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A conspiracy of fear

If the cutting short of a promising life, such as Mashal Khan’s, has any lesson to be remembered in 2018 and beyond, it is the urgency of defeating the conspiracy of silence

A conspiracy of fear

No killing of a blasphemy accused has gone uncensured by at least a few public-spirited citizens but the outrage caused by the extraordinarily brutal murder of Mashal Khan in the hostel of Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan, in April 2017 was perhaps unprecedented.

The reasons for expression of public fury on a vast scale were not far to seek. The young student was killed in a most brutal fashion and his corpse was dragged across a considerable distance and desecrated otherwise too. A large number of people, including university staff, were reported to have approvingly, or at least quietly, watched the gory spectacle. An important cause of the people’s distress was the fact that complaints of blasphemy are quite infrequent in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Pakhtun society, though deeply religious, values its tradition of tolerance.

The government could not look at the incident as another heinous crime. The federal minister for religious affairs vowed not to put up with abuse of the blasphemy law. There was reason to believe that the societal reaction stemmed not only from the horrible nature of the crime but also from shame and dismay at the high level of intolerance the incident had revealed. Much anger was poured out in newspaper columns.

Until the Islamic scholars and the people at large grow out of the fear of discussing the various interpretations of the sayings about the offence of blasphemy, or any other matter, including the nature of the national polity, no public movement for removing flaws in the system of justice will succeed.

But the wave of emotional fury subsided shortly afterwards. It did not lead to any meaningful debate on the long-term consequences of keeping a closed mind on the offence of blasphemy, the law about it and the trial procedure. Instead, attempts were made to minimise the gravity of the incident. For instance, somebody had the temerity to suggest that Mashal had chosen the path to self-annihilation in order to gain public attention. (Remember the Musharraf bloomer about women’s making false allegations of rape for getting publicity? Obviously, there is no shortage of diseased minds.)

The mass revulsion to the cold-blooded murder of Mashal Khan and his large-hearted father’s plea to ensure that no one else could be lynched like him did not generate a protest movement of the kind that can cause changes not only in laws but also in the people’s mindset. This was mainly due to the success of the orthodoxy in imposing a blanket ban on any discussion on the subject of blasphemy and the related law and procedure.

Read also: Breaking the class ceiling 

All attempts to change the procedure to protect innocent victims of false accusation made or intended by Benazir Bhutto, Muhammad Nawaz Sharif and Pervez Musharraf were thwarted by the conservative clergy. Nothing has succeeded in Pakistan like the conspiracy to bar discussion on offences relating to religion.

As a result, the people have been frightened into surrendering their right and duty both to apply their minds to a host of matters related to the offence of blasphemy, such as the following:

A large body of ulema maintains that a non-Muslim cannot be tried and punished for blasphemy with death.

While hearing the plea for making death penalty mandatory, the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) invited seven fuqaha (Islamic jurisconsults) for advice and four of them declared that a Muslim accused could be forgiven if he repented, while a fifth faqih said a lesser punishment than death could be awarded. Ibn-Taymiyyah, on whom the FSC heavily relied, began his treatise on blasphemy by acknowledging that most of the ulema did not consider death sentence as the punishment for blasphemy. Thus, the claim to unanimity on the penalty for blasphemy is untenable.

The argument that a surge in blasphemy cases was witnessed after the addition of the blasphemy provision (sec 295-C) to the Penal Code is supported by statistics. Between 1948 and 1979 only 11 blasphemy related cases were reported. The number fell to 3 during 1979-1986. After the addition of 295-C the number of cases rose to 44 during 1987-1999.

The argument that the blasphemy law has become an instrument for the persecution not only of non-Muslims but also of rival Muslim sects is borne out by the fact that over the last few years the accused have included more Muslims than non-Muslims. The scope of blasphemy has been extended to include sectarian differences over interpretation of Islamic values and norms.

The Supreme Court observed, while confirming the death sentence awarded to Malik Mumtaz Qadri, that “The majority of blasphemy cases are based on false accusations stemming from property issues or other personal or family vendettas.” In the same case the court ruled that criticism of the blasphemy law does not amount to blasphemy, as argued by some religious agitators.

Earlier, the debate on the bill to insert 295-C into the Penal Code was cut short on the ground that there was no room for discussion on the subject.

The original text of Sec 295-C had provided for death or life imprisonment for blasphemy on the Holy Prophet (PBUH). The FSC struck down the alternative to death penalty. When the need to amend the text came up before the National Assembly its standing committee observed that the language of the provision was vague and it suggested ascertainment of what the practice in other Muslim countries was. This recommendation was ignored and the bill aiming at deletion of the alternative punishment from the text was passed, as it was considered necessary to prorogue the assembly session. The officials are so afraid of touching the relevant law that they have apparently avoided tabling in the Senate the bill approved by the National Assembly.

As a result of treating the blasphemy law as a no-touch subject, the emphasis on intent as an essential ground for prosecution for any offence in Islam continues to be ignored. Thus, until the Islamic scholars and the people at large grow out of the fear of discussing the various interpretations of the sayings about the offence of blasphemy, or any other matter, including the nature of the national polity, no public movement for removing flaws in the system of justice will succeed.

If the cutting short of a promising life, such as Mashal Khan’s, has any lesson to be remembered in 2018 and beyond, it is the urgency of defeating the conspiracy of silence in a matter of life and death.

I.A. Rehman

I. A. Rehman
The author is a senior columnist and Secretary General Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

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