Blasphemy in Pakistan

These days, one word that symbolizes Pakistan for the rest of the world is "blasphemy."  This is altogether fitting, for if there is one "modern" government whose actions are truly blasphemous to God (or to whatever your conception of a higher power is), then Pakistan is that country.  

In Pakistan, a substantial portion of the government and the population sympathize and cooperate with Islamist groups, including the Pakistani version of the Taliban.  Thus, both the Taliban and al-Qaeda -- Osama bin Laden among them -- find refuge within Pakistan's mountainous border region.  In Pakistan, there is government and popular support for terrorist attacks against neighboring India, such as what occurred in Mumbai.  In Pakistan, the government held an American CIA contractor for murder and blasphemy and released him from prison only after more than $2 million in Sharia law-sanctioned "blood money" was paid to his victims' families.  And in Pakistan, the government enforces laws, supported by a vast majority of the population, that require the use of the death penalty for apostates (i.e., those who leave Islam) and for blasphemers (i.e., those who malign Islam).

It was Pakistan's 2010 use of its blasphemy laws that recently attracted the attention of the West.  On November of that year, Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old Pakistani Roman Catholic, was sentenced to death for her "blasphemy" against Islam.  While working in the fields, Bibi offered water to her fellow farmhands.  Her Muslim coworkers refused her generous offer on the grounds that as a Christian, she had made the water impure.  In the ensuing argument, both sides defended their faiths, and Asia Bibi was then charged and convicted of blasphemy.  She is currently held in the women's wing of prison in the Pakistani state of Punjab -- with a 500,000-rupee (i.e., $5,800) price on her head from a Muslim fundamentalist imam -- awaiting her appeal to the High Court in Lahore.  Because of death threats, Mrs. Bibi's family is now in hiding.  Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari had originally announced his intention to pardon Asia Bibi, but after tremendous street protests by Islamists, his spokespeople adopted a more ambiguous position.

Pakistan's blasphemy laws have gotten only more malignant over the years.  The original blasphemy laws were actually a remnant of British colonialism and applied to all religions equally.  They imposed only a prison term of up to two years for any damage to a place of worship or sacred object carried out "with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defilement as an insult to their religion[.]"  But in 1986, Pakistan's then-dictator, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, refocused the blasphemy code to protect Islam by introducing the death penalty and dropping the previous requirement of "intent to blaspheme" (i.e., post-1986, a person could blaspheme by accident).  

Since then, more than a thousand blasphemy cases have been lodged, disproportionally against minorities -- both Muslim and non-Muslim -- in Pakistan.  According to human rights groups, accusations of blasphemy are on the rise, with more than 110 accused in 2010 alone.  Among the more startling cases: a Muslim schoolboy was arrested and imprisoned for writing alleged blasphemous remarks about the Muslim prophet Muhammad on an exam paper; as a result of sectional Muslim differences, a Muslim imam and his son were sentenced to life in prison for stomping on a poster advertising Muhammad's birthday; and a Muslim doctor was arrested for throwing away the business card of a man named Muhammad.  Although no person has ever been officially executed by Pakistan for blasphemy, at least 37 declared blasphemers have been murdered by Pakistani vigilantes, and there are others -- for example, Qamar David -- who die in prison under suspicious circumstances.

The Pakistani blasphemy laws have also steadily expanded their reach.  These days, Islamists vow to kill not only blasphemers, but also Pakistani opponents of the blasphemy laws.  There are already several instances of these kinds of murders.  On January 4, 2011, Salmaan Taseer, the Muslim governor of Punjab, was murdered -- by his own bodyguard -- for his strong and vocal support of removing the mandatory death sentence for anyone convicted of insulting Islam and for his appeal for clemency for Asia Bibi.  When Taseer's killer arrived at a Pakistani court, he was mobbed by cheering crowds, showered with rose petals, and offered the legal support of literally thousands of lawyers.  Tens of thousands of Islamist Pakistanis have also marched in the streets for him and in favor of his murder of Taseer. 

On March 2, 2011, Pakistan's Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, was gunned down in Pakistan for his stated opposition to the blasphemy law.  This was not such a surprising thing, especially to Minister Bhatti, who had deliberately chosen not to marry and have a family because "I know that sooner or later an assassin's bullet will find me; it will only be unfair to that woman and my children."  He had even produced a videotape to be broadcast in the event of his murder.  Also, although he was not murdered, a British politician of Pakistani descent who traveled to Pakistan in 2010 to urge the release of Asia Bibi was threatened for his actions. 

Recently, Islamists from Pakistan have upped the ante once again, and they are now demanding punishment for non-Pakistanis living outside Pakistan who blaspheme against Islam.  In response to a March 2011 Koran-burning by a fringe American pastor in the U.S., a mob of Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan attacked Christian places of worship, desecrated several copies of the Bible, and killed two Pakistani Christians, all the while demanding that the U.S. government condemn the pastor to death.   Further, also in response to that same Koran-burning, the Pakistani Interior minister has sent a letter to Pope Benedict XVI and the Secretary General of Interpol Ronald Nobel, in which calls on them to condemn the burning and take action against the instigator.  The Pakistani Senate has unanimously passed a resolution urging the U.S. to bring the pastors to justice, and the Pakistani ambassador to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has proposed that the OIC group write a letter to the U.N. secretary general asking him to issue a strong condemnation and to "take concrete action to protect multiculturalism and promote peace and harmony in the world."

But, as foreigners and non-Muslims, we had better not even think about criticizing Pakistan and its use of blasphemy laws.  When the U.S. House of Representatives passed a toothless resolution doing just this, the Pakistani national legislature condemned that resolution, saying the U.S was trying to create strife between Muslims and Christians in Pakistan and demanded that the U.N. take notice of this violation of the religious freedom of Muslims.  As one Pakistani politician thundered, "the honor of Holy Prophet was a part of Muslims faith and no foreign power could be allowed to interfere or pressurize any Muslim country on this issue."  Imagine that.  Criticizing another nation for using blasphemy laws -- how blasphemous!
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