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Unfaithful Justice: The Metamorphosis of Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan

Opinion | April 2, 2018

In 2010 a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, went to get a drink of water from a nearby well in Sheikhpura, Pakistan. She saw a metal cup next to the well and used it to quench her thirst. As she was drinking, a Muslim woman came over to her, claiming the cup was hers and that a Christian woman had no right to use the cup of a Muslim. They began to argue heatedly, and the Muslim woman claimed that during the course of the argument Asia Bibi had insulted the Prophet Muhammad. Whether any such insult actually took place is still under debate; some believe that the accuser was using the circumstances to pursue a personal vendetta against Asia Bibi’s family due to a property dispute. Before the police even charged Bibi, a mob attacked her home and the local police had to extract her from the situation. After a year in police custody, she was formally charged with blasphemy under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which mandates the death penalty for insults against the Prophet Muhammad, intentional or otherwise.

This law is one of many “blasphemy laws” that were originally written to protect the religious sensibilities of citizens of the Indian subcontinent. The British first introduced these laws during colonial rule, to maintain control of a diverse group of people holding a variety of religious beliefs. The laws fall under Chapter XV of the Indian Penal Code of 1860, “Of Offenses Relating to Religion,” protecting all groups against intentional attempts to insult their religion. These laws are rooted in this colonial regime; yet, in the recent decade or so, cases like Bibi’s have become increasingly common.

I remember hearing about Bibi in 2014. The case received unprecedented international attention and thrust the state of minority rights in Pakistan to the forefront of people’s minds. This was an issue that I had already been thinking about, though. My family is Shi’a Muslim, a minority sect of Islam. While we have not faced violence explicitly related to the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, we’ve seen incidents of violence due to our religious beliefs. My father’s cousin, for example, was shot outside of his hospital because of his Shi’a identity; this incident resonated deeply. I knew I wanted to delve into this topic further and that a senior thesis would be the perfect medium through which to explore. As I began my research I stumbled upon the blasphemy laws; I was shocked at the extent to which the laws were abused and at the government’s evident lack of response. I wanted to look further into how religion conservatism has influenced governance, and how this manipulated form of governance continues to facilitate abuse now.

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As a child, I would listen to my dad and nani, my maternal grandmother, discuss the latest in Pakistani politics in a combination of English and Urdu as I struggled to manage the spicy biryani my mom had prepared. Whenever I go home now, the scene is similar, but I can actually engage in the conversation. I’ve always considered myself Pakistani because of the efforts of my parents to instill the country’s language and culture in me. They worked to impress upon me the importance of history as both of them lived through traumatic periods in Pakistan’s history; my grandmother is actually older than the country of Pakistan itself, and my dad experienced martial law first-hand as a student.

Once I dove into my research, I began to see many inconsistencies in the way blasphemy laws have been used by the Pakistani government. The laws remained relatively vague, and were not amended until the 1980s—when General Zia-ul-Haq staged a military coup and instituted martial law. During this period, the Pakistani government was facing increased pressure to restore the Islamic ideology on which the country was founded. Zia-ul-Haq took advantage of this social pressure and introduced several amendments such as the death penalty or life imprisonment for blasphemous insults against the Prophet Muhammad and strict restrictions on the rights of Ahmadi Muslims to practice.

Since the passage of these amendments, the use of blasphemy laws has skyrocketed. In 1990, only 13 cases were recorded; however, by 2009 more than 110 cases were registered in just one year. Moreover, official estimates are generally thought to underestimate the violence since “informal” cases—in which those who feel personally attacked by the blasphemous action take matters into their own hands and exact their violent version of justice onto the alleged perpetrator—are not registered. Such cases include the burning of more than 100 homes as a crowd of about 3,000 Muslims descended on Joseph Colony, a primarily Christian neighborhood in Lahore, after they had heard rumors that a member of the community had verbalized insults against the Prophet.

What’s even more interesting is the composition of the allegations. While religious minorities face disproportionate allegations, Muslims make up the vast majority of the accused. One belief is that the laws are being used to settle personal disputes. The laws as they exist are extremely vague and allow for accusations with little to no evidence. For example, several portions of the laws do not require the establishment of intent. Additionally, the witnesses to the crimes are not even required to repeat the blasphemous insult since repeating it would disturb the religious sensibilities of those present during litigation.

With all of this in mind, it is clear that these laws, originally intended to maintain peace, have been manipulated by political leaders and have become an instrument of violence. My research has clearly shown me how religion can be exploited to effect great negative change, and how this manipulation goes relatively unnoticed by the masses.

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Since I declared my major, I have struggled to communicate to my nani what I mean when I say “International Relations,” and why I think it’s important. Through this thesis, however, I’ve been able to engage with her on a topic that is familiar to her. It’s easier for her, and frankly the rest of my family, to understand what I’m studying through a subject with which they are deeply familiar. I’ve also been able to incorporate my nani into my research process. A few months ago I came across legislative debates that were half in English and half in Urdu. At first, I was pretty stressed. I had no idea who I could hire to translate these documents, as I had heard some of my peers had to do with their research. As I described my situation to my nani, she offered to translate the documents for me. Over the next week, she spent several hours handwriting translations and consulting with me over the phone to make sure she was doing it in the most useful way. While I can’t thank her enough for her time and help, I am so happy she became a part of the project. In a way my research feels full-circle—the woman who was largely responsible for my interest in the subject became integral in my successful completion of my final undergraduate work.

Writing my thesis—with my nani—has pushed me to see how active, generative, and relevant academic study can be. The headlines we see in the news are much more complex than we sometimes realize. Academic research, no matter how uninspiring it sometimes feels, can be used as a vehicle of change. New ideas, hypotheses, or even hunches can be explored and channeled into sources of authority. I’ve found that not only does my personal background have a place in academia, but it also provides nuance otherwise lost in Western-based international research and work. The excitement and energy I’ve poured into this thesis has reignited my desire to continue working on issues relating to human rights, religion and politics, and Pakistan at large.