Pakistan Pressed to Repeal Blasphemy Laws, End ‘Vigilante Violence’

Patrick Goodenough | June 12, 2011 | 6:10pm EDT
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Pakistani Christians protest after hundreds of Muslims burned and looted Christian homes in the city of Gorja in an August 2009 rampage sparked by allegations that a Qur’an had been defaced. (AP Photo)

( – A Pakistani think tank has called on the international community to press the government to repeal notorious blasphemy laws and take steps to protect the country’s vulnerable non-Muslim minorities amid a “rising tide of vigilante violence.”

But, implicitly acknowledging the near impossibility of that happening, the organization said the government should at least be pushed to take steps to prevent misuse of the law.

The Jinnah Institute’s appeal is a daring one in a society where those questioning the blasphemy law have themselves been called blasphemers, faced death threats and – in some cases – been murdered.

The institute, an independent public policy organization named for Pakistan’s founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah, is headed by Sherry Rehman, a senior lawmaker in President Asif Ali Zardari’s ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

Rehman spearheaded a bid in parliament to amend the blasphemy laws but early this year abandoned the initiative, saying she had failed to win support from her own party.

She took the step soon after Punjab governor Salman Taseer, a moderate Muslim who supported amending the law and sought a reprieve for a Christian woman sentenced to death for “blaspheming” Mohammed, was assassinated by a member of his bodyguard.

Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was shot dead in Islamabad on March 2, 2011. (Photo: Pakistan Minorities Ministry)

Weeks later another prominent critic of the laws, federal minister for minorities affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, was shot dead by gunmen who left pamphlets accusing him of blasphemy. Sherry, like Bhatti and Taseer, has received death threats for her stance.

In a 70-page report entitled “A Question of Faith,” the Jinnah Institute described the reality of an institutionalized “two-tiered” citizenship in Pakistan, defined by whether a person is a Muslim or not.

Case studies drawn up from interviews gave examples of mob violence against Christians and Ahmadis, the abduction and forced conversion of minority women, attacks on places of worship and discrimination in employment.

“These most recent attacks on religious minorities and the state’s tolerance towards this persecution are part of a longer-term pattern of state complicity at all levels – judicial, executive and legislative – in the persecution of and discrimination against minorities.”

The report also drew links between the attitudes towards minorities and the broader struggle against terrorism.

“Fighting extremism is not just about militarily defeating the Taliban, but about departing from the sectarian ideology and oppressive legal frameworks that embolden militants,” it said.

The institute called for a transition from “two-tiered” citizenship to what it said was Jinnah’s vision of a Pakistan, where all citizens were equal.

Sherry said this week that the report’s findings raised two critical questions.

“First, will Pakistan continue to discriminate against its citizens and turn a blind eye to the spread of cultures of cruelty and vigilantism? Second, will the majority of Pakistanis continue to condone and collude in the discrimination and persecution of minorities?”

Nowhere was that mind-set more evident in recent months than in the reaction to Taseer’s killing.

His assassin was feted at public rallies, and hundreds of lawyers offered him their free legal services. Some 500 Muslim scholars issued a joint statement naming the killer “Lover of the Prophet, Commander of the Jihad Fighters,” and warning all Muslim clerics not to voice sympathy about Taseer’s death.

In the weeks leading up to Bhatti’s death in March, Islamic parties at rallies and in pamphlets openly demonized the only Christian federal government minister and incited violence against him.

Rather than use the assassinations as a catalyst for change, the PPP government assured Muslim religious leaders that the laws would not be touched.

‘Tip of the iceberg’

Topping its 23 recommendations, the Jinnah Foundation report called for the repeal of the blasphemy laws.

But, “in the event that the government is unable to repeal the law, it must begin by taking all appropriate measures, including administrative, procedural and legislative, to prevent misuse of the law.”

These must include amendments that remove vague terminology and the addition of a clause to punish “frivolous litigation and false accusers of blasphemy.”

All trials involving the most serious alleged violations – those that carry penalties up to life imprisonment and – in cases of “blaspheming” Mohammed – the death penalty, should reach top-level high courts, with the accused “given their mandated right to a legal counsel.”

Other recommendations in the report include the prosecution of those harassing, threatening or attacking minorities; the removal of impunity for prayer leaders in mosques who incite hatred against non-Muslims; and the appointment of a “special ombudsman” to protect the rights of minorities and women.

Asif Aqeel, director of the Community Development Initiative – an affiliate of European Center for Law and Justice – said from Lahore Friday the call to repeal the law was “a very good thing,” but unrealistic.

“It cannot be materialized, at least in near future – as the report says,” he said.

A more viable approach would be to add a section to the law designed to prevent its misuse.

“Being a Christian, it is not my concern whether the blasphemy law is actually Islamic or un-Islamic. This debate is for the Muslim majority of Pakistan,” Aqeel said. “All I am concerned with is the safety of the minority communities. If a new section does that, then that’s fine.”

Aqeel pointed to several recent episodes as evidence of how all-pervasive the issue of blasphemy has become, including the banning of Facebook and other Web sites and a recently-launched bid by a radical religious party to have the Supreme Court ban the Bible under the laws.

He said the problems faced by non-Muslim Pakistanis went far beyond the laws.

“The blasphemy laws are the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “The larger picture is that minority communities face discrimination in jobs, equal opportunities and freedom of expression. They live in ghettos as they fear to live among the Muslim majority. This needs to be dealt with and confidence should be given to the religious minorities that they are also Pakistanis.”

The Obama administration is facing growing calls to designate Pakistan as a violator of religious freedom under U.S. law, but has yet to respond.

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