Foreign Policy Blogs

The Truth Behind Blasphemy

“You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State.” – Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Founding Father of Pakistan: August 11, 1947.

July 5th, 1977: Pakistan saw the advent of a new Head of State. Not elected, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq was the second Chief of Army Staff to overthrow the government in a bloodless coup d’état within the first thirty years of Pakistan’s inception – escorting in an age of “Islamization,” contrary to everything Jinnah had propagated. In attempts to rally support, Zia used the oldest trick in the book – religion as a tool to gain popular support; contaminating the true essence of religion.

Zia’s claim to fame is the introduction of the “Shariah” (literally meaning “the way” – interpreted as Islamic Jurisprudence) into the legal system of Pakistan through the Hadood Ordinance. [An Ordinance, passed by executive order lacks Parliamentary approval.] Under these broad rules, Zia sought to “Islamize” Pakistan by introducing laws on adultery, fornication, slander and blasphemy, amongst others. Under these same laws, he curtailed the rights and liberties of a minority sect, the Ahmedi’s, restricting their movement and shunning them to somewhat of a class of untouchables [Note: Islam has no tolerance for distinguishing between class and creed].

Although we could talk about each of these laws and how they are specifically against the injunctions of Islam (which the Federal Shariat Court – a court that has the power to question and amend laws to bring them in line with Islam – ought to have shot down at first instance), and how protests and years of struggle have enabled Pakistani’s to finally amend some [See: Protection of Women (Criminal Laws Amendment) Act, 2006], a pressing issue today are the blasphemy laws.

These laws have been incorporated into Pakistan’s criminal legislation through Section 295 of the Criminal Code. Section 295 of the Pakistan Criminal Code forbids damaging or defiling a place of worship or a sacred object [Note: the place of worship is not defined as a mosque]; 295-A forbids outraging religious feelings [Note: religion not specified]; 295-B forbids defiling the Qur’an and 295-C forbids defaming the Prophet. Except for Section 295-C (defaming the Prophet), the provisions of 295 require that an offence be committed with intent (which is a tough burden of proof to dispel). Defaming Prophet Muhammad merits death with or without a fine, with or without intent.

It is 295-C under which most egregious acts are committed. Before, it was a power game where Muslims in a village would accuse a Christian of defaming the Prophet or defiling the Qur’an, sending him to prison and leaving his property up for grabs. Now, a false sense of Muslim pride has been aroused with concerns to the honor of the Prophet. We saw this take an ugly turn with the Danish cartoons in 2005 and now, in Pakistan, the call to amend the Blasphemy laws has claimed the lives of two government officials, Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer and Minister of Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti. [Please note: such acts have burdened Pakistani soil since time immemorial; it is only recently when it has moved into the political circle, agitating the international media.]

The problem is the misconception that “blasphemy” is a crime punishable by the state under the Shariah. Time and again we’ve seen Muslim clerics, “mullah’s” come on various talk-shows in Pakistan, quoting the Qur’an, proving that slandering the Prophet and his honor is punishable by death. One such cleric quoted, quite fluently, verses 56-58 and then 61 of Surah (chapter) Ahzab (number 33); strategically missing out two verses which clearly change the topic of discussion.

Islam, the word, means submission; submission to God. The God who in the Qur’an gives you the right to take revenge when you have been wronged, but then adds “The recompense for an evil is an evil like thereof, but whoever forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is due form Allah. Verily, He likes not the oppressors.” (42:20 – The Qur’an). Looking closely, cohorts of the blasphemy laws say that they are protecting the honor of the Prophet.

The other side of the story is that the Prophet, himself, never took such measures to protect the same honor. When he was yelled at, he turned away; when someone accused him, he patiently listened. There’s a famous story about an old lady that would throw trash out of her window on him every day. One day she didn’t and concerned, the Prophet went to her house to check if she was okay. If he was to avenge his honor, he would’ve done it then, or God would’ve said something about it in the Qur’an – but it wasn’t. The Prophet was taught not to judge people, because that was God’s job. He was taught to humbly invite people to Islam and never give up, because you never know when someone may have a change of heart.

It goes against all injunctions of Islam to punish people for a belief dissimilar to your own, much less to met out the death penalty. Time and again God asks Muslims to be patient, to respect your neighbor, protect him and if you find yourself in company that is talking ill of your religion, your beliefs, leave their company and only return when they speak of other matters [See The Qur’an 2:104 and 6:68].

It is this misconception and misinterpretation, rather adulteration, of the Qur’an by its clerics that has led masses to believe blasphemy ought to be punishable by death. It is these people, that go unchecked by the government, much less punished, that are able to turn Pakistan into a hate-mongering nation it has become today.

So, as another day passes, another is buried for expressing his views; views which are far more well-founded than those of the perpetrators that set him in his final resting place. And what of the government? The President of Pakistan did not attend the funeral procession or call the family of the deceased for condolences – supposedly fearing for his life.



Sahar Said

Sahar, who grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, has obtained her Master of Laws degree from The George Washington University Law School, and worked with a non-profit in New York. She currently writes from Germany.

Sahar can be followed on Twitter @sahar_said.