How Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws Are Tearing The Country Apart

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In a sign of Pakistan’s increasing instability gunmen attacked and killed Pakistan’s minister for religious minorities earlier this morning. Shahbaz Bhatti, a member of Pakistan’s minority Christian community, had been vocal about Pakistan’s draconian anti-blasphemy laws. And he is not the first: in January, Salmaan Taseer, the outspoken governor of Pakistan’s largest province, was assassinated by his own bodyguard while walking out of an Islamabad restaurant. The bodyguard, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, said he was simply doing his religious duty, and that in denouncing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws Taseer was himself committing blasphemy, a crime punishable by death.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are a colonial holdover put in place by British administrators seeking to calm the subcontinent’s fractious religious groups. They were sharpened under the reign of dictator Zia ul Haq, who added a clause calling for death to anyone found guilty of slandering the Prophet Mohammad. Since then some 1000 blasphemy cases have been registered. Though roughly half have been applied to religious minorities the others have been registered against muslims, in what is widely assumed to be the pursuit of personal vendettas. In one recent example a schoolboy from Karachi is being held in jail for allegedly writing insults against the on a school exam paper (because repeating what the boy wrote would in itself be considered blasphemy, the accusation  is enough to keep him in detention. Though considering what happened to Taseer, it could also be construed as keeping him safe). In another example, a religious leader and his son have been accused of committing blasphemy because they tore down a poster promoting an upcoming religious conference.

Yet any attempts to amend these laws to stem such abuse has been met with intense outrage by both religious leaders and Pakistani citizens, who hold that the law is divine, and cannot be changed. The blasphemy cases have become a boon for Pakistan’s religious parties, who have seldom done well at the polls. But with the country’s current government on the brink of collapse, religious group may be gambling that the issue of blasphemy could leverage them into power if new elections are called. Their gamble may well pay off. Qadri, Taseer’s assassin, was feted as a hero in Pakistan. In his confession, he said he had been inspired by the teachings of his local mullah Hanif Qureshi, who condemned anyone standing against the blasphemy law, saying they were worthy of death. At a rally a few days later, Qureshi claimed credit for motivating Qadri. “He would come to my Friday prayers and listen to my sermons.” Then he repeated his point: “The punishment for a blasphemer is death.”

But is it? Two weeks after Taseer’s murder, I went to visit Qari Muhammad Zawar Bahadur, a prominent leader of one of Pakistan’s mainstream religious groups and co-signer of a statement that advised Muslims not to show “grief or sympathy on the death of the governor, as those who support blasphemy of the Prophet are themselves indulging in blasphemy.” For more than an hour he justified his groups’ stance, telling me that the Koran was clear on the issue. I asked him to show me the exact verse detailing the punishments for blasphemy. He mumbled that “there are several passages,” as if there were so many he couldn’t decide which one to quote. When pressed further he consulted a Koran and read aloud one passage that spoke about killing a man who had once harmed the prophet.

That verse has routinely been dismissed by leading Islamic scholars as referring to a specific case and having nothing to do with blasphemy. They say there is no definition of blasphemy in the Koran, nor is there a prescription for its punishment (punishments are mentioned in other books about the Prophet’s life, but they are not considered the word of God).

Yet few people stand up to the leaders who misinterpret the Koran for their own ends. After what happened first to Taseer, and now Bhatti, even less are likely to do so now.

More from  Read Omar Waraich on Pakistan’s extremist drift.