Newspaper Articles

Blasphemy laws misused

Blasphemy laws in many countries are supposed to protect religion. But while the one religion may be protected, believers of other religions often have to suffer.

A piece of paper can mean a lot. Without an identity card your privileges as a citizen are often limited. You cannot rent a proper home, and many people will not give you a proper job. Nor do you get financial help from the government. Without an ID card, you cannot get a marriage certificate and your children cannot receive birth certificates. But they need one in order to enroll in school.

To get an ID card in Indonesia, you have to belong to one of the formally recognized religious groups. Ahmadiyah, however, is not a religious group recognized by the state.

In the last few months, discrimination against the religious group Ahmadiyah in Indonesia has increased. Members of the community have been attacked, some of them killed. Protests have been emerging, demanding the government to ban the group, which claims to belong to the Islamic faith. But claiming that there is another prophet after Muhammad, say many, is not in line with Islamic teaching and it is therefore against the country’s blasphemy law.

Intolerance in Indonesia

Al Araf from the human rights NGO “Imparsial” believes the blasphemy law is misused by intolerant groups to discriminate against others. He says when the law was created in 1965, it had to do with politics, which “were focused on power and did not accommodate human rights.” Al Araf believes the blasphemy law is “a law of the past.”

Efforts to have a judicial review of the blasphemy law have been rejected by the Constitutional Court. Therefore, the blasphemy law still applies in Indonesia even though the court acknowledges that the law has many “flaws.” Al Araf believes the biggest problem is not the law itself, but the poor standard of law enforcement in Indonesia.

“The problem lies in how these law enforcers see the obligation to protect minority rights.” Al Araf believes, “They are not neutral and they make themselves part of the group that sees the Ahmadis as an enemy, as a problem. So when there are groups in society that commit acts of violence in the name of religion, they just let them get away with it.”

Blasphemy law in Malaysia

Malaysia is another country with a blasphemy law. For years it has been struggling over the usage of words related to Islam, such as Allah for God and ulama, a noun derived from Arabic meaning a body of religious leaders. Christians, who make up nine percent of the population, have repeatedly been prohibited from using such words, as some Muslims are concerned it might confuse people and tempt them to convert to Christianity. Tens of thousands of bibles that used the word Allah were banned for years before they were released again with the stamp “for Christians only.” Proselytizing Muslims is punishable by prison in Malaysia.

For Charles Hector, a Malaysian human rights activist, the blasphemy law has nothing to do with Islam. He says, “It’s only the government party, the United Malay National Organization, which is fanning this fire about the usage of the word Allah.”

Hector explains that such campaigns have been raised from time to time by certain parties to distract the population from the “real problems” or to win more support from Muslims in the country.

Blasphemy in Pakistan

Ali Dayan Hasan, senior researcher from Human Rights Watch, believes as some states often use religion to justify discriminatory politics, they could also play a crucial role in stopping the abuses by promoting tolerance in society. He says Pakistan is a good example of a state that has a major influence when it comes to tolerance and intolerance. Not long ago, two prominent Pakistani politicians were murdered for opposing the blasphemy law.

Hasan believes tolerance would spread in Pakistani society “if Pakistani law ensured that the state was not part of a sectarian actor, that the state is a neutral arbiter between citizens and an equal protector of citizens and of their rights.” He adds that tolerance cannot spread throughout society “as long as you have discriminatory legislation. That is a situation that engenders abuse and actually makes a bad situation worse.”

Pakistani diplomats have recently pointed out that there is intolerance, discrimination and violence aimed at religious groups in all regions of the world – an insight that has influenced the UN Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution to combat religious intolerance. Hasan believes Pakistan could and should set a good example by fighting intolerance as well.


About the author

Junaid Qaiser


Click here to post a comment
  • Interview: Ali Dayan Hasan

    “Minorities are collateral damage in the battle for Pakistan’s soul”
    – Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan Representative,
    Human Rights Watch

    Q: Following the assassination of Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, calls for the repeal of the Blasphemy Law have become muted. Now one only hears a few feeble calls for amendments. Do you think the Blasphemy Law is now beyond repeal.

    A: The last several months have shown us precisely how the Blasphemy Law can be abused. If there was any doubt about the fact that the law, if abused, can become an instrument of coercion and foster a climate of witch-hunting and vigilantism, I think now it is difficult for even its most ardent supporter to argue otherwise.

    Human Rights Watch (HRW) is of the view that the Blasphemy Law needs to be repealed, and we remain firm on that position.

    Q: We know the law was introduced by General Zia-ul-Haq, but this is not common knowledge among the masses. The religious right has built the case that the law has been derived directly from the Quran and since it is God’s word, you cannot strike it down.

    A: I think there are a couple of things that are very clear about the Blasphemy Law. One, the enactment of Section 295-C was a political act; it is not a religiously inspired piece of legislation at all. Its defence also remains a political act. This is all couched in the language of religion. The question increasingly being asked is, why do religious parties manage to mobilise successfully around this issue.

    This occurs because every Friday, though mosques and sermons, religious parties mobilise around this issue. Secondly, repeal or amendments to the Blasphemy Law are equated by the religious right with blasphemy itself. In this exercise the religious groups have substantial support from sections of the Pakistani media, particularly the electronic media. Third, as we have seen since the beginning of this year, the government, which is led by the PPP, has found it expedient to capitulate to these demands, pander to them rather than confront them.

    It is in the manifesto of the PPP that it would review all discriminatory legislation and the Blasphemy Law could certainly be seen as that. However, the PPP has failed to remain true to its manifesto and commitment despite that fact that its governor and minister have been killed. There are of course arguments, some persuasive, that suggest that the government’s retreat was a tactical one; that they hoped to diffuse the situation and then return to it later, afresh. But given that President Zardari and the government are so keen to emphasise their democratic credentials and emphasise that they are the last bulwark against the Talibanisation of Pakistan, there is a fundamental point they appear to be missing: Talibanisation is not combated on the battlefield alone; it is also combated by creating greater social space for plurality, progressivism and tolerance in society.

    You create that space by ensuring that the state becomes a neutral arbiter between citizens, rather than a partisan sectarian actor. The reason religious political actors get so excited by legislation such as Section 295-C, which is just another provision of the Pakistan Penal Code, is because they know that it is a law that actually makes the state a sectarian party and any attempt to weaken or repeal it will ensure that the state ceases to be a sectarian, partisan party on their behalf. The whole furor about the Blasphemy Law is actually an attempt to hold on to power; it is about power, not about religion.

    Q: Don’t you think the government and the judiciary are, in fact, almost culpable in the abuse of the law by their virtual silence?

    A: The government finds itself in a difficult spot. The institutional arrangements in Pakistan are arrayed against it when it comes to the issue of 295-C and other related legislation. The government contends with [on and off] coalition partners such as the JUI. It contends with a judiciary that appears to be acting in defence of discriminatory legislation. It contends with a military that wishes to preserve its peculiar relationship with religion and religious militant actors, even today, as part of its national security. And of course the government battles its own lack of will to confront these very powerfully entrenched actors.

    There are laws in Pakistan that address incitement to violence and murder itself, but the Pakistani state has proved itself incapable of establishing its writ and the rule of law. What is even more shocking is that Pakistan’s ‘independent’ judiciary, which ought to be taking a proactive position on this matter, is taking the opposite position. It is shameful that the judiciary is willing to uphold laws that are discriminatory, violative of fundamental rights, that create lawlessness in society, and encourage vigilante justice and mob violence.

    In the last three months we have seen in a series of instances the judiciary playing that role. Take what the Lahore High Court did: it stayed President Zardari from issuing a pardon to Aasiya Bibi. HRW is of the view that the prevention of the pardon was a clear case of the court overstepping its constitutional authority. The Pakistani Constitution is absolutely categorical on the President’s right to pardon. The convention is that the President waits for the legal process to be exhausted before issuing a pardon. But it is not the law. The law states that the President can remit or commute any sentence passed by any court. In preventing the pardon, in preempting it in fact, the court did something quite surreal. It actually stopped an executive action from taking place. And, by doing so, compounded the suffering of a woman who was unjustly convicted under a discriminatory law.

    HRW believes that there can be no rule of law without an independent judiciary. But we also believe that an independent judiciary must be held to the highest standards. Unfortunately, even the media is too scared to hold the judiciary accountable.

    Q: Is the media scared or do sections of it have their own agendas?

    A: There is, of course, a vast array of the Pakistani media that is in sympathy with the Islamists and discrimination and bigotry. There are despicable elements within the media. And I think a section of the media has played a criminal role around this debate; it has incited violence. And it has fanned the flames of discord, disinformation and violence around the debate on 295-C.

    The retrogressive elements in the media comprise two sets of people: genuine ideologues, who believe in an anti-rights agenda and a shrill, bellicose faux nationalism. This is structured around hatred of the West, propagation of a delusional view of Pakistan’s place in the world, and a distaste for democracy.

    The second set of people in the media are far more problematic. They confuse the desire to excel professionally with dispensing with any kind of moral framework or values. I think people like them should be made aware that if their exhortations on television come true, they will be hanging from the lamppost along with everyone else.

    But, in a sense, one of the great threats to media freedom today emerges from the judiciary. HRW has investigated this matter, and it is our view that there are three centres providing the greatest threat to media freedom today in Pakistan. These are the judiciary, the Taliban and the military and its intelligence agencies. So when you have that kind of ideological compact between three actors, all of whom exercise varying levels of coercive power – legal and extra legal – in a sense it becomes the path of least resistance for the media to follow a policy of condoning the agenda of these actors. It is easier than not for the media to plug a line that will keep the judiciary, military and the Taliban happy.

    While the Taliban are enemies of the Pakistan state, and the military has no legal standing to intervene in media matters, the judiciary actually uses legal tools to muzzle the media.

    Q: What kind of engagement is there between HRW and the Pakistan government and judiciary?

    A: We have advocated at the highest levels with the government of Pakistan on all matters concerning human rights. We are not concerned only with the Blasphemy Law, we are also concerned with abuses in counter-terrorism operations with the Taliban or Taliban suspects. The important thing is, either human rights are indivisible and they apply to everybody, or in effect they apply to nobody. You cannot pick and choose on this matter.

    We believe those who commit crimes against civilians – the Taliban for example – that amount to war crimes, should be held accountable. But, they should be held accountable through due process of law. Equally, we say those fermenting violence in defence of the Blasphemy Law should be held accountable. And finally, we say that those who are the victims of the abusive laws should be given judicial redress.

    Q: What do you think of the Federal Shariat Court?

    A: The Federal Shariat Court is part of Zia’s Islamist bodies. It was imposed on Pakistan by a military dictator and it has consistently acted against fundamental rights, ruled against human rights and a non-partisan dispensation of justice. The FSC is, in that sense, a sectarian body, and in need of immediate abolition. But I do not hold out much hope that the government will move to abolish it.

    Q: Given the bleak backdrop, whom can Pakistanis turn to for salvation?

    A: It is very important that various actors in Pakistan hold their relevant institutions accountable. It is therefore, for lawyers and lawyers’ bodies to hold the judiciary accountable. I have found Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) President Asma Jahangir’s comment that perhaps the amendments to the Blasphemy Law were mistimed, disappointing. Again, this disappointment is contexualised by the understanding that the SCBA, even if not Ms Jahangir herself, is a body comprised of many retrogressive elements and as President of that body, Ms Jahangir cannot take the kind of strident positions that she took previously in her avatar as a human rights activist. However the question is, when is a good time to propose amendments to the Blasphemy Law?

    Q: There has been much debate among civil society activists about whether it is the time to go out and fight or play safe. What do you think?

    A: Civil society’s a role is to advocate with political parties, to encourage them to engage in reform. It is the role of political parties to recognise civil society as a very crucial stakeholder in the polity, to take their views on board given the place they enjoy.

    In Pakistan is, there is often the idea that civil society and politics are distinct entities. Civil society will not effect meaningful, institutional change in Pakistan. It will be done through the political class. So civil society needs to find actors within the political class which are its allies, and urge them to implement a rights agenda, and to hold those allies accountable when they do not implement that agenda.

    Q: Recently, Fazlur Rahman stated that the misuse of the Blasphemy Law could be discussed. Then, Rehman Malik said the government would consult the JUI and Fazlur Rahman on how the issue should be approached and what amendments should be made. Should the JUI be allowed to lead this debate?

    A: If the JUI-F wants to act as an empowering agent for human rights, any human rights activist or civil society will support the JUI in that action. So the issue is not whether the JUI tables the bill or whether Sherry Rehman, Bushra Gohar or the government of Pakistan do so. The point is that Section 295-C is an instrument of abuse and there has to be an understanding of that, and of the fact that seeking a change in 295-C does not amount to blasphemy. If the JUI-F appears to be seeing common sense belatedly, well thank you JUI-F.

    Q: Would you say that the last few years have been particularly bad for minorities?

    A: The situation for minorities in Pakistan has been progressively deteriorating since 1974, from the point where the state decided it would determine who is Muslim and who is not. That is where this slide began.

    It was very, very acute under General Zia-ul-Haq, and now because we are living in a time of heightened militancy and extremism, the minorities suffer from a kind of double jeopardy, where they have all these instruments of legal persecution arrayed against them and they have an increasing level of social persecution and shrinking space.

    It is fascinating that Pakistan’s legal structures, its political debate and its religious parties spend so much time on issues concerning minorities and ensuring that they remain persecuted given that they are such a miniscule proportion of the population. Actually it is not about the minorities. They are collateral damage in the battle for the soul of the Pakistani state.

    Q: Do you feel there is still hope? Can the state be saved?

    A: My business is hope, so I do see hope. I feel that the position Salmaan Taseer took was remarkable. He proved to be a remarkable man, exceptional within the Pakistani framework, for holding the position that he did and espousing in as forthright a manner that he did his position against intolerance and bigotry. I think Shahbaz Bhatti was a remarkable person. Given that he was a Christian, given that he found himself in this very difficult place, given he articulated his position on this issue with great care, but yet never compromised on his principles, is I think a sign of incredible maturity and great bravery.

    Throughout Pakistan’s history there have been people who have been remarkable. Asma Jahangir is an incredible individual. Her struggle against the Blasphemy Law and against discrimination in Pakistan in general has been awe-inspiring. And when the history for the struggle for rights is written, Asma Jahangir’s name will be there in golden letters. These remarkable people are not acting in isolation; they represent the sentiments of a large swathe of the Pakistani people. But those people are scared, they feel besieged, and they are under attack. It is unnerving for the bravest to be in that position, and the people I am talking about are ordinary people. When those people – that substantial swathe – see people like Asma Jahangir, Salmaan Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti, and Sherry Rehman speak up for them, they feel empowered. That is why retrogressive forces in Pakistan now feel that they must kill these people, that they have no other option. It is a sign of the desperation the right-wing, the anti-human rights forces in Pakistan feel. They know the tide of history is against them.

  • Blasphemy law still a problem for Christians in Pakistan

    A Pakistani jailed for blasphemy has died in prison, with his lawyer thinking it is a murder. As the crisis over the blasphemy law escalates, Asia Bibi who has been sentenced to death under the law fears for her life.

    There has been a series of protest inside and outside of Pakistan over the country’s strict blasphemy laws and human rights groups say a number of Christians convicted under the law have been murdered by extremists.

    In the most recent case that is causing a storm of controversy, Qumar David, a man who had received a life sentence for blasphemy in Pakistan, has died in prison. According to an AsiaNews report, he had been sentenced in February 2010 after being accused by business rivals of making insulting remarks about the Prophet Muhammad.

    Officials say he had been complaining of chest pains shortly before his death on Tuesday. A senior prison official has announced that David’ death was caused by a heart attack.

    Despite the official statement, David’s lawyer, Pervey Chaudhry, says he is “100 percent” sure that it was murder but was unable to offer evidence. Perez told the BBC that his client had been “in perfect condition” the last time he saw him. “I have spoken to the family and we don’t believe he died a natural death.”

    Prison official Ghulam Qadir Thebo, however, has said that prison doctors have ruled out murder. David’s body has been sent to a hospital and an autopsy is planned to be carried out in the presence of his family members.

    Human rights activists are demanding an investigation regarding the circumstances of his death. They believe David was repeatedly abused in jail.

    The Catholic archbishop of Islamabad, Rufin Anthony, told Germany’s Catholic News Agency, KNA, that David had been convicted through “false accusations”. He is fighting to abolish the blasphemy law and says that the government’s hands are “tainted with blood.”

    Christian mom sentenced to death

    A further controversial case involves Asia Bibi, a Christian mother who received the death sentence last year for blasphemy for supposedly making derogatory comments about the Prophet Muhammad.

    Before and after her trial, she received support from two strong advocates against Pakistan’s blasphemy law, Pakistan’s Governor of the province of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, and Minister of Minority, Shahbaz Bhatti. The prominent politicians strongly opposed the law and were fighting for her release. They have both recently been assassinated.

    Furthermore, a pro-Taliban Islamist cleric offered a reward of around 5,000 euros in to anyone willing to kill Bibi in jail.

    A spokesman of the London office of the Pakistani human rights organization Masihi Foundation Asia said Bibi now fears for her life. Her lawyers, who work for Masihi, are also worried that Bibi might be next on the murder list of Islamic fundamentalists.

    Masihi spokesman added that fundamentalists regard helping the victims of the blasphemy law as an act of blasphemy itself. For that reason employees and lawyers of the organization have ceased to make public appearances. “Our team is in danger. We are representing Asia Bibi,” said the spokesman. “Therefore we are an easy target to attack.”

    “Anti-Christian foreign policy”

    Meanwhile Cardinal Keith O’Brien of the Roman Catholic Church of Scotland has criticized the British government’s plan to increase aid to Pakistan without demanding a pledge for religious freedom in the Asian nation. The British government recently announced that aid to Pakistan would be doubled to more than 500 million euros.

    O’Brien urges the British Foreign Secretary William Hague to obtain guarantees from foreign governments before they are given aid. “To increase aid to the Pakistan government when religious freedom is not upheld and those who speak up for religious freedom are gunned down is tantamount to an anti-Christian foreign policy,” O’Brien said at the launch of a report into Christian persecution by Catholic group ‘Aid to the Church in Need’.

    He also added that pressure should now be put on the government of Pakistan and the Arab world to ensure that religious freedom is advocated, saying, “the provision of aid must require a commitment to human rights.”

    Religious freedom a key issue

    Britain’s Junior Foreign Minister, Alistair Burt, responded to the criticism by pointing to efforts made by Britain’s government to improve religious freedoms. “We share the cardinal’s concern about the plight of Christians facing persecution,” he said, adding that the effective promotion of human rights, including freedom of religion, is at the heart of the foreign policy of the British government.

    A new human rights advisory group, which was set up by Foreign Secretary Hague, has pinpointed religious freedom as one of its key issues. Burt explained, “It is vital that Pakistan guarantees the rights of all citizens, regardless of their faith or ethnicity.”

    Controversial law

    Under the Pakistani blasphemy law, making insulting comments, whether written or spoken, direct or indirect, of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad is a crime and can be punished with the death penalty.

    Christians, who make up four percent of Pakistan’s population, have been especially concerned about the law, which offers them no protection. Liberal Pakistanis and human rights activists are also against the law, saying that it discriminates against the country’s minority and encourages extremism. The government has said it had no intention of amending the law, as it is under intense pressure from religious parties who warn against any attempt to change it.

    Many people have been convicted under the blasphemy law, but so far the death sentence has never been carried out by the state. Angry fundamentalists are, however, known to have killed many people accused of blasphemy.

    Author: Anggatira Gollmer (kna, afp, Reuters)
    Editor: Sarah Berning