A Sri Lankan director was brutally beaten and burned alive by a crowd of religious fanatics in Sialkot recently. Prime Minister Imran Khan quickly called the incident a “horrific self-defense attack” and “a day of shame for Pakistan”. In a few hours, a hundred arrests were made. But if Imran Khan is truly interested in meaningful reform, he must find the courage to engage in a fair debate on the country’s controversial blasphemy law. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have questionable legitimacy, both from the point of view of Islam and modern notions of criminal justice.
Blasphemy was punishable in ancient Greece – speaking ill of the gods, disturbing the peace and dishonoring the principle of government. Monotheism greatly contributed to the notion as the biblical state of Israel viewed blasphemy as the cornerstone of Jewish identity. The Council of Nicaea in AD 325 invented heresy for the Christian world, and for centuries Christian society behaved like a “persecuting society”. In the 13th century, blasphemy became a crime distinct from heresy. Soon the challenge to the supremacy of God was theorized to be detrimental to all secular authorities. British Chief Justice Sir Mathew Hale in 1675, while pronouncing punishment on John Taylor, considered attacks on religions to be attacks on the law. In 1699, two young members of the Swedish Royal Navy were executed for having replaced the words âI have the devil in my heartâ with âI have Jesus in my heartâ while singing hymns. After the Enlightenment, thanks to the recognition of individual rights, the state began to withdraw from blasphemy. Yet today 71 countries, including India, have blasphemy laws even though these have a chilling effect on free speech and, ideally, should be replaced by hate speech laws. .
The blasphemy laws are not a creation of the Pakistani legislature. Pakistani Penal Code Articles 295 and 295A are the legacy of British rule. Identical provisions exist in the Indian Penal Code. From 1980 to 1986, the Pakistani penal code was amended to include penalties for blasphemy or insulting the feelings of Muslims. Article 295-B made willful defiling or damaging a copy of the Holy Quran punishable by life imprisonment. The most regressive is article 295-C, which was inserted in 1986. It stated that âwhoever, by wordsâ¦ (PSL) will be punished by death or imprisonment for life, and will also be liable to a fine. . In 1990, the Federal Sharia Court ruled that for the offense described in this section, the prescribed penalty in Islam was death although the Qur’an does not mention blasphemy as an offense punishable by the death penalty. Thus, the words âor life imprisonmentâ were deleted.
Between 1927 (when the British introduced Section 295-A) and 1986, there were only seven reported blasphemy cases. Since 1986, up to 4,000 cases have been reported. From 1987 to 2018, 776 Muslims, 505 Ahmadis, 229 Christians and 30 Hindus were charged with blasphemy. These cases suggest that there are three types of blasphemy cases: cases which are mere accusations and are filed to settle personal scores; those based on the expression of his faith and the cases in which the accused suffers from some kind of insanity. The majority of cases fall into the first type. More than 75 people have been murdered for alleged blasphemy, although no one has been executed for such murders.
What does Islam say about blasphemy? The Qur’an tells us that since ancient times, God has sent prophets successively to each community. There are over 200 verses in the Quran which reveal that the contemporaries of all the prophets repeatedly engaged in blasphemy. Prophets throughout the ages have been mocked and deceived by their contemporaries (Q.36:30); Epithets cited in the Qur’an include “a liar” (Q.40: 24), “possessed” (Q.15: 6), “a maker” (Q.16: 101), “a foolish man” (Q. 7: 66). Despite such abuses, nowhere does the Quran prescribe the punishment of whipping, death or any other physical punishment.
The general principle of religious freedom consistent with modern human rights law is mentioned in Q. 2: 256 – âthere is no compulsion in religionâ. Thus, the Quran says that it is not for human beings to control the beliefs of their fellow human beings. He explicitly states that God sent the Prophet to teach people about God’s message. The Prophet of Islam is not supposed to coerce or coerce people or punish them for their beliefs. It is clearly stated in Q. 88: 22-24 that âyou are not the type to manage (men’s affairs), but if they turn away and reject Allah, Allah will punish them with a mighty retribution. Thus, the Prophet is forbidden to coerce anyone to believe in Islam. The Qur’an does not encourage Muslims to attack non-Muslims just for their beliefs. Aggression is only permitted in cases of hostility, physical assault, persecution and self-defense. Even the former chief justice of Pakistan ruled that the death penalty cannot be imposed for blasphemy. Considering Quranic verse 16: 106, even for apostasy, many scholars like El-Awa, al-Qurtubi, al-Tahawi believe that the punishment would be in the Hereafter, although the apostasy at the beginning of Islam was the same as high treason. Likewise, there is not unanimity among jurists on the question of making the death penalty compulsory for blasphemy.
In 2014, The Nation – an English-language Pakistani newspaper – conducted a survey of its readers which showed 68% believed the blasphemy law should be repealed. Of the 55 Muslim countries, only five apply the death penalty for blasphemy.
There is an urgent need to reform the law. It does not require proof of intent, thus making unintentional error punishable by mandatory death. The law must guarantee that there are no punctual trials and crowd trials. No FIR should be recorded without investigation by senior officers. The trial must always take place behind closed doors. Finally, a person who brings false blasphemy charges should be punished with a minimum of 10 years imprisonment.
The author is Vice-Chancellor, NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad. Views are personal