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Pakistan's Blasphemy Laws: Colonial and Inconsistent With Quran

The brutal lynching of Diyawadana is reminiscent of the Islamisation that took over Pakistani society 40 years ago.

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(Disclaimer: This article was originally published on 11 December 2021. It has been republished from The Quint's archives in light of the mob lynching in Punjab, Pakistan of a man who was accused of blasphemy.)

Pakistan is one of the few Muslim countries in the world where blasphemy is an offence that is punishable by death.

Even if the offender isn't executed by the State, he or she is still at risk of facing the same fate as Priyantha Kumara Diyawadana, the 49-year-old Sri Lankan citizen who was lynched in the most barbaric manner at Sialkot, on 3 December, over blasphemy allegations.

Diyawadana was murdered for removing stickers of the previously banned extremist group Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) from his factory machinery before an appointment with international clients. The gruesome killing has reignited conversations surrounding the extremely regressive blasphemy laws laid down in Pakistan's penal code.

Let's try to understand why Prime Minister Imran Khan, who had termed 3 December 2021 a "day of shame for Pakistan", won't get rid of these laws.

The brutal lynching of Diyawadana is reminiscent of the Islamisation that took over Pakistani society 40 years ago.

Does he want to avoid the risk taken by Salman Taseer, the 26th governor of the Punjab Province, who was assassinated by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan for being an outspoken critic of the blasphemy laws?

Or does he have something else to gain by keeping the laws?

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Laws as They Are and Their Origins

The blasphemy laws in Pakistan today are contained in Chapter XV (titled Of Offences Relating to Religion) of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC).

There are four Sections that outline the rules and punishments:

  • Section 295 - "Injuring or defiling place of worship, with intent to insult the religion of any class"

  • Section 296 - "Disturbing religious assembly"

  • Section 297 - "Trespassing on burial places, etc."

  • Section 298 - "Uttering words, etc., with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings"

Sections 295 and 298 have three clauses each (A, B and C).

The most controversial of these is Section 295-C, the only one of the above laws that decrees that offenders shall be "punished with death".

The rest of the clauses of Section 295 and the other sections prescribe a punishment in which the offender is either imprisoned or fined.

Colonial Origins

Pakistan's blasphemy laws have been amended over the years, but their origins can be traced back to the colonial era.

The Law Commission of British India, established in 1834, passed the Indian Penal Code in 1860.

Post-partition Pakistan adopted the entire 1860 Penal Code in 1947, including the aforementioned Chapter XV.

This chapter was left unedited until 1980, when General Zia ul-Haq, the sixth president of Pakistan who ruled by martial law till 1985, tightened the blasphemy laws for his Islamisation policies.

But more on that later.

The 1837 Indian Law Commission Report, whose authors were the brains behind British India's 1860 Penal Code, provided an interesting justification for the inclusion of Of Offences Relating to Religion.

They argued that while "religion may be false", "the pain which such insults give to the professors of that religion is real", and therefore, "there is perhaps no country [other than India] in which the Government has so much to apprehend from religious excitement among the people".

Therefore, Pakistan's blasphemy laws are actually part of its colonial legacy, with its legal definition and prescribed punishment originating from colonial experience.

Inconsistent With Quran 

Scholars of Islamic Law have said time and again that unlike Judaism and Christianity, the Holy Quran does not specify any punishment for anyone committing blasphemy, let alone punishment by death.

In Judaism, for instance, the Book of Leviticus, the third book of the Five Books of Moses (The Torah), provides pretty candid instructions on what to do with blasphemers, as is exemplified by the provisions of Leviticus 24:10 and Leviticus 24:16 respectively;

Take the blasphemer outside the camp. All those who heard him are to lay their hands on his head, and the entire assembly is to stone him.

Anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death.

There is no such provision in the Quran.

None of the 6,236 verses of the Quran tell the reader to respond to blasphemy with violence.

On the contrary, the holy book asks its followers to either respond with peace or to just walk away. Consider Quranic verses 25:63 and 4:140 respectively;

The true servants of the Most Compassionate are those who walk on the earth humbly, and when the foolish address them improperly, they only respond with peace.

He has already revealed to you in the Book that when you hear Allah’s revelations being denied or ridiculed, then do not sit in that company unless they engage in a different topic, or else you will be like them.

It is true that 4:140 ends with the words, surely Allah will gather the hypocrites and disbelievers all together in Hell, but the Quran provides no instructions to its followers to carry out vigilante-style violence, and kill the offenders.

In fact, when the Federal Shariat Court of Pakistan ruled in 1990 to make the death penalty mandatory for the use of derogatory remarks in respect of the Holy Prophet (section 295-C), the judgement's foundations lay not in the Quran but on the Sunnah, which are a collection of sayings, practices, and silent approvals of Prophet Muhammad (an important source for Islamic law).

Professor Roswitha Badry of Freiburg University, in a detailed paper titled, The Dilemma of “Blasphemy Laws” in Pakistan, questioned why, regardless of the "uncertain authenticity of the Prophetic traditions, the Sunnah should have priority over the Holy Quran, particularly with regard to capital punishment".

Therefore, due to the lack of evidence in Islam's holy book concerning punishment for blasphemers, the continued existence of Chapter XV in the PPC appears to be backed by political reasons and purposes, and not theological ones.

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Application of Blasphemy Laws 

Section 295-A was added by the British in 1927 as a response to intense communal tensions between the Hindu and Muslim communities in colonial India.

Five decades later, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and President Zia-ul-Haq carried out a process of Islamisation of Pakistani society during the '70s and the '80s, a process whose tide hasn't been halted by successive leaders.

Zia had added five extremely harsh clauses to Chapter XV including 295-C.

For example, 298-B and 298-C were added in 1984 to exclusively discriminate against the Ahmadiyya community.

298-B literally says that "any person of the Quadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves 'Ahmadis')" shall be punished with either imprisonment or fine, if that person acts like a Muslim (for instance, "if he refers to, or names, or calls, his place of worship a 'Masjid'").

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Between 1927 and 1986, merely seven cases of blasphemy were reported, after which the number of cases has gone up to thousands.

According to Raza Rumi, who teaches at the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs, "since the introduction of the law [295-C], there has been an extraordinary 17,000 percent increase in accusations, and an alarming 2,750 percent increase in vigilante killings".

In his paper titled, Unpacking the Blasphemy Laws of Pakistan, he argues that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been purposed to legitimise violence that is executed in the name of God.

He further states that these laws "reinforce the exclusion of religious minorities as well as Muslim-minority sects".

These laws, however, are not just used to target minorities.

Of the more than 4,000 registered cases, Badry argues that most blasphemy cases are based on false allegations, and are used "in pursuance of professional rivalry, to favour a business transaction, or to settle personal scores."

Another worrying aspect of these laws is the extra-judicial killings that began occurring extremely frequently after the 1990 ruling of the Federal Shariat Court, which mandated the death penalty under 295-C, for those who defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad.

Between 1990 and 2015, more than 60 people who were accused of "blasphemy" were murdered by vigilantes.

Finally, those who escape the fate of violent vigilantism spend years in prison while their appeal is heard by the courts.

What is equally important to note is that Pakistan's judiciary has never ordered an execution for blasphemy, because no one has ever been indicted for the same.

This is because no prosecution has ever succeeded in providing conclusive proof against the "blasphemer" that could lead to conviction and execution.

The process, however, is the punishment.

Therefore, those who don't die at the hands of a violent mob, rot in the cells of a prison.

As 295-C Stands...

Prime Minister Imran Khan has the authority to amend these laws. But his actions give no indication that he has any intention of doing so.

Domestically, he has made peace agreements with far-right Islamist organisations, like the TLP and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.

Additionally, Khan has elections to worry about. The TLP is the third-largest political party in Punjab, the province in which Sialkot is located.

As argued by Tara Kartha, "blasphemy and other extreme issues will now be central to the political noise in the upcoming elections".

Internationally, Khan has been one of the leading voices in what he sees as western Islamophobia (as was clear during the Charlie Hebdo controversy), while completely ignoring his own government's phobia of Hindus, Sikhs, and Ahmadiyyas, among other minorities in Pakistan.

Therefore, despite his condemnation of the Sialkot killing and the arrest of more than 100 suspects, his past statements and actions indicate that Pakistan's blasphemy laws are not only here to stay, but also that he would staunchly defend their existence.

After all, one need only remember what Khan had infamously said while campaigning for the 2018 elections, "we are standing with Section 295-C and will defend it".

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