A background to the blasphemy laws
The blasphemy law was first introduced to the Pakistan Penal Code in 1860 by the British government as a means to protect the Muslim minority against the Hindu majority but offering all religions equal protection (Section 295).
In 1977, however, the late General Zia-ul-Huq began a process of Islamising the Pakistani constitution. In 1982, a presidential ordinance made defiling the Holy Qu’ran punishable by life imprisonment (Section 295-A and B), whilst in 1991, General Zia made Sharia Law the supreme law in Pakistan.
Under pressure from religious extremists, the blasphemy law was again amended in 1986 to include defamation of the Holy Prophet, whether directly or indirectly, both in spoken and written form, as well as by way of impersonation (Section 295-C). For the first time, blasphemy also carried the possibility of the death sentence.
When, in 1991, the Federal Shariah Court rescinded the option of life imprisonment, the death penalty became the automatic punishment for anyone found guilty of blasphemy.
The Pakistani Penal Code: a breakdown
Offences related to religion:
Injuring or defiling place of worship, with intent to insult the religion of any class: Whoever, destroys, damages or defiles any place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defilement as an insult to their religion, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.
Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs: 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 or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 10 years, or with fine, or with both.
The Blasphemy Laws:
Defiling etc. a copy of the Holy Koran: Whoever wilfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Koran or an extract there from or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.
Use of derogatory remarks etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet: Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death.
Abuse and discrimination under the blasphemy laws
The Islamisation of Pakistan’s constitution has had devastating consequences for the country’s religious minorities, not least because they exacerbate religious intolerance and fuel unnecessary tension between members of different religions.
Whilst Article 25 stipulates that all citizens are equal before the law, in reality the blasphemy laws disregard Pakistan’s multi-faith society by protecting only Muslims and the Islamic faith. Those who object to any aspect of the constitution or the Islamic faith would rather stay silent than risk their lives by voicing their objections publicly.
The penalty for those convicted of blasphemy is death and yet astonishingly the law books do not even clearly define blasphemy, let alone make any provision for cases of false accusation. Blasphemy charges can be brought against any individual with nothing more than a “reliable” testimony and once made, can lead to immediate and indefinite detention without bail for the accused. It is not uncommon for victims to spend weeks, months, even years, in prison before their case is brought before the court and the experience of torture and abuse are not uncommon.
That the blasphemy laws are dangerously open to abuse has not been missed by extremist Muslims who have used them to persecute, arrest, detain and even kill hundreds of members of minority religions. In some cases, the blasphemy laws have been used to win over rivals, seize property, and force conversions to Islam.
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, head of the Barnabas Fund and outspoken critic of the Blasphemy Laws, pointedly summed up the havoc that Section 295-C (“defiling the name of Muhammad”) has wreaked on Pakistan’s Christian minority and the extent to which it has been used by fundamentalists to take the law into their own hands:
“The blasphemy law is felt to be a sword of Damocles and has developed a huge symbolic significance which contributes substantially to the atmosphere of intimidation of Christians. The detrimental effect of the law….is most dramatically illustrated by the incident at Shati Nagar in February 1997 in which tens of thousands of rioting Muslims destroyed hundreds of Christian homes, and other Christian property, following an accusation of blasphemy. Furthermore the blasphemy has engendered a wave of private violence….some Muslims feel they are entitled to enforce the death penalty themselves.”