Will Pakistan’s blasphemy laws ever be amended?

    Civil societyWill Pakistan's blasphemy laws ever be amended?
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    Will Pakistan’s blasphemy laws ever be amended?

    Pakistan’s human rights activists have renewed calls to revisit the country’s blasphemy laws following the latest instance of mob lynching. They want to government to summon political will to curb the blasphemy laws.

    Javed Mazher

    Pakistan’s latest victim lynch mob victim Muhammad Mushtaq had been diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia years ago, was unstable and unpredictable and had abandoned his family. His siblings sold their farmland in the Khanewal district of Punjab Province to afford his treatment, without success.

    Nobody in the village, save his family, liked Mushstaq.

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    On 12 Februry, a mob tied him to a tree and then stoned him to death after the son of a local prayer leader incited villagers, telling them that Mushtaq had burnt the Koran kept in the mosque.

    Desecrating the Koran, the most-oft cited instance of blasphemy is an explosive issue in the Muslim-majority country, capable of stirring instantaneous violence. A local police team explained their helplessness as they were outnumbered by the mob of several hundreds.

    Two months earlier, on 3 December, an angry mob in the district of Sialkot, also in Punjab, lynched to death Priyantha Kumara Diyawadanage, a Sri Lankan Christian who worked in the district as a factory manager. His lifeless body was then set on fire. The allegations? Ordering removal of posters of a far-right Islamist party in the premises of the factory. This, the mob chanted, was blasphemous.

    Indeed, Punjab province governor, Salam Taseer, was assassinated by his police guard in 2011 for criticising the blasphemy laws.

    Law much abused

    Not all cases of blasphemy were settled by murders. Most of the accused went through prolonged trials.

    According to the Islamabad-based think tank, Centre for Research and Security Studies, Pakistan has witnessed 90 civilian deaths since it became a homeland for SouthAsia’s Muslims in 1947.

    A report issued last month by the organization says that over 1,200 of the 1,400-plus cases of blasphemy happened during the past decade alone, marking a notable increase.

    The old laws written by the British colonial rulers had outlined punishments for offenses related to religion. But the “Islamization” drive during the reign of military ruler Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s added to the pain. Newly added clauses imposed severe penalties and even a death sentence for insulting Islam.

    The floodgates opened thereafter, with the law being used to settle scores by anyone in power in Pakistan’s poor, dusty countrysides. Notably, the law has been the first option to harass the country’s religious minorities.

    Prime minister Imran Khan had, in the wake of the killing of the Sri Lankan factory manager, tweeted his dismay.

    He did the same after Mushtaq was murdered last week. His tweet read: “We have zero tolerance for anyone taking the law into their own hands,” Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted on February 13. “Mob lynching will be dealt with full severity of the law,” the tween read further.

    Religious Radicalism

    Islamic cleric and the prime minister’s adviser, Tahir Ashrafi has said that Pakistanis are united against mob lynching.

    “What they did has brought notoriety to Islam and Pakistan,” Radio Mashaal quoted Ashrafi as saying.

    But many activists aren’t impressed. They say that the prime minister would do well to walk the talk and repeal the laws and also ensure that these aren’t abused.

    Indeed, activists ask why Ashrafi, the prime minister’s advisor had to say that the law, in its current form, has provisions of the blasphemy laws that include punishment by death. This, they say, points to the lack of willingness on the part of the government to seize the bull by the horn.

    Instead, Ashrafi spoke about a code of conduct adopted by various Islamist political parties and sects in 2018.

    Human rights campaigners and activists point to Pakistan’s failure to rein in hard-line Islamist factions and repeal or reform the blasphemy laws enacted in the 1980s.

    Journalist Sabookh Syed who reports on religious affairs in Pakistan was quoted by Radio Mashaal as saying, “The Islamic clergy have formed a narrative that justifies compulsory punishment for blasphemy accusations.”

    “In their view, an accused hanged by a court or killed by a mob are the same,” he added. “They preach this view from the mosque’s pulpit and in religious gatherings, which encourages people to participate in such acts.”

    “Everyone knows that blasphemy laws are abused to settle scores and this is also what happened with the Sri Lankan manager,” Zohra Yousuf, former head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan told Radio Mashaal. “If we must have such laws, they should be reformed in ways that are not abused.”

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