Pakistan’s ‘Blasphemy’ Laws Pose Growing Threat

by | May 17, 2011 | Charisma Archive

pakistanmapcroppedPakistan’s notorious
“blasphemy” laws can put even children at risk, and Christians say the
days when they could teach their offspring pat answers to protect them
from accusations of disparaging Islam or its prophet seem to have
passed.

A 30-year-old Pakistani woman who grew up in Lahore
said her Christian parents taught her formula answers to keep from
falling prey to accusations under the blasphemy statutes, such as “I am a
Christian, I can only tell you about Him.” But even then, before
radical Islamists began influencing Pakistani society as they have in
recent years, schoolchildren were taught not to discuss religion, she
said.

“We knew never to get into religious discussions with
others,” she said. “We had them at home – our parents would put us
through the drill of asking us tough questions to see how we answered.
Only now I realize that was practice for school.”

In this
way, she was imbued with the fundamentals of the Christian faith and at
the same time learned that she should discuss it only with her parents,
said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Though the
Christian faith is inherently evangelistic, the need to remain silent is
even more important today, she added.

“Christians
constantly face questions like, ‘What do you think of the Quran, do you
like it?’ and, ‘What do you think of Muhammad?’” she said. “One answer
is, ‘As a Christian I have only read the Bible, I can’t read Arabic.’
These questions used to be easier to answer, we had formulas. But those
are not working any more. We just tell children ‘Don’t talk about
religion in school.’ This is shaky ground now.”

The
blasphemy statutes signal to non-Muslims that they are second-class or
“dhimmi” status citizens who must stay within narrow social boundaries,
leave or be killed, she said.

“Some parents don’t even tell
their children about Jesus, because they are scared they will go to
school and say something wrong,” she said. “One street kid did not know
anything except about the blasphemy law. When her mother was asked why
she did not teach her daughter about Jesus instead of the blasphemy law,
she replied, ‘If I tell her too much, she will talk about it on the
street, and someone will kill her or charge her with blasphemy.’”

The street child, she said, was afraid to tell her what church she attended.

“She
said the mullah in the shop behind us was listening, and as she said
that, I saw the man nearly fall off his chair from trying to listen to
us,” she said.

An entire generation, Christians fear, is
growing up not knowing their faith for fear that it will lead to
potentially disastrous schoolyard talk. Moreover, children required to
take Islamic studies in school are in danger with a single misstep.

“If
they write anything or misspell anything to do with the prophet
Muhammad, they can be in serious danger,” the source said. “In fact, the
other side of this is that they are made to answer questions saying
what a wonderful man he was.”

Christian kids in
predominantly Muslim areas don’t have friends to play with, as even a
cricket game can be risky, she said. Adults are equally fearful.

“People in offices are silenced into submission,” she said. “The fear is creating aggression.”

Conviction
under Section 295-C of the blasphemy law for derogatory comments about
Muhammad is punishable by death, though life imprisonment is also
possible. Curiously, accusers in blasphemy cases cannot repeat the
alleged derogatory comments without risk of being accused of blasphemy
themselves. Section 295-B makes willful desecration of the Quran or use
of an extract in a derogatory manner punishable with life imprisonment.
Section 295-A prohibits injuring or defiling places of worship and “acts
intended to outrage religious feelings.” It is punishable by life
imprisonment, which in Pakistan is 25 years.

Law Leading to Lawlessness
A
district court judge last November stunned the nation and the
international community by handing down a death sentence to a Christian
mother of five for allegedly speaking ill of Muhammad.

Subsequently
three politicians spoke out against the blasphemy law that put Asia
Noreen (also called Asia Bibi) in prison. Two of them have been killed
for standing up for Noreen and against the blasphemy law. One is in
hiding for fear of her life.

Noreen, mother two children
and stepmother to three others, has been in prison in solitary
confinement since June 2009, accused of having blasphemed against
Muhammad, after a verbal disagreement with some women in the village of
Ittanwali, near Lahore. If she is released from prison, her life will be
at risk. Her husband and children are on the run, receiving constant
threats from Muslims who say they will take justice into their own
hands.

Thousands of Pakistanis who think and believe
differently than mainstream Muslims are at risk of being slandered under
the blasphemy law, and those who live in poverty or are illiterate are
particularly vulnerable. Personal vendettas from neighbors, co-workers
and rivals are the most common reasons blasphemy law cases are filed,
according to Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute’s Center for
Religious Freedom.

“Most victims are Muslims, but
non-Muslims or minority Muslims suffer disproportionally,” said
Marshall. “Ahmadis [an unorthodox Islamic sect] are probably
proportionally the greatest victims. There are more victims from mobs
and vigilantes than from the government itself, but the government bears
responsibility because it does not protect the victims.”

Suspected
Islamic extremists in Faisalabad shot dead two Christians about to be
acquitted of blasphemy charges on July 19, 2010. The Rev. Rashid
Emmanuel, 32, and his 30-year-old brother Sajid Emmanuel were shot days
after handwriting experts on July 14 notified police that signatures on
papers denigrating Muhammad did not match those of the accused. Expected
to be exonerated, the two leaders of United Ministries Pakistan were
being led in handcuffs under police custody back to jail when they were
shot.

Christian Lawyers’ Foundation President Khalid Gill
said the two bodies bore cuts and other signs of having been tortured,
including marks on their faces, while the brothers were in police
custody.

Most recently, 40-year-old Arif Masih, of a
village near Faisalabad, was arrested from his house on April 5 after
Muslims accused him of ripping pages of the Quran and writing a
threatening letter ordering them to become Christians. His brother
claims that a neighbor fabricated the accusations in order to acquire
property adjacent to that of Masih’s.  

Though the
much-abused blasphemy law is punishable by death, at times vigilantes
have taken matters into their own hands. At least eight Christians
accused of blasphemy are estimated to have been killed since 1986. The
number of Muslims accused of blasphemy and killed extra-judicially may
be twice that figure.

For secular-educated Pakistanis, the
blasphemy law has come to symbolize the measure to which extreme Islam
has overtaken society. In the span of three months, radical Islamists
murdered two of the nation’s most outspoken leaders against the
blasphemy law. On Jan. 4 Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab Province,
was murdered, and on March 2 parliamentarian Shabaz Bhatti, who as
federal minister for minority affairs was the only Christian cabinet
member, was assassinated in Islamabad.

A third official,
Sherry Rehman, a parliamentarian from Karachi, led an effort to reform
the blasphemy law after Noreen was sentenced to death last year. Taseer,
Bhatti and Rehman were the most vocal about injustices Noreen has
suffered and their disapproval of the law. Rehman, in hiding since
Taseer’s murder, is said to be next on the Islamic terrorists’ hit list.

Noreen’s case drew little attention before she received
the death sentence. One advocate said he believes that had her case not
drawn so much attention, she would have been quietly acquitted by a
higher court without criticism abroad or at home. Now her release would
look like a win for the “Christian” West, he said.

“Hence,
we are not going to have any concrete benefit out of whatever decision
comes on her,” said Asif Aqeel, leader of the Community Development
Initiative. “I don’t see any decision having some fruitful result.”

Aqeel
concurred with other Christians that the blasphemy law has led to a
steep drop in freedom of expression. Mosques in neighborhoods where
blasphemy cases are filed become centers for inciting people to the
streets, where destruction ensues. Since Noreen’s death sentence in
November, sermons against changing the blasphemy law are commonly
broadcast from mosques, especially in neighborhoods where there is a
Christian presence.

“People do not talk, and it is proving
an embargo on thinking,” Aqeel said. “It has caused vigilante justice,
and several incidents have taken place. After that, now whenever this
issue arises, people become afraid that it might turn into a demolition
of the entire place.”

Victims of the blasphemy law cannot
hope for justice from local police, who “do not dare to declare innocent
anyone accused of blasphemy,” Aqeel said, and often lower court judges
and magistrates do little to give them their rights. “Now the slogan is
that the one who sympathizes with the blasphemer is also a blasphemer,”
he said, pointing to the deaths of Taseer and Bhatti.

Pakistan
is moving increasingly towards a state driven by fear of extremists,
where even moderate politicians make conservative choices to appease
Islamist threats, according to Sara Taseer Shoaib, daughter of the late
Taseer.  

“Pakistan is definitely becoming more right-wing
and extremist when it comes to religion,” she said. “Religious parties
are gaining a cult following, and even moderate leaders are trying to
gain popularity and votes by taking a right-wing position.”

The
reasons for this shift to the ultra-right, she said, are many:
conservative issues like defense of the blasphemy law serve to deflect
attention from the real issues of poverty and lack of hope; there is an
increasing trend to blame all woes on the West; and there is a
prevailing sense of a need to defend Islam as the perception remains
that it is under global attack.

Shoaib said her father
spoke about Noreen as a member of Pakistan’s poor, disenfranchised
minority. Determined to defend her and the rights of others like her,
Taseer had visited Noreen in prison before he died.

“He
felt that she was a victim of the ambiguity of this law, and [that] she
was unable to defend herself fairly,” she said. “[He felt that] she was
the prime candidate where the unfairness of this law could be brought to
light. He wanted an amendment to the law which is man-made.”

The
source from Lahore said that fear among Christians after Taseer and
Bhatti’s death is palpable. Christians feel left alone, not knowing who
to trust.

“Everything seems to have snowballed,” she said.
“People are really, really scared. Someone who you see as out there
defending you and speaking for you has been silenced; someone just goes
up to him and shoots him.”

She said Christians feel that
the mentality of their Muslim fellows has hardened as the Pakistani
Taliban and other extremist elements seem to be holding the government
and people’s minds hostage.

“For the extremists, it’s no
longer making Pakistan a Muslim country, but how they use Pakistan to
promote the cause of Islam across the world,” she said. “It’s not for
love of the nation, or national identity, but entirely about religious
identity. That completely isolates those who do not subscribe to the
same views … you are on the street in terms of identity and your social
belonging in the community.”

Growing Issue
Aqeel
said blasphemy looms larger in Pakistani minds and anti-Christian
sentiment is growing for both socio-economic and global reasons.

In
today’s impoverished Pakistan, and after U.S.-led wars in
Muslim-majority Iraq and Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 terrorist
attacks, people see even Pakistani Christians as allies of the West
threatening their identity, he said. Poverty and a religion that upholds
violence as a means to an end only fuel this mob mentality, he said.  

“This
has helped create a sense of alienating the Muslim world, and that the
‘blasphemous’ West is trying to snatch the values by movies and
technology and globalization and trying to capture areas of the Islamic
world,” Aqeel said. “Because of this, their sense of insecurity has made
them more religious.”

As a result, blasphemy has become a larger issue, he said.

Pakistan’s
law against defaming religion was amended in 1982 to include
desecrating the Quran and in 1986 to include disparaging Muhammad. Since
then, at least 37 blasphemy law suspects have been killed while in
police custody, according to Aqeel.

On March 15, Qamar
David, 55, died while serving a life sentence in a prison in Karachi for
alleged blasphemy. Prison authorities claimed that David died of a
heart attack, but his supporters have called for an investigation, as he
had received threats and was subject to beatings and mistreatment from
prison authorities. (See “Pakistani Christian Sentenced for ‘Blasphemy’
Dies in Prison,” March 15.)

While the murders of Bhatti and
Taseer have helped to remove a “Defamation of Religions” resolution
from United Nations consideration – for now – the assassinations have
also brought any movement toward amending Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to a
standstill.

“Although there is a section of media that is
highlighting the issue of blasphemy, the situation hardly allows any
movement or legislation on this subject,” said a Pakistani lawyer on
condition of anonymity. “In my experience in the past 24 years, I have
not seen [such a] stalemate condition, mainly due to the violence and
terrorist threat that prevails.”   

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