Off with the Head

Saudi Arabia or Tunisia? Pakistan needs to determine its path, writes Kunwar Khuldune Shahid

Off with the Head
Among the fatal allegations leveled against Karachi University’s Dean of Islamic Studies Dr Shakil Auj, who was shot dead on September 18, was his ‘blasphemous’ support for Muslim women, who according to him should be allowed to marry non-Muslim men. Dr Auj also ‘blasphemed’ by suggesting that women didn’t have to remove their lipstick or any other makeup before praying.

The ‘audacious’ attempts to counter misogyny were an integral part of a liberal brand of Islam that he staunchly advocated, much to the dismay of both the orthodox clergy and his colleagues. When the professor got too liberal for Takfiri comfort, a Karachi madrassa issued a fatwa against him for blasphemy. And when that happens, Section 295-A of Pakistan Penal Code reveals its appetite for blood, albeit outside the court.

Any attempt to encourage discussion on the blasphemy law is a murderous merry-go-round in Pakistan. Merely stating the obvious fact that the law has been misused in the country could instigate another fatal case of blasphemy. When Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti are murdered and an official case is registered against Sherry Rehman for merely condemning the misuse of the law, obviously the ordinary man can’t muster the audacity to suggest any discussion on the merits and demerits of the blasphemy law.

Dr. Shakil Auj
Dr. Shakil Auj

Till last year, 51 out of the 1274 cases registered since Ziaul Haq introduced the harsher subsections 295-B and 295-C in 1986, resulted in the accused being murdered, with the rest forced into asylum or hiding.

Your life is over, one way or the other, if you’re accused of blasphemy in Pakistan. And in many cases all it takes is a petty professional rivalry or disagreement that has no religious backdrop for the accusation to be summoned. Any unsubstantiated fatwa announced by any random man wearing the pretentious garb of religion is indefensible in this country.

One would think that since discussions on the law are deemed blasphemous, bothering to substantiate allegations of blasphemy would at least be taken seriously. But law enforcement agencies openly acquiesce in the torching of the accused – as witnessed in the Raja Deero police station in 2012 and Gojra, Joseph Colony and Gujranwala riots – or massacre the ‘blasphemer’ themselves – as in the case of Faryad Ali, who murdered Samuel Masih in 2003, and Mumtaz Qadri who assassinated Salmaan Taseer.

Trying to defend an accused is the easiest way to seal your fate, as Rashid Rehman’s barefaced murder in May this year reveals. Rahman was threatened inside the court by his follow lawyers for ‘daring’ to fight Junaid Hafeez’s case.

[quote]Death threats are being dished out inside district courts and the accused are being butchered inside police stations[/quote]

It speaks volumes for the dire straits that we find ourselves in when death threats are being dished out inside district courts and the accused are being butchered inside police stations, more often than not with the policemen’s zealous support.

The blasphemy law introduced by the British – the original Section 295-A – reads, “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 the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, or with fine, or with both.”

This law, which was designed by the British to control religious dissent and the ensuing violence, has been identically adapted by India. Since 295-A is designed to shield all religions it was only triggered in extreme cases. Before 1986, only 14 cases were registered for blasphemy, a figure that has witnessed a tenfold hike in the next 28 years. One of the main reasons behind this is the fact that Sections 295-B and 295-C are Islam-centric.

Section 295-B says, “Whoever wilfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur’an or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.”

While 295-C reads, “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.”

By remoulding the blasphemy clause to incorporate the Quran and Sunnah, Ziaul Haq basically made the law irrevocable. This is precisely why despite the intentions of General Pervez Musharraf, the man who was above the law, and carried the constitution in his back pocket, there was no alteration in the blasphemy clauses, let alone a repealing the law as part of his ‘enlightened moderation.’

With the current ruling party joining hands with the likes of ASWJ that has been trying to incorporate a 295-D to include the caliphs of Islam, and prominent leaders like Saad Rafiq having joined the long march in 2011 in support of the blasphemy law virtually days after Taseer’s assassination, any discussion on the blasphemy law has been shelved for good.

As things stand there are only two solutions to curtailing the menace of the accusation of blasphemy.

The first is a Saudi Arabia-style unambiguous law, with public beheadings, which would take the country back to the 7th century, but ensure veritable trials for blasphemy. This can only be workable if Pakistan shuns its democratic nature and wholeheartedly embraces the Sharia law, with antediluvian punishments for the hadd offences.

The second solution is gradual legislation against the Islamisation of the Pakistani constitution a la Tunisia, which would ensure the transition of the country from the barbarity of the Zia era to finally incorporating into moderation – the first steps towards eventual secularisation, the only thing that can bail the Muslim world out of its violent chaos.

With sympathisers of Shia genocide ruling the country, there’s more chance of Pakistan witnesses stoning, lashes and beheading in the near future than the subordination of religious jurisprudence to civil law. But at least becoming the poor man’s Saudi Arabia would allow a blasphemy accused the courtesy of a bona fide trial before the Islamic guillotine falls.