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Blasphemy in Pakistan

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Every now and then from some dark corner of the country comes news about a prosecution under the blasphemy law. And every now and then an obliging district judge finding the person so charged guilty hands out a sentence of death. When this happens, the collective image of Pakistan takes another blow on the chin.

Blasphemy is serious business but what exactly is it? Preferring form over substance we have turned it into a technical offence while leaving the larger context in which it might be seen unexplored.

Setting aside the possibility of malicious prosecution – something, incidentally, which happens all the time – for argument’s sake let us take the worst case scenario: that some benighted soul has actually burnt a page or two of the Quran or uttered sacrilegious words against God or his Prophet, (peace be upon him). Clearly, no man in his right senses would do such a thing, certainly not in Pakistan where religious sensitivities run high. But still if something of the sort is done, what does the perpetrator deserve? Our compassion and a psychiatric examination or a death sentence?

Suppose in my street someone were to lay claim to godhead or divine revelation. I would be curious and perhaps a bit bemused. I certainly wouldn’t go rushing to the police station to lodge a criminal complaint. Even if I was foolish enough to do so I would expect the SHO to tell me to cool it. But if valour prevailed over discretion and a case was indeed registered I would expect the judge concerned to throw out the case for lack of evidence.

The trouble is that over the years bigotry and intolerance have made such deep inroads into our society that all three parties in the blasphemy cycle – complainant, police officer, judge – think that they are doing the right thing, and also earning divine favour into the bargain, when they are pressing charges under this law. This is zeal sanctioned by law and clothed in self-righteousness.

I draw no analogies but consider also the case of the sectarian terrorist, he who murders in the name of Islam. Far from feeling any remorse for his actions, he glories in them because he is convinced that when he kills an ‘infidel’ he has struck a blow for the faith and has thereby earned for himself a place in paradise. Only in this case zeal is not sanctioned by law.

Again, let us place this behaviour in context. The policies of the Zia regime, fertilized by a copious flow of American greenbacks, fostered the climate which made killing in the name of Islam a legit exercise. We ourselves of course are the authors of many of our misfortunes. But credit must also go to the United States for being the father of some of our discontents.

Partly out of genuine belief, partly out of political expediency, Gen Zia pushed religious rhetoric down the throats of the Pakistani people, all the while applauded by the Reagan administration as a sentinel of the free world. The result is self-evident: falsehood and gimmickry in the name of Islam have distorted national thinking, enshrining hypocrisy in the higher halls of government and spreading a zest for killing in fringe sections of the population.

Mercifully, General Pervez Musharraf is not cut from the same cloth. He has helped stem the tide of bigotry by not playing the religious card. For this, if nothing else, he deserves the nation’s thanks. But coming back to blasphemy, to seek it in acts of obvious insanity is to devalue both Islam and the notion of blasphemy. Have we not from our infancies heard the story of the woman in Makkah who would throw refuse upon the Prophet, as he walked past her house? The Prophet never remonstrated with her. Not changing his path, in silence and with bowed head he continued to suffer this indignity until one day the woman, astounded by this forbearance, beseeched the Prophet’s forgiveness and embraced Islam.

Blasphemy lies in greater things. For the people to be repeatedly denied their rights in a state founded in the name of Islam is blasphemy. Hunger and deprivation are blasphemy, something which the great Caliph Omar understood when he said that even if a dog went hungry by the banks of the Euphrates the Lord of the Hosts would hold him accountable on the Day of Judgment.

The greatest blasphemy of all is a child going hungry, a child condemned to the slow death of starvation. The miscarriage of justice is blasphemy. Misgovernment is blasphemy. An unconscionable gap between rich and poor is blasphemy. Denial of treatment to the sick, denial of education to the child, are alike examples of blasphemy. The Prophet said cleanliness is next to godliness. What would he say about the monuments to dirt and filth raised in the Islamic Republic?

The doctors and professors of the faith, whether our faith or any other, are not to be blamed for emphasizing ritual over substance because it is as interpreters of ritual – by presiding over the timeless activities of birth, death and marriage – that they derive their nuisance value and also their bread and butter. It is the state which must be careful not to legislate in matters of faith or assume the role of the maulvi for only mischief can result from such a course.

What practical benefit has accrued to the people of Pakistan by declaring Ahmedis as non-Muslims? Which is not to say that their version of Islam is correct. It is not. But is this something for the state to decide? Even if for the sake of argument we assume that the Ahmedi heresy was a cancer which had to be eradicated, in what way is Pakistan a healthier or a more prosperous country for having done so? By expelling Ahmedis from the frontiers of the faith have we become better Muslims?

All sorts of weird Christian sects are to be found in the United States, some of them with decidedly odd views about life and the hereafter. Their existence is tolerated, with a smile or a shrug of the shoulders, but no one asks for the US constitution to be amended to have these sects declared as non-Christians. The argument that we are an Islamic state where things have to be ordered differently takes us nowhere, for calling ourselves an Islamic Republic should be no excuse for indulging in irrational behaviour.

Gen Zia of course went a step further when in 1979, as a sop to his allies, he issued an ordinance which made it a criminal offence for Ahmedis to call themselves Muslims or to call their places of worship mosques. This beats the understanding for if a Jew wants to call himself a Muslim, or his synagogue a mosque, it will be odd behaviour but by what stretch of the imagination should this invite the application of the criminal law? If an Ahmedi’s place of worship is called a mosque, no one will be bamboozled into crossing its portals if he doesn’t want to. There are different mosques in every city of Pakistan: Deobandi, Barelvi, Shiite. We choose to go where we want to.

When we made separate electorates and put minorities on separate voting lists, did that make us purer Muslims? Did we elect better legislators as a consequence? Discriminatory laws have not made Pakistan a better state, let alone one closer to the teachings of Islam. They have only given it a bad name.

Even so, we have to be realistic. No government will touch the anti-Ahmedi constitutional amendment. Such things once done are not easily undone. But the 1979 ordinance making it a criminal offence for a person of the Ahmedi denomination to show himself as a Muslim deserves to be erased from our law books. There will be some protests but that is only to be expected. The right thing must be done not for the sake of the Ahmedi community but for our own sake. Such laws diminish those who make them.

Nothing good has come from the four Hadood laws also passed in 1979 by Gen Ziaul Haq. Across the land they have only sown mischief and upped the bribery rates of the police. It is high time these bad laws were also scrapped.

TAILPIECE: Here is the last paragraph of an appeal to the Governor, Punjab, and the Begum Governor (no joking). “We the helpless municipal lady teachers of Punjab do humbly beseech you to let us remain under our respective municipal bodies instead of forcibly making us part of the education department vide Order No (LG) 10-1/2002 of 25.6.2002. The education department has no funds to pay our salaries nor any procedure to pay our pensions. Before this the octroi department was wound up but its workers being men could fight their case. They went to court and are now back on their jobs. We are poor and helpless women. With the greatest respect we beseech you in the name of God and his Holy Prophet to let municipal schools stay as part of the municipal bodies. We are in a state of great anxiety.” The invocation to God and the Prophet brought tears into the eyes of even a hardened sinner like me.

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