Blasphemy: The Unpardonable Offense

by Alia Ahmed

When, this past April, a mob of his fellow students lynched and shot dead 23-year-old Mashal Khan on a university campus in northern Pakistan for allegedly posting “blasphemous” content to Facebook, a divided society came together in that rare display of solidarity that emerges, however selectively, to protest certain horrors.

Despite the subsequent arrests, public uproar, and senators calling for Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to be amended, only two months later an anti-terrorism court passed its first ever death sentence for the crime of blasphemy. Thirty-year-old Taimoor Raza of Punjab is slated to die for supposedly making derogatory comments about the Prophet on social media. Mashal Khan’s family had barely finished the 40-day mourning period Islam prescribes for honoring the dead before the state decided to take a victim of its own. Indeed, a month before Khan’s murder, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar threatened to block all websites deemed to carry blasphemous content, and millions of Pakistanis have since received text messages from the government reminding them that uploading irreligious material online is illegal, and encouraging citizens to report those who do. State-sponsored vigilantism has met the digital age.

In previous times however, and for the greater part of the twentieth century, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws were rarely invoked. According to Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English-language daily, only 10 cases of blasphemy were registered between 1927 and 1986. Thanks largely to the Islamization campaigns of military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the late 1970s and early 1980s, at least 1,472 people have been accused of blasphemy between 1987 and 2015, and at least 62 killed, like Khan, on the mere suspicion of it, according to the Lahore-based Center for Social Justice. People began abusing the laws to settle personal feuds and take out grievances and prejudices. The mere accusation of blasphemy was enough to incite others to violence at worst, and shut down any debate at best.

But the state has never executed a citizen for blasphemy. Until the Taimoor Raza verdict.

Transformation of Penal Code

It was under Zia that the Pakistan penal code was amended to punish blasphemy with death or life imprisonment. Against the backdrop and rationale of the US and Pakistani-backed Mujahideen fighting for the glory of Islam against godless communists in Afghanistan, how could killing in the name of religion not be considered a similarly glorious act at home? As historian Ayesha Jalal said in a recent interview, “…almost nothing of political consequence ever happens in Pakistan that is not somehow linked to global politics.” Zia’s coup itself, she contends, “was no different. Informed by domestic calculations, it was also influenced by Pakistan’s quest for nuclear power status, something that pitted Z.A. Bhutto against Washington, as well as alliances with the oil rich economies of the Gulf in the aftermath of defeat and dismemberment [of losing its eastern wing which became Bangladesh] in 1971.”

Zia, of course, was only the culmination of the dangerous game of using religion and religious symbols to formulate state policy and identity by attempting to unify disparate peoples, cultures, languages, and religions under a single banner of “Islam,” which cemented Pakistan’s national character once and for all. The decades-long tussle between democracy and theocracy was seemingly lost..

Among the many painful ironies that besets this country, its own founder M.A. Jinnah was deeply wary of the repercussions of pandering to religion, stating unequivocally, “religion should not enter politics.” In 1920, he resigned from the Indian National Congress Party over the Freedom Movement’s open usage of religious symbols and sentiments as a populist rallying tool for fighting for independence from the British. Moreover, taking pride in one’s culture through religious identity, perhaps a noble sentiment on the surface, could not but turn violent and exclusionary in a society marred by a divide-and-rule colonial policy pitting religions and ethnicities against each other.

By the 1940s, Jinnah too succumbed and had to use Islam—a tool that Jalal calls “specifically ambiguous and imprecise”—to create political unity. But there was no clear plan on how to govern a Pakistan on such a basis should it come into being. The Pakistan Movement may have been a potent uniting force, but living, breathing Pakistan was fragile. Though Jinnah, in his first presidential address to the Constituent Assembly in 1947, famously declared that citizens’ religion was not to be the business of the new state, the genie had been let out of the bottle. The current exploitation of the blasphemy laws is among its worse excesses.

The laws were written into the 1860 Indian penal code by Lord Thomas Babbington Macaulay, who, even taking into account the times he lived in, stands out in history for his racism and disdain for his Indian subjects. He spoke of the sensitivity of the brown masses, for whom verbal insults would “excite violent passion.” Thus, Section 295(A) of the Indian Penal Code read: “Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of His Majesty’s subjects, 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 punishable with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or both.” [emphasis added]

Expanding the Meaning of Blasphemy

Since then, the Pakistani penal code has added articles (B) and (C), which prohibit the desecration of the Quran or the insulting of the Prophet respectively. These seem more straightforward than article (A) – don’t trample the holy book, and don’t speak or write ill of the Prophet (though admittedly what constitutes an insult will always be up for debate and shaped by social values). But the original article (A) enters that nebulous dialectic of feeling. Austin Dacey, UN representative for the International Humanist and Ethical Union, writes in a 2012 Huffington Post article, “…the law expanded the meaning of blasphemy, generating new opportunities for outrage. Traditional Islamic law, for example, recognizes the offense of sabb al-rasul, insult to the Prophet. But an insult to the Prophet obviously is not equivalent to feelings of outrage about any sacred values. A legal system crafted to encompass Hindus, Muslims, and Christians created a standard that went far beyond any of [each of] their religious doctrines: the standard of respect for all believers.”

Dacey then gives the example of a young doctor, Rashid Jahan, who in 1932 published a piece in a literary anthology criticizing the role of women in Indian Muslim society. The mullah brigade, alive and well then as now, referred to her writing as blasphemous and called for her death. Although she herself was spared, her work was destroyed under Article 295. Writes Dacey, “The law helped to turn a critique of Islamically-based gender inequality into a blasphemous affront to Muslims.” But one need not harken back to 1932 to understand this supremacy of feeling – as recently as 2013, a disgruntled citizen filed a blasphemy case against parliamentarian and former ambassador to the United Sates Sherry Rahman, who was pushing for the laws to be amended. Amid death threats, reform was abandoned—speaking about the blasphemy was perceived as committing it.

Monsters are created, not born. When Mumtaz Qadri shot dead Punjab governor Salman Taseer in 2011 for speaking in support of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who had been accused of blasphemy during an argument with a Muslim neighbor over a bowl of water, Pakistan failed not only Taseer and Asia Bibi, but the killer as well. In investing nothing in its population, in keeping people uneducated and ignorant, the leaders of this country have been free to conduct their “Islamic” social engineering experiments on a society whose myriad and ancient cultures and identities it suits them to erase. The young boys of this country do not deserve to grow up into Mumtaz Qadris, or excited and angry mobs who lynch their peers in the name of Islam because there is nothing else left to believe in.

 Image: Taimoor Raza’s Facebook page

Alia Ahmed

Alia Ahmed is a journalist and editor at the Herald magazine, the investigative monthly of Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest English-language newspaper, founded by Mohammad Ali Jinnah. She recently completed an MFA from Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Previously, she worked for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in New York.