Blasphemy: Pakistan's Unforgivable Crime

by Ali Hassan

On February 29, 2016, Mumtaz Qadri was hanged in Rawalpindi’s Adiala Jail (AFP|DAWN.COM). This is a name that doubtless means a great deal to the people of Pakistan. In some, it triggers feelings of disgust and symbolizes a period of time when Pakistan had all but imploded thanks to religious extremism, but many others associate it with that of a hero who protected their religious sentiments from ungodly forces bent on maligning them.

Who is Mumtaz Qadri and why is he such a polarizing figure? In order to understand his importance to Pakistan today, it is necessary to be familiar with the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman from rural Pakistan who was given the death sentence by a local court. Her crime? Blasphemy – allegedly. A group of Muslim women accused her of insulting the Prophet after a verbal altercation (“Blasphemy: what you need...”, DAWN.COM). She had one powerful supporter – Salmaan Taseer, the liberal governor of Punjab at that time. Taseer publicly came to Aasia Bibi’s aid and even criticized Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Enter Mumtaz Qadri. He was assigned to serve Taseer as an escort and bodyguard when the governor was in public places. But his religious sentiments were offended when Taseer criticized the blasphemy laws, and on January 4, 2011, he gunned down his employer, riddling the governor’s body with 30 bullets (“Blasphemy law claims…”, DAWN.COM).

Qadri committed murder because he believed Taseer committed blasphemy. Ironically, Taseer was trying to help a woman whose life the state was going to take for the very same reason. But in this sea of blasphemy accusations, the question remains: what exactly are Pakistan’s laws regarding blasphemy?

Their existence dates back to colonial times. In order to discourage communal disharmony, the British Government introduced a law called Section 295 to protect all Indian religious places of worship from harm in 1860. In 1927, when communal tensions were high, Section 295-A was introduced. It criminalized acts designed to deliberately stoke religious anger. After Pakistan’s creation in 1947, it stayed in place as part of Pakistan’s Penal Code but was never enforced; between 1927 and 1986, only seven people were accused of blasphemy.

In 1977, General Zia-ul-Haq seized power through a military coup and Islamicized the legal system in order to consolidate power. Among his many strict religious laws was Section 295-B, a 1982 amendment to Section 295-A that made the defilement of the Quran a crime punishable with a life sentence. Zia’s reforms gave space to the religious right, creating an atmosphere in which they could consolidate power within their local communities through fear of both Allah and the state. Having strengthened their ability to mobilize people in the name of religion, they accrued a great deal of political power. In 1986, they used their influence to pressurize Zia into amending the blasphemy law again to make it even stricter. Section 295-C was added to the penal code, making blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad a crime, and in 1991, the Federal Shariat Court (a court established in 1980 by Zia that ensures Pakistan’s laws agree with Shariah) ruled that it could only be punishable by a mandatory death sentence (The Nation). Since then, the number of reported blasphemy cases has risen beyond 1,000.

Even though Zia is long gone, his legacy remains. The religious right wields blasphemy laws like a weapon in order to strike down anyone it doesn’t like. Of the many reported cases of blasphemy, some if not most were manufactured with the sole purpose of maligning, hurting or killing people on the basis of personal enmity regardless of whether or not they actually committed blasphemy. Worse still, religious minorities make up a significant proportion of the total number of accused people (“What are Pakistan’s…”, BBC). Consider the case of Sawan Masih, a young Christian man from Lahore who was falsely accused of blasphemy in early March 2013 by a Muslim with whom he had a dispute. Fearing a riot, the police registered a case of blasphemy against him. But the law and order apparatus has no power in such a situation; it cannot prevent Muslims from feeling incensed upon hearing blasphemy has been committed, and it certainly cannot prevent them from mobilizing. On March 9, 2013, a 3,000-strong mob stormed Masih’s area of residence, the predominantly Christian Joseph Colony, and torched dozens of Christian homes (“Dozens of houses torched…”, DAWN.COM). Most of its residents fled the night before in anticipation of a riot and came back to destroyed houses and ransacked property. It is not known as to whether any rioter was arrested, but nobody cared. Sawan Masih, on the other hand, was sentenced to death in 2014 (“Blasphemy: Christian arrested…”, DAWN.COM).

This case highlights the most absurd aspect of the Blasphemy Laws. If you are accused, it does not matter whether you actually committed blasphemy; all that matters is that you were accused. An accusation of blasphemy sticks, and you can do nothing to clear your name. Everyone turns against you and you will ultimately become cornered. The state will go after you because it is left paralyzed by the thought of a religious riot breaking out. And if the state doesn’t get you, the religious rioters it fears so much certainly will. But if you are like 15-year-old Qaiser (an alias to protect his identity), you might hurt yourself before others do so instead. In what is possibly the most bizarre blasphemy case, Qaiser chopped off his hand and presented it to his local mosque’s imam after the latter accused him of blasphemy. The imam accused Qaiser after the young boy accidentally raised his hand when he asked, “Who among you doesn't believe in the teachings of the Holy Prophet? Raise your hands!” during a sermon. Horrified at the thought of living with a blasphemy accusation, he returned home and chopped off his own hand in order to atone for his mistake. In an interview with the BBC, he said, “I didn't feel any pain when I chopped it off so why would I feel any now? The hand that commits blasphemy should be chopped off.” (“The boy accused of…”, BBC) His village declared him a hero. Other nearby villages did so as well. No one cared whether he actually committed blasphemy. All that mattered was that he was accused of it and had to pay the price. The imam who accused him was arrested a few days after the incident, but Qaiser continues to live without one hand.

Getting accused of blasphemy is a death sentence in and of itself. Perhaps this is why nothing has been done to repeal or even amend the blasphemy laws to make them milder. At most, the legal system can show clemency by not carrying out death sentences given to alleged blasphemers. Amazingly, nobody sentenced to death for blasphemy has ever been hanged (The Economist). The issue’s sensitive nature combined with the religious right’s desire to maintain its political influence makes changing them nearly impossible. Salmaan Taseer was gunned down by his own bodyguard for merely criticizing them. At the time, Qadri’s actions were met with praise; he was hailed a protector of the faith and, before his trial, was greeted by hundreds of grateful lawyers who fought each other for a chance at representing him in court. Understandably, Pakistan’s religious left – those that believe in the separation of religion and state – went silent. They realized they had to be quiet unless they wanted to go the way of Taseer. One man, Christian activist and Minister of Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, chose to continue the battle Taseer started. Like his spiritual predecessor, he publicly defended Aasia Bibi and criticized the blasphemy laws. Unsurprisingly, he was shot dead. He was killed on March 2, 2011, merely two months after Taseer was murdered (“Minorities minister…”, DAWN.COM).

Qadri was found guilty of murder in October 2011, after which he fought a four year long legal battle against the verdict. It came to an end when the Supreme Court maintained the sentence in October 2015. Four months later, he was hanged. Carrying out his sentence was quite a powerful move on the government’s part. It was one of the swifter sentences in a country where the legal system operates at a snail’s pace. It is possible that the government wanted to send the message that it was going to reclaim power from the religious right. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was known for his conservative politics in the 90s, seems to have realized the danger of trying to co-opt the religious right. But if the government chooses to take on the religious right, it is going to have to wage a long war. The religious right would rather take up arms than lose political influence. Qadri’s death itself was met with immense backlash; thousands of mourners attended his funeral (“Thousands attend…”, DAWN.COM), and even more took to the streets to protest his hanging. On March 27, 2016, another riot, attended by around 25,000 baton-wielding protesters, broke out in the capital city of Islamabad. The military was called in to curb the violence, but the rioters did enough damage regardless. 2,000 of them continued to protest through to the next day. Sitting outside the parliament, they demanded that Qadri be made a martyr. The government refused, but also did not take decisive action against the protesters, signaling a lack of serious intent to curb religious violence. The government’s inconsistency is problematic. It should develop a strategy that is effectively implemented and made known to the public. Until then, the blasphemy laws certainly will not go anywhere.

Works Cited

“Taseer’s killer Mumtaz Qadri hanged.” AFP|DAWN.COM, 1 March 2016.

“The boy accused of blasphemy who cut off his own hand.” BBC, 19 January 2016.

“What are Pakistan’s blasphemy laws?” BBC, 6 November 2014.

“Blasphemy law claims another life.” DAWN.COM, 4 Jan. 2014.

“Blasphemy: Christian sentenced to death in Joseph Colony case.”, 28 March 2014.

Yasin, Aamir. “Thousands attend Qadri’s funeral.”, 2 March 2016.

“Blasphemy: What you need to know about Asia Bibi’s trial.”, 13 October 2016.

“Minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti assassinated in Islamabad.”, 2 March 2011.

“Dozens of houses torched as mob attacks Lahore Christian locality.”, 9 March 2013.

“Flowers from the muck: A well-observed account of Pakistan’s death penalty and how it works.” The Economist, 16 July 2016.

“10 Things You Need to know about Pakistan’s blasphemy law.” The Nation, 14 October 2016.


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