The Christian minority in Pakistan has remained on the margins of Pakistani society since its creation, resulting in a process of systematic discrimination that realistically cannot be contested. The country’s Christian population is under constant threat of mob violence, often instigated by the Muslim clerics in their vicinity. One such case occurred on November 4th 2014, in Kot Radha Kishan, a city based in the Punjab province of Pakistan.
After news broke out that Shama Masih had allegedly desecrated pages of the Quran, an act considered illegal under the blasphemy law, mosques in the area made announcements for villagers to congregate at the Yousaf brick kiln where Shama and her husband were bonded labourers. As per the demand, people from several villages found, tortured and ultimately threw the couple into a kiln, incinerating them immediately.
Importantly, this is not a one-off incident. Similarly, in June 2015 a Christian family was beaten by a mob after a man in the local mosque announced that Qamar, a Christian member of the community, had desecrated the Qur’an. In this case however, the police had managed to rescue the family and did not charge them under the blasphemy law.
The mob violence, or ‘justice’, which Christians face, despite the extreme consequences, is in part propagated by the legal system in Pakistan, which enforces the law on blasphemy. Interestingly, the decree is a remnant of the British Empire, and as such its core is the same as India’s law on blasphemy:
“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.”
Regardless of how this law is applied in reality, the text is in and of itself is secular and thus theoretically applies equally to all faiths. Thomas Macaulay, who believed insults to religion could “give a peculiar ferocity to theological dissension”, drafted the Indian Penal Code during the rule of the British Empire. Furthermore, he was aware of the hostility between religions as well as the asymmetrical power structure between Christians, Muslims and Hindus. This was evident by a Christian minority being in possession of the highest posts in a country ruling over millions of Hindus and Muslims. However, his fear of communal violence, together with the British policy of divide and rule, led him to believe that a code had to be put in place to prevent any speech which could hurt the sentiments of religious groups and castes.
This elucidates the fact that the criminalising of blasphemy was based on a specific context and its power relations. Thus it follows that a drastic change of this context and prevailing power structures would have an effect on the implementation of such laws. The partition of India and independence of Pakistan inevitably created such a change, with the blasphemy law now being applied in a country where the Muslim population stood at a very large majority and the ruling structure of the Christian minority had disintegrated.
However, the penal code remained the same as that of India’s until in 1982, when Zia-ul-Haq, a military dictator and defacto President of Pakistan, introduced an ordinance that added a section to this law. Section 295-B reads: “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.” Thus there has been a dramatic shift not only in the context in which the law is applied, but also an amendment, which in essence institutionalises the discrimination of minorities due to Section 295-B specifically protecting Muslim sensibility.
As is evident in the cases above, the burden of proof needed for mobs to incite violence is remarkably low, and thus its misuse is rife. This exploitation of the law for personal vendettas and intolerance is not one that the Pakistani government denies. The Governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Salman Taseer (a Muslim) was vocal in his opposition to the blasphemy law during his outspoken defence of Asia Bibi, a highly publicised case of a Christian woman who was being handed the death sentence for committing blasphemy. This resulted in Taseer’s assassination by one of his own bodyguards, who had informed the police that his reason for doing so was the governor’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Soon after came the Taliban’s assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian in Pakistan’s cabinet, and an advocate for the reform of the country’s blasphemy laws.
Both Taseer and Bhatti were high profile assassinations and related to the Asia Bibi case. Thus, this reflects the very real danger of speaking out against the blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Significantly, the advocacy for change did not involve repealing the law altogether, but to amend it. Before his death, Bhatti spoke of “consulting with the religious parties to make a legislation to stop the misuse of blasphemy law…we want to stop those people who are using a shelter of this law to settle their own personal vendettas”. Notably, he stated that the repeal of the law was not to be considered: “We have to analyse what the reaction of those having intolerant attitudes will be…at this point our aim is to stop its misuse.”
This ultimately shines a light on the power held by religious fundamentalists in Pakistan, as has already been evidenced by the Taliban’s involvement in Bhatti’s assassination. In fact their influence penetrates the legal system itself with reports of magistrates, judges and attorney’s having their lives and the lives of their families threatened. This inherently limits any investigative capability, with police officers giving into the demands of ‘justice’ of the violent mobs in the name of ‘preserving public order’. In particular, Muslim clerics of two largely differing schools of thought, Barelvi and Deobandi, joined forces to advise President Zardari not to grant Asia Bibi a discretionary pardon for her death sentence, warning him of ‘untoward repercussions’.
The situation seems to be an ominous one. The authority held by religious fundamentalists is overwhelming, with MP Sherry Rehman abandoning her attempts to amend the law due to what she believed was the inability of her party (Pakistan People’s Party) to stand up to religious clerics. What on a superficial level may seem like a series of violent mob attacks against a minority is in fact the result of an unnerving amount of power held by extremist Muslim clerics over the Pakistani government. The government has seemingly made the judgment that it would be better to preserve the blasphemy law in its current state than to face the wrath of extremists in the country. It is difficult to say whether repealing the law completely may in fact be worse for the Christian minority due to the promised violence it would incite.
Nevertheless the inability or refusal of the government to form a strategy to get this under control is an essential part of the problem. One must question whether appeasing radical Muslim clerics is out of genuine fear of what a backlash would result in, or a utilitarian balancing act where it is deemed easier for the government and the majority to admit defeat to such people. In any case, the current state of affairs simply allows the continuation of extreme persecution of the Christian minority, for whom being arrested by the police for committing blasphemy would be considered a ‘rescue’ from the imminent violent mobs sent on the demands of clerics.
Yet theoretically, if the blasphemy law was amended today, or even repealed, it is unlikely this would eradicate the deeply ingrained discrimination against Christians. As has been demonstrated, the discrimination goes far beyond the written law itself, with the power of the vindictive majority and clerics reflected by their ability to influence magistrate and lower courts. Thus the system must be improved at the grassroots. A power shift needs to occur so that threats cannot deter magistrates and courts. This requires a fundamental change in Pakistan’s police force so that it is adequately able to monitor and protect those who are threatened; be that the victims of the blasphemy law or the politicians and lawyers attempting to intervene.
Though this would increase the protection of Christians, it would not eliminate their constant threat of persecution. Perhaps a large part of this will only be achieved when the perception of the ‘divinity’ of the blasphemy law can be reassembled to realize it is not only a man made creation, but a colonial one. Only with this change in societal observation can there be a possibility of pressuring Pakistani clerical experts to reopen the debate on the law, aiming for its eventual repeal.
About the Author
Maryam Siddiqui is a Law Graduate of the London School of Economics and an LLM Master of Laws Graduate of University College London. Her current interests include international law, civil liberties & human rights and national security with a particular focus on South Asia and the UK.
Cover image ‘Lahore Church‘ by Leena J