Colombo, June 14: Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy law has spread its tentacles to cover the social media. In a landmark judgment last Saturday, an Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) in Pakistan sentenced to death, Taimoor Raza, a 30 year old Shia Muslim from Bahawalpur, for sharing blasphemous content about Islam on Facebook,.writes P.K.Balachandran in Daily Express
This is the first time anyone in Pakistan has been given the death sentence for blasphemy in Facebook postings.
Given mounting pressure from the Pakistan government, Facebook has been working to comply with the country’s blasphemy laws. 85% of blasphemous content running through Facebook have reportedly been blocked. In May, an Islamabad High Court Judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui had demanded that Facebook and other social media be banned “in their entirety” to prevent people from using them to spread blasphemous and un-Islamic content.
According to the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) Taimoor Raza had posted derogatory content about prominent Sunni Deobandhi religious figures, Prophet Muhammad and his wives on Facebook.
A case was registered against him on behalf of the State at CTD Multan police station under blasphemy law section 295-C (use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet) and Sections 9 and 11w of the Anti-Terrorism Act (which deal with whipping up sectarian hatred).
Pakistan’s blasphemy law (295-C), is very wide ranging. It says: “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 Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”
But the option of life imprisonment was rendered defunct and death penalty was made mandatory after a 1991 Federal Shariat Court judgment.
Pakistan has so far not executed anyone convicted of blasphemy, and Raza can appeal to the High Court and the Supreme Court.
Could he seek pardon? The 1991 law implicitly rules out pardon besides making the death sentence mandatory. But some distinguished scholars argue that the law of the Hanafi school, which is followed in Pakistan, allows pardon. However, in the current highly charged political climate in the country, any tampering with the law to dilute its provisions is unthinkable.
The people have been taking the law into their own hands and murdering and lynching suspects. The perpetrators invariably go scot free. So far, there have been 67 cases of murder related to blasphemy in Pakistan and more than 1,300 are in jail awaiting trial or execution.
The Punjab provincial Governor Salman Taseer was shot dead by his own bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri in 2011 because Taseer was carrying on a campaign against the harsh blasphemy law which many were using to settle personal scores or to intimidate minority communities like Hindus, Christians, Ahmadiyas, Shias and certain other Islamic sects.
Pakistan’s Minister for Minister of Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated for supporting the case of Asiya Bibi, a poor Christian woman and a mother of five, sentenced to death for blasphemy. More than 50% of those facing trial in blasphemy cases are from the minority communities. Many Muslims have also been charged with blasphemy. The famous religious singer, the late Junaid Jamshed, was slapped with a blasphemy case.
In April this year, Mashal Khan, a journalism student at the Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan in the Khyber Pakhtunwala province, was lynched by a mob of students and staff alleging that he had blasphemed in dormitory discussions and on social media. But investigations revealed that Khan had not blasphemed at all. Nevertheless, no cleric would officiate at his funeral – so scared people were of antagonizing the radical elements in Pakistani society.
More recently, this year, three young burqa clad women shot dead a 45 year old man in Punjab for saying something blasphemous 13 years ago!
These incidents shocked liberal Pakistanis. But Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar made the shocking statement that a law would be passed to block the social media of “all blasphemous content”.
Nevertheless, some Pakistani law makers called for amending the blasphemy law to provide for punishments to those who concocted blasphemy accusations against others, and demanded a campaign against those taking the law into their hands.
Pakistan People’s Party’s Farhatullah Babar said a religious scholar had proposed that accusers who leveled false accusations should suffer the same sentence as provided for a blasphemer.Babar recalled that it was a Federal Sharia Court which had increased the maximum punishment for blasphemy from life imprisonment to death sentence, thereby hinting that the law could be changed to prescribe a less stringent punishment.
Retired Gen Abdul Qayyum of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) also called for flaws in the blasphemy law to be addressed. He stressed that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance which prohibits any excesses, even against animals. “This was not terrorism, but savagery,” he remarked on the lynching of Mashal Khan.
Jamaat-i-Islami chief Siraj-ul-Haq said that the rule of law is what defines a civilized society and that even if someone is guilty of a crime, no individual or organization has the right to punish that individual unilaterally.
However, till date, the government has made no announcement about amending the blasphemy law.
“According to the 1991 Federal Shariat Court judgment you blaspheme, you die,” says Arafat Mazhar, founder of Engage an institution for research and reform of religious laws in Pakistan in an article in Dawn of April 13, 2017.
“No ifs, ands or buts about it. The credibility of this assertion is built on an apparently universal consensus (ijma) on the subject across all four Sunni schools of thought. By maintaining this front of scholarly consensus, the religious leadership disallows any concept of an alternative position,” Mazhar notes.
Hanafi School Allows Pardon
But Mazhar says that in the Hanafi school of Islam, blasphemers who ask for a pardon can be spared the death penalty if they repent and seek pardon. That was established by the founder of the Hanafi school of thought, Abu Hanifa, himself, he points out.
“The stance that blasphemers who ask for a pardon would be spared the death penalty has already been established by the founder of the Hanafi school of thought, Abu Hanifa himself.” he says.
“Within the Hanafi position, it simply does not go higher than Abu Hanifa, and it is the Hanafi school of thought that is foremost in significance, in terms of religio-legal debates in the Supreme Court, the Federal Sharia Court and the Council of Islamic Ideology,” Mazhar points out.
According to Mazhar, Advocate Ismaeel Qureshi, the architect of the blasphemy law, has acknowledged that mistakes had been made in the research upon which the judicial interpretation of Pakistan’s blasphemy law now rests.
“There is no need to change the letter of the blasphemy law for pardoning offenders. All that is required is to revisit the judicial interpretation, and rectify the erroneous conclusion of the Federal Sharia Court,” he believes.
(The featured image at the top shows Pakistani liberals protesting against the lynching of journalism student Mashal Khan by fellow students and university staff)