The Washington Post

Sunday, May 19, 2002
Page B01

Pakistan's Blasphemy Law: Words Fail Me

It is not every day that I get a letter from the Death Cell, Central Jail, Rawalpindi in Pakistan. As any Pakistani would be, I was aware that Central Jail was where the country's most popular democratic leader, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was executed more than two decades ago.

The letter was dated April 15 and addressed to me and to a Pakistani colleague here in Washington. Written in a clear and neat hand, the sender's name made me sit up: Mohammad Younas Sheikh, who teaches at the homeopathic medical college in Islamabad. He is one of perhaps dozens of educators accused by their students of a crime that doesn't exist in many countries: blasphemy. Sheikh has been convicted and awaits execution, which is mandatory under the blasphemy law. Many other Pakistanis, particularly minorities, also have been charged. These cases offer an alarming glimpse into the machinery of state under Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Washington's partner in the "war on terror."

Sheikh's problems began in October 2000 when he made some innocuous remarks about the origins of Islam. Muslims believe that the Koran came to the prophet Muhammad as a revelation when he was 40. In response to a student's question, Sheikh said that before he was 40, Muhammad was neither a prophet nor a Muslim, as there was no Islam. For those Muslims who believe his prophethood was divinely preordained, this was blasphemous. The students took the matter to some local mullahs, who in their role as religious leaders registered a case with the police. Matters then moved rapidly and, as in such cases, with a certain inexorability.

But Sheikh was not ridiculing or rejecting the prophet. On the contrary, like many Muslims grappling with issues of modernity, he raised questions of interpretation. Although partly educated in Ireland, Sheikh was born and raised in Pakistan and is a devout Muslim who has said that one of the books that most inspires him is the Koran. He is the founder of the Enlightenment, a society of like-minded Pakistanis who discuss Islam in a modern context. His father is recognized as having memorized the Koran.

In his letter, Sheikh called the blasphemy law "wide open to abuse, through and by the miscreant mullahs for political, repressive and vindictive purposes. . . ." The law's abuse is part of "a rising wave of aggressive ignorance, incivility and intolerance as well as the medieval theocratic darkness," he wrote. I must say I agree.

His trial was held in closed session, inside the Central Jail. "Even my solicitors were harassed with a fatwa of apostasy and they were threatened with the lives of their children," he wrote. He asked us to bring the case to the notice of Musharraf so that the president could "repeal this notorious and fascist blasphemy law."

By writing this, I do indeed hope to focus attention on the law. In the meantime, I am aware that by raising the issue I become a bit player in the drama.

Several Pakistani friends have warned me to say nothing about this out of concern for my safety. Anyone who questions the blasphemy law's power may be seen as challenging Islam -- and therefore suspect under the very law he or she questions. But as a Sunni Muslim from a mainstream, orthodox family, I feel compelled to speak, in part because of the emphasis that Islam places on peace and compassion. And as a former governmental administrator in my native country, I know how intimidating majority views can be for religious minorities. About 95 percent of Pakistan's 145 million people are Muslims.

In the 1970s and '80s, when I was a district officer in charge of law and order in two Pakistani provinces, a reform of the nation's legal and administrative system was long overdue. Those who turned to the law for recourse found themselves involved in exhausting and expensive cases that could last decades. Individuals had few rights, and the system favored the rich and powerful. There was a disastrous mismatch between aspects of the remnants of British colonial law and the contemporary needs of society.

Then, as now, there are four distinct sets of laws that sometimes overlap: British colonial law, which by and large was the basis in 1947 for Pakistan's penal code and criminal procedure code; Islamic sharia law; tribal law, which applies to certain areas of the country; and state law, which is codified by each state's local ruler. The application of the law has never been fully resolved.

Amid this confusion, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, as president, added new laws to the penal code, including 295-B in 1982, which made desecrating the Koran or making a derogatory remark about it punishable by life imprisonment -- though, in yet a further nod toward confusion, judges sometimes reduce the term. Two years ago, for instance, Naseem Ghani and Mohammed Shafiq were sentenced to seven years for allegedly burning a Koran.

In 1984 came the 295-C clause, usually referred to as the blasphemy law. It rather sweepingly stipulates that "derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet . . . either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly . . . shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine." Six years later, the stakes were raised when the Federal Sharia Court, where cases having to do with Islamic issues tend to be heard, ruled, "The penalty for contempt of the Holy Prophet . . . is death and nothing else."

In the application of the blasphemy law, intolerance has fed on intolerance. So far, none of the convicted has been executed, in part because scheduling an execution can take years. But lynch mobs have killed several of the accused.

Over the years I began to see the blasphemy law used more and more for cases of political vendetta, land disputes or political rivalry. The law became a way to challenge someone's identity, a powerful tool to intimidate anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim.

The targets of this law have largely been minorities, such as members of the Ahmadi sect (who consider themselves Muslims) and Christians, though the latest anecdotal evidence suggests that the pendulum is now swinging toward Muslims. In the past decade or so, perhaps 2,000 Ahmadis have been charged under the blasphemy law, according to that community. The Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims by Prime Minister Bhutto in 1974. Ten years later, they were denied the right to practice their faith.

The Pakistani government says it does not have exact figures for the number of people charged under the blasphemy law. But the State Department report, "International Religious Freedom 2001," offers some clues. Over the past three or four years, 55 to 60 Christians a year have been charged. That figure probably hasn't changed much since the law was enacted. And as evidence of that possible shift in who is targeted, the report says that three-quarters of those on trial for blasphemy in 2001 were Muslims.

Bail is usually denied for those charged with blasphemy. Trials are expensive and can last for years. Worse: They can take years to begin.For example, Riaz Ahmad, his son and two nephews, all Ahmadis, have been imprisoned since their arrest in November 1993. They were detained on the vague allegation that they had "said something derogatory." Local people in Piplan, Mianwali District, say that rivalry over Ahmad's position as village headman is the real motivation for the complaint against him. Their trial has yet to begin.

Anwar Masih, a Christian from Samundri in Punjab, has been in detention since February 1993 when a Muslim shopkeeper alleged that Masih insulted the prophet during an argument over money.

Roman Catholic Bishop John Joseph, a Pakistani human rights campaigner, had been leading a campaign against the blasphemy law and said he felt he was getting nowhere when he took his own life on May 6, 1998. He had failed to find a lawyer willing to take the case of convicted blasphemer Ayub Massih, a Christian. Massih's family had applied to a government program that gives housing plots to landless people. The local landlords, who brought the allegations against him, resented this because landless Christians work in their fields in exchange for a place to live. By getting a plot of land Massih would have escaped his bondage.

"Most of these cases," concludes Amnesty International in its latest report on Pakistan, "are motivated not by the blasphemous actions of the accused, but by hostility toward members of minority communities, compounded by personal enmity, professional jealousy or economic rivalry."

The bishop's suicide put international pressure on Pakistan's rulers. Benazir Bhutto, who was then prime minister, approved two amendments to the penal code designed to reduce the abuses of Section 295. The number of arrests has dropped, but the law remains intact. When Musharraf seized power in October 1999, he talked about wanting to move Pakistan toward progress and tolerance. He suggested mild changes to the blasphemy law in April 2000, but withdrew them under pressure from religious elements the following month. That is where the matter rests.

Musharraf recently ratified his presidency for five more years with his "landslide victory" in a widely questioned referendum. Both commander in chief of the army and president, he is the most powerful man in Pakistan. He can cause meaningful change. Islam expects the ruler to show high moral authority, but no ruler has dared to reexamine the blasphemy law in the light of Islamic law itself. Musharraf should consider the Koranic verse that says, "There is no compulsion in religion."

If he is to move his country toward the tolerant and modern Muslim nation envisioned by Pakistan's founder, Musharraf must begin by taking this important first step: reopening the case of Sheikh and other alleged blasphemers who await death and showing the justice, compassion and mercy that Islam requires.

Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies and professor of international relations at American University and the author, most recently, of "Islam Today: A Short Introduction to the Muslim World" (I.B. Tauris).

2002 The Washington Post Company

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