Instead of reforming its draconian and dangerous blasphemy law, the National Assembly of Pakistan has passed a bill that further strengthens and weaponizes it.
The bill, passed on January 17, proposes to increase the punishment in cases pertaining to the blasphemy of Prophet Muhammad’s companions and His progeny, an offense under section 298-A in Pakistan’s penal code. The bill seeks to increase the period of detention, currently set at three years, to a minimum of 10 years and extendable up to lifetime imprisonment, along with a fine of 1 million Pakistani rupees (around $3,600). It also suggests modifying blasphemy to a non-bailable offense.
In a religiously diverse country like Pakistan, the current blasphemy laws are already exploited to a tremendous degree to pursue personal vendettas against the vulnerable. The proposed amendments are destined to criminalize religious differences and persecute the religious and sectarian minorities even more. The ambiguities and unclear definitions of key terms in the bill leave huge space for exploitation.
Shias in Pakistan, who make up about 20 percent of the country’s population, have come out strongly against the bill, claiming it is yet another way of victimizing the marginalized sect and violating their freedom of religious belief. Already, Pakistani Shias face a growing threat of violence from terrorists; further weaponization of the blasphemy law would increase their persecution.
The Origin of the Bill
Although presented in the National Assembly by Jamaat-e-Islami member Abdul Akbar Chitrali, the bill was originally drafted and prepared by the once-banned anti-Shia extremist outfit Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), formerly Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan. In July 2020, Atta Muhammad Deshani, president of the ASWJ’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chapter, along with ASWJ’s Islamabad party head, Abdur Rehman Moavia, called on Chitrali and presented him with the draft of the bill.
جماعتی قیادت کےحکم پرجماعت اسلامی کےرکن قومی اسمبلی مولانا عبدالاکبرچترالی صاحب سےگزشتہ روزپشاور میں ملاقات کی،حضرات صحابہ کرام رضی اللہ عنہم اجمعین واہلبیت اطہاررضوان اللہ علیہم اجمعین کےگستاخوں کوسخت سزا دینےکیلئے #ناموس_صحابہ رضی اللہ #واہلبیت رضی اللہ بل ان کے حوالے کیا pic.twitter.com/o7XZXDgnq6
— Atta Muhamad Deshani (@AttaMdeshani) July 22, 2020
Thus, as soon as the bill was passed by the assembly, the extremist group celebrated it by placing congratulatory banners all across the country.
The Loopholes in 298-A
The ambiguities related to the offense of blasphemy and the contrasting beliefs of the Sunni and Shai sects leave a huge room for exploitation of the legislation. Section 298-A currently states:
Whoever by words, either spoken or written …..defiles the sacred name of any wife (Ummul Mumineen), or members of the family (Ahle-bait), of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him), or any of the righteous Caliphs (Khulafa-e-Rashideen) or companions (Sahaaba) of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.
As mentioned above, the new bill proposes to greatly increase the punishment for such cases of blasphemy, up to life in prison.
This is particularly dangerous for Shias, as the definition of “companion” varies greatly between the two majority sects of Islam. The majority of Sunni scholars consider anyone who had viewed the Holy Prophet with their naked eyes and died a Muslim to be called a companion. In addition to those criteria, the Shia school of thought also assesses whether the said person’s actions were in line with or against the teachings of the Prophet and in the best interest of the Islamic community. Hence, those who opposed, cursed, or waged war against the family of the Holy Prophet are not considered “companions” in the eyes of the Shia school of thought. Even a few Sunni scholars such as Al Sayuti and Al Dhabhabi take into account this additional criterion before labeling someone a companion.
The lack of definition as to what exactly classifies as “blasphemy” or “insult” further creates an opportunity for abuse. The books of Shia history, as well as recognized historical books of Sunni Islam, such as Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, are full of incidents in which companions of the Holy Prophet cursed, fought, and even went to war with other companions or the family of the Prophet. Would the narration of such events or possession of such books also count as blasphemy? What then would happen to the thousands of seminaries of both sects run across the country in which those historical books are being taught?
Exploitation Against the Sect
Articles 19 and 20 of the Pakistani Constitution grant every citizen the freedom of expression to profess, practice, and propagate their faith. This right has been violated drastically in the case of the Shia community, especially in the past two years, when hundreds of blasphemy cases were lodged against Shias for merely proclaiming their beliefs and carrying out religious rituals.
In August 2020 alone, more than 40 blasphemy cases were registered against Shias by mobs storming police stations and staging violent protests until the registration of the FIRs. A few examples of absurd cases registered against Pakistani Shias include accusations of blasphemy for: holding a religious gathering inside a private residence, holding a procession, distributing food and water in remembrance of Karbala; claiming on social media that the Holy Prophet had only one daughter, as mentioned in the Shia historical books; and denouncing Yazeed, the killer of Imam Hussain.
Thus extending the detention period and making blasphemy against the Holy Prophet’s companions a non-bailable offense would further limit the freedom of expression and violate the basic human rights of the sect members granted by the constitution of Pakistan.
The Blasphemy Law and Violence
Blasphemy cases also have a strong correlation with extrajudicial violence. Mob attacks and attempted lynchings of alleged blasphemers have become quite prevalent. Mashal Khan, a university student, was lynched by fellow students in Mardan over blasphemy allegations. Priyantha Kumara, a Sri Lankan national and manager of a factory in Sialkot, was not only lynched to death but his dead body was desecrated and set on fire by employees who accused him of blasphemy. Tahir Khan, an alleged blasphemer, was shot dead inside the courtroom by the accuser during a trial hearing.
Other defendants are denied sufficient legal representation due to mob pressure. The attorneys of the accused have been threatened and forced to step back from the cases. Rashid Rehman, the defense attorney for Junaid Hafeez, a university lecturer accused of blasphemy, was murdered inside his office in 2014 after being threatened twice.
Not only lawyers but judges are also intimidated to rule against accused alleged blasphemers. Judge Parvez Ali Shah, who convicted Mumtaz Qadri of murdering Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, had to flee the country after receiving death threats. Another judge, Arif Bhatti, who acquitted two Christians accused of blasphemy, was murdered inside his chamber.
This lack of free trial along with the threat to life violates the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Pakistan ratified in 2010.
Ulterior Motives and Personal Vendettas
Besides its role in the systemic persecution of minorities, the blasphemy law is also widely used to settle personal scores. In the case of Rimsha Masih, a mentally disabled 14-year-old Christian girl accused of blasphemy, the judge threw out the charges, saying the accusation was “a tool for ulterior motive.”
In the landmark judgment against Mumtaz Qadri in 2015, the former chief justice of Pakistan stated, “The majority of blasphemy cases are based on false accusations stemming from property issues or other personal or family vendettas rather than genuine instances of blasphemy, and they inevitably lead to mob violence against the entire community.” In another blasphemy case argued in the Supreme Court in September 2022, the judges took notice of how “many a time false allegations are leveled to settle personal scores and cases are also registered for mischievous purposes or on account of ulterior motives.”
The fact that there are no consequences for false accusations contributes to the blatant misuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. In 2018, the Senate Special Committee for Human Rights recommended that false accusers be subjected to the same punishment as a person convicted of blasphemy. However, one of the committee members, belonging to Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F), opposed the recommendation.
The Senate has 90 days – until April 17 – to suggest amendments or approve/disapprove the bill before it is presented in front of the president of Pakistan. Once the Senate and the president sign onto it, the changes will become part of Pakistan’s penal code, which would prove deadly for the reasons mentioned above.
Former Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer and Minister Shahbaz Bhatti were both murdered in cold blood because they dared to challenge the blasphemy laws and labelled them “black laws,” pointing out how inhumane they were. Such incidents highlight the importance of stopping the new bill before it is converted to the law; once that happens, the risk of challenging it increases tenfold. All eyes are on the progressive members of the Senate to not bow down to the pressure of the extremists and prevent the flame of sectarianism from being ignited in the country once again.