August 11, 2023
Pakistan’s Blasphemy law has cast a long shadow over the rights and safety of religious minorities in Pakistan. But the journey that began with an apparent intent to protect religious sentiments has only ended up only in settling personal vendettas, inciting violence and perpetrating discrimination.
For the religious minorities of the country, the mere accusation of blasphemy can lead to a cascade of horrific events – as little as social boycott and ostracisation to the loss of employment and finally in extreme incidents to mob violence and extrajudicial killings.
Religious and sectarian minorities both including Shias, Christians, and Ahmadis live in a state of perpetual fear, constantly vigilant about their words and actions.
While there has been rampant misuse of blasphemy laws, it has created a culture of impunity, where false accusations often go unpunished, and those who seek to manipulate these laws for their own gain end up bolder and stronger.
Insights from 2023
From January 2023 until May of the same year, a total of 57 instances of blasphemy were already documented, along with four cases of extrajudicial killings. These numbers are based on data collected by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), a minorities rights organization.
CSJ’s statistics dating back to 1994 reveal that at least 92 individuals lost their lives due to blasphemy allegations. Among these deaths, 50 were identified as Muslims, followed by 23 Christians, 14 Ahmadis, two Hindus, and one Buddhist.
According to territory, from January to May 2023, most of the blasphemy cases took place in Punjab (28 cases), followed by Sindh (16), Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (8), and Azad Jammu & Kashmir (5).
Similarly in the previous year, as many as 171 people were accused under the blasphemy laws, with 65 per cent of cases taking place in Punjab.
Punjab has been the origin of the majority of blasphemy cases, despite its largest population, the region shows a pattern of intolerance and increased hatred.
Future of Blasphemy Laws
On August 8, 2023, the Senate of Pakistan passed a Blasphemy Law amendment bill to increase the punishment for using derogatory remarks against revered personalities — including the Holy Prophet’s (Peace Be Upon Him) family, wives and companions, and the four caliphs — from three years of imprisonment to a non-bailable apprehension for at least 10 years upto a lifetime.
The bill, titled The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2023, was passed by the National Assembly in January in the presence of just 15 lawmakers. The bill was tabled by Abdul Akbar Chitrali of Jamat-e-Islami in the lower house of the Pakistani Parliament.
The Bill seeks to amend Section 298 A of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) which specifically aims to protect the sanctity of revered personalities. but the amendment has ambiguity in the definitions of ‘holy personages’.
The bill outlines its aims and motivations, stating that certain individuals engage in “internet and social media-based blasphemy,” and that showing disrespect to revered figures, including the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) associates, has been linked to “terrorism,” “disorder within the nation,” and emotional distress among people from various backgrounds.
The bill regards the existing penalty for this offence as “insufficient,” noting that it prompts individuals to take matters into their own hands, resulting in a rise in instances of violence.
Although the bill has received resistance and rejection, the calls of repealing would likely encounter resistance from conservative religious groups and factions within the society who consider these laws to be a fundamental part of protecting religious sentiments.
The outlook for these laws appears bleaker than ever, as there has been a noticeable rise in political confrontations surrounding religious matters, often leading to the escalation of violent events. This can consequently contribute to a surge in extrajudicial killings, often justified by accusations of blasphemy.
Intent, Content and Extent
The British colonial administration initially established laws regarding religious offences in 1860, which were later extended in 1927. These laws were inherited by Pakistan following its formation in 1947 after the partition of India.
During the years 1980 to 1986, several provisions were introduced to these laws under the rule of General Zia-ul Haq’s military government. General Haq aimed to “Islamicize” these laws and to legally distinguish the Ahmadi community, declared non-Muslim in 1973, from the larger Muslim population in Pakistan.
Peter Jacob, Executive Director of CSJ and a human rights advocate, commented on the origins of these laws, deeming them unreasonable and lacking democratic principles. He noted that
“Section 295 B and Section 298 A, B and C were added to the penal code by an unelected government, thereby undermining their democratic essence.”
Jacob pointed out that the recent amendment to section 298A, involving the strengthening of penalties, highlighted a scenario in which a single political party essentially held the assembly hostage, successfully passing the amendment bill with the support of only 15 members.
He raised the question, “How does this represent the entire Assembly?”
Regarding the deficiencies in the blasphemy laws, Jacob expressed concerns about the absence of essential provisions that should be inherent in criminal law. For instance, the legislation fails to consider situations where prosecution should not be applicable, such as cases involving individuals without intent to commit the offence, minors, or those unfamiliar with the concept of ‘respect’.
The ambiguity and weaknesses in the intent and content of the blasphemy laws contribute to the potential harm of the bill. Jacob emphasized, “These laws have significantly harmed Pakistan’s international image.”
How 298-A affects Shias?
Amnesty International reports that Pakistan frequently employs its blasphemy regulations to target vulnerable individuals, including those belonging to religious minority communities like the Shiites and Ahmadiyya.
Pakistan, a nation of 220 million people where Sunnis constitute the majority, sees the Shia community comprising approximately 10% to 15% of the populace. This group finds itself under the crosshairs of Sunni extremist factions.
According to the Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), from the conception of Pakistan till 2021,around 309 Shiias were booked under blasphemy laws and two were extrajudicially killed.
A Shia-led organization that claims to be the representative of Shias of Pakistan has outrightly rejected the amendments in the blasphemy law.
Speaking to Voicepk.net, the spokesperson of the organization said that the ambiguity of the blasphemy laws is threatening the existence of Shiias in Pakistan.
“This amendment is nothing but an attempt to put an end to the secular diversity in the country; Pakistan was not made in the name of a particular sect of Islam but it was made for the entirety of Islam, Fiqah-e-Jafariya is a part of Islam,”
said the spokesperson on condition of anonymity.
The stance of the organization’s leaders is that the current blasphemy laws in Pakistan lack clarity and are ambiguous, providing a wide spectrum for misuse and misinterpretation.
“We may have different ‘revered personalities’ as other sects, we may also have different definitions of companions of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), we should not be asked to comply to the same laws as others who have different ideologies than us.”
For them, the right to have religious freedom is protected by the Charter of Human Rights of the United Nations, every sect under the umbrella of Islam should be equally heard and should have an equal contribution.
They claim that most of the First Information Reports (FIRs) registered against Shias under the blasphemy laws are solely vengeful and are in reaction to personal vendetta and with the non-bailable quality of the offence, they fear numerous wrongful apprehensions and years of suffering ahead.
“When opinions from all communities of the nation are not taken into consideration, how can one anticipate its national applicability?” This question casts a shadow of uncertainty over the realm of blasphemy laws.
Boundaries for Ahmadis
From the year 2020 to the year 2023, 139 cases of blasphemy were registered against the Ahmadiyya Community of Pakistan: reports CSJ.
From the beginning of the year 2023, approximately 14 extrajudicial acts have been carried out against the Ahmadiyya community, and a campaign to demolish the minarets of the Ahmadiyya worship place has been allegedly orchestrated.
So far, six incidents of desecration have been carried out in Sindh, whereas in Punjab eight cases of toppling Minarets of Bait ul Zikr have surfaced.
Speaking on behalf of the Ahmadiyya Community, Adv. Mahmood says that no law in the Constitution of Pakistan stops the Ahmadis from building minarets and history shows no precedent of any judgment that allows these desecrations.
Mahmood believes the events have been nothing but a result of bigotry and increased incitement.
The Ahmadiyya Community is largely concerned about the enforcement of blasphemy laws, expressing worry over their potential for abuse. They assert that these laws are fostering an atmosphere that disproportionately singles out minority groups, rather than safeguarding the reverence for sacred individuals and symbols.
Regarding the future outlook, Mahmood is of the opinion that improvement is unlikely unless the misuse of these laws is effectively addressed.
“The legislation needs to be more precise. Instead of introducing new laws, it would be beneficial to enhance the clarity of existing ones and eliminate any uncertainties.”
When asked about the replication of the design and architecture of the Muslim mosques by the Ahmadi community Mahmood says, “There is no particular design fixed for a masjid. Minarets are made by Christians, Hindus and Jews as well; singling out of Ahmadis is an act of pure hatred, there is no matter of ambiguity in it, there is no law related to it.”
Meanwhile, 188 cases of Blasphemy have been recorded against the Ahmadiyya Community from 1947 until 2021, records CRSS.
Mahmood fears that the under these laws, the Ahmadiyya Community in Pakistan will be singled out and will face unprecedented violence.
In March 2023, the Supreme Court provided clarification that, despite the Constitution categorizing Ahmadis as non-Muslims, it did not negate their status as citizens or strip them of their essential rights.
Furthermore, the Court noted that the utilization of Sections 295-B and C necessitated substantial evidence demonstrating malicious intent. Additionally, it emphasized that merely reciting Quranic verses by a non-Muslim/Ahmadi would not inherently amount to a punishable offence, as was evident in the particular case under consideration.
The profound impact of these laws on religious minorities is evident, with accusations leading to social isolation, violence, and extrajudicial killings. The misuse of these laws has bred impunity, empowering manipulative forces. The future remains uncertain, marked by a bleak outlook as political confrontations escalate.