Pakistan needs to fix its fundamentalist innards



The only Christian in the cabinet of Pakistan was assassinated by religious fundamentalists on Wednesday. The Islamic nation’s minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti, “who has been calling for changes in the country’s controversial blasphemy law, was killed in a gun attack in Islamabad on Wednesday,” Reuters reported. “Police said the shooting had taken place in an Islamabad neighbourhood and were still confirming whether Bhatti was the intended target.”

This is the second high-profile assassination this year in a religiously-imploding country. On January 4, Salmaan Taseer — the late governor of Pakistani Punjab — was shot dead by his own bodyguard. As a result, another reformist former cabinet minister, Sherry Rehman, facing death threats from Islamist extremists in the country, was forced to withdraw a bill tabled in the national assembly that proposed amendments to the laws.

These laws are part of the Pakistan Penal Code (Act XLV of 1860). Drafted on October 6, 1860, these laws come under Chapter XV, “Of Offences Relating to Religion”. There are four sections and six sub-sections under this. For the legally literate, I have copy-pasted the sections below.

Insulting religion entered this code in 1927, according Fatima Rizvi, a Karachi-based blogger who has tracked the history of the Act on this post. After it got freedom in 1947, Pakistan adopted the law and all was well. Then, almost like an Orwellian nightmare, Zia-ul-Haq happened to Pakistan.

“During Zia-ul-Haq’s infamous military dictatorship, the first change that was made to these laws was life imprisonment for desecrating or defiling the Quran,” Rizvi writes. “Then in 1984, when followers of the minority Ahmadi sect (who believe that Ahmad was a prophet) were banned from calling themselves Muslims — with a penalty of up to three years in jail if found guilty. In 1986 Zia dictated that the law should be further modified to include death penalty if anyone is found guilty of defaming Islam. These changes made to the blasphemy laws during Zia’s regime were more of strategic political manoeuvres to garner the support of the religious groups and alienate certain minorities from the mainstream political process. Finally in 1992, during Nawaz Sharif’s first term the parliament passed a resolution on death penalty for blasphemy and the law as its is prescribed today is much more prone to misuse.”

From imprisonment and fines, the law, under Zia-ul-Haq degenerated further in 1986, with a death penalty for defaming Islam. The current controversy springs from the case of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman, who as sentenced to death last November after being found guilty of insulting the Prophet Mohammed following a row with Muslim women in her village. According to Human Rights Watch, Aasia was “charged under the blasphemy law after a June 2009 altercation with fellow farm workers who refused to drink water she had touched, contending it was unclean because she was a Christian.”

That the law is being misused is no secret. But even Muslims are not being spared. “According to figures compiled by local NGOs, between 1986 and April 2006, 695 persons were accused of blasphemy: 362 Muslims, 239 Ahmadis, 86 Christians, and 10 Hindus,” notes International Religious Freedom Report 2006. So, more than half of those accused were Muslims and if you add Ahmadis, the number rises to 86 per cent — or more than four out of five. Clearly, it is in the interests of Pakistani Muslims to change this law.

But when we revert to Rizvi’s conclusion, we feel depressed for this imploding nation. “Today, we stand at a point where the nature of the blasphemy laws has divided the nation and at the moment, given the intense public presence and the pressure of religious extremists it seems unlikely that any changes would be made to the blasphemy laws. The best that can be done to avert further crisis is to ensure the proper implementation of this law, or its application in a way that accounts for due process and justice.”

If intellectuals and thought leaders of the country have been reduced to accepting this, I’m afraid the future doesn’t look bright for this fallen nation. While 2011 will see uprisings in West Asia, it will not take too long for them to reach Pakistan. The Pakistani government needs to stand up and fix this problem — it is not nice to have a violent, intolerant, unstable fundamentalist for a neighbour.

An offensive Chapter

Title of the Chapter: Of Offences Relating to Religion

Section 295: Insult
“Injuring or defiling place of worship, with Intent to insult the religion of any class: Whoever destroys, damages or defiles any place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction damage or defilement as an insult to their religion. Shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”

Section 295-A: Deliberate insult — imprisonment for 10 years, fine
“Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting Its religion or religious beliefs: Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of the citizens of Pakistan, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations insults the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, or with fine, or with both.”

Section 295-B: Defiling — life imprisonment
“Defiling, etc., of Holy Qur’an: Whoever wilfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur’an or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.”

Section 295-C: Derogatory remarks — death, life imprisonment, fine
“Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet: Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”

Section 296: Disturbing — imprisonment, fine
“Disturbing religious assembly: Whoever voluntarily causes disturbance to any assembly lawfully engaged in the performance of religious worship, or religious ceremonies, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.”

Section 297: Trespass on place of worship — imprisonment, fine
“Trespassing on burial places, etc.: Whoever, with the intention of wounding the feelings of any person, or of insulting the religion of any person, or with the knowledge that the feelings of any person are likely to be wounded, or that the religion of any person is likely to be insulted thereby, commits any trespass in any place of worship or on any place of sculpture, or any place set apart for the performance of funeral rites or as a, depository for the remains of the dead, or offers any indignity to any human corpse or causes disturbance to any persons assembled for the performance of funeral ceremonies, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.”

Section 298: Speech that hurts — imprisonment, fine
“Uttering words, etc., with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings: Whoever, with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person, utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person or makes any gesture in the sight of that person or places any object in the sight of that person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year or with fine, or with both.”

Section 298-A: Speech that defiles the Prophet or his family — imprisonment, fine
“Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of holy personages: Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, 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.”

Section 298-B: Misuse of titles, particularly Ahmadis — imprisonment, fine
“Misuse of epithets, descriptions and titles, etc., reserved for certain holy personages or places:

(1) Any person of the Quadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves ‘Ahmadis’ or by any other name who by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation-

(a) refers to or addresses, any person, other than a Caliph or companion of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), as “Ameer-ul-Mumineen”, “Khalifatul- Mumineen”, “Khalifa-tul-Muslimeen”, “Sahaabi” or “Razi Allah Anho”;

(b) refers to, or addresses, any person, other than a wife of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), as “Ummul-Mumineen”;

(c) refers to, or addresses, any person, other than a member of the family “Ahle-bait” of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), as “Ahle-bait”; or

(d) refers to, or names, or calls, his place of worship a “Masjid”; shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, and shall also be liable to fine.

(2) Any person of the Qaudiani group or Lahori group (who call themselves “Ahmadis” or by any other name) who by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation refers to the mode or form of call to prayers followed by his faith as “Azan”, or recites Azan as used by the Muslims, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, and shall also be liable to fine.”

Section 298-C: Non-‘Muslim’ evangelising, particularly Ahmadis — imprisonment, fine
“Person of Quadiani group, etc., calling himself a Muslim or preaching or propagating his faith: Any person of the Quadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves ‘Ahmadis’ or by any other name), who directly or indirectly, poses himself as a Muslim, or calls, or refers to, his faith as Islam, or preaches or propagates his faith, or invites others to accept his faith, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations, or in any manner whatsoever outrages the religious feelings of Muslims shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine.”

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