blasphemy law and its extreme consequences.
The systemic biases of the Constitutional order lend themselves to a relentless institutional, social and political discrimination against the minorities. Thus, blasphemy laws have been widely abused to intimidate, oppress and expropriate members of the minority communities in Pakistan, and often to settle personal scores against them. The law particularly carries a mandatory sentence of death for “use of derogatory remarks” against the Holy Prophet, and its language is sufficiently ambiguous to lend itself to continuous abuse. Worse, as noted, individuals charged under the blasphemy laws are frequently subjected to attacks by extremists and fanatics, and several have been killed in police custody or under trial. In the past, a complaint of blasphemy would attract automatic arrest and prosecution, but a 2004 amendment brought in a requirement that the police investigate the complaint before arrest. However, the clause, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) notes, is “frequently ignored”.
Thousands of cases of persecution of the minorities occur each year, and their intensity has seen continuous augmentation, as heavily armed radical Sunni groups, including the many terrorist groups organised around the jihad in Afghanistan and in India, as well as those formed within the context of the running Shia-Sunni sectarian violence in the country, direct their bigoted rage against the minorities as well. Thus, in 2006, the HRCP noted:
Across the country, attacks on religious minorities increased. The attacks came in the form of ‘fatwas’ threatening non-Muslims with death, in the form of attacks on temples, churches and other places of worship and in the form of increased kidnapping of members of minority communities.
Even more disturbing than the attacks themselves was the failure of authorities to act under applicable laws against the culprits… The material included in some text-books contributed towards the bias against religions other than Islam…
Sectarian and religious intolerance is growing. Non-Muslim citizens have faced numerous attacks… There have been more and more complaints regarding the forced conversion of Hindu and Christian girls and in June, about 100 Ahmadis were forced out of their village near Daska, in Sialkot district. This dangerous division in society on the basis of belief, and the official support given to discrimination, can only add to the dangers currently facing society.
If anything, the situation has worsened measurably, since. In its last report on the State of Human Rights, 2009, the HRCP noted “an increase in violent attacks on religious minorities while the government failed to take effective preventive measures”, and, further, the “growing intolerance of religious minorities rights, increased frequency of vigilante actions against them and attacks on non-Muslims over allegations of blasphemy and desecration of religious scriptures.” The report observed, further,
In a xenophobic atmosphere, created and promoted by conservative clerics and a section of the media, religious minorities are viewed with suspicion and mistrust. They are seen as constantly conspiring against Islam, Muslims and Pakistan in cahoots with the infidel foreign powers, especially the West. An imaginary combine of Hunud-o-Yahud-o-Nasara (Hindus, Jews and Christians) is supposed to be conspiring against Pakistani Muslims all the time in collaboration with the local minorities. This world view propagated on a large scale, coupled with an unfavourable legal regime, has made life difficult for the non-Muslim citizens. They cannot freely practise their religion and present their point of view without risking their life, honour and property as is evident from attacks on them.
The HRCP report recorded at least 40 cases of abuse of the blasphemy laws or related excesses in 2009 alone.
Astonishingly, despite the murder of a Provincial Governor and a Federal Minister in rapid succession, the Pakistan Government continues to hedge on the issue of both the blasphemy law and the related attacks on minorities. On March 3, 2011, Asim Ahmed, Pakistani delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council, argued, “We believe it would not be helpful to link the highly regrettable killing (of Minister Shahbaz Bhatti) squarely in the context (sic) of defamation (of religion) and blasphemy… Freedom of speech could not justify defamation and blasphemy.”
Terrorist activities in and emanating from Pakistan, of course, offer the most dramatic instances of the perversion of politics and burgeoning extremism in the country. There is, however, another insidious and corrosive threat that continues to augment: the continued, vigorous and universal propagation of an ideology of hatred, of communal polarization and exclusion, and of the demonization of all other faiths in the eyes of the Muslims of Pakistan. Islamist extremism remains the central mechanism for political mobilisation and management in across country. Legal infirmities are, consequently, infinitely compounded by an extraordinarily hostile social, cultural and political milieu, in which the hatred of non-Muslims is actively encouraged by a wide range of powerful institutions, including the state and its educational apparatus, to engineer a murderous conspiracy against weak and dwindling religious minorities.
Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management