Monday, April 24, 2017

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Pakistan - Can blasphemy be now discussed?

Has a critical mass of people awakened to the need for a fresh discussion on the blasphemy law and procedure? Is it possible to end the regime of silence on this issue?
The public outrage witnessed after Mashal Khan’s brutal killing and excesses committed on his lifeless body is perhaps unprecedented in such cases. The National Assembly and Senate have called for measures to prevent killings in the name of belief. In a remarkable demonstration of unity of thought, twelve former presidents of the Supreme Court Bar Association have called for an end to vigilante violence.
Does this mean a critical mass of the people has awakened to the need for a fresh discussion on the blasphemy law and procedure? Is it possible to end the regime of silence on this issue?
How this rule of silence has influenced the course of events in the country can be described in a few paragraphs.
When the first bill to add Section 295-C to the Penal Code, prescribing death or life imprisonment for ‘defiling’ the name of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), was being debated in Ziaul Haq’s partyless National Assembly, a religious party member of parliament called for closure of debate. The matter was not open to question, he said, and the house was about to be adjourned. Hence, it was necessary to pass the bill without any delay.
Three objections were raised to the proposed legislation at the very outset. First, it was wrong to use “defiling” for the name of an exalted human being as only inanimate objects could be defiled. Secondly, the bill disregarded the absence of intent that made offences punishable. And, thirdly, there was no unanimity among Islamic scholars on the punishment for blasphemy and the text of Section 295-C. No debate was possible on these questions.
Later on, the religious lobby expressed annoyance with the law ministry, and with law minister Iqbal Ahmad Khan, in particular, for inserting an alternative punishment into the bill while its mover had only called for capital punishment. The matter was taken to the Federal Shariat Court, which held that death was mandatory punishment under Section 295-C.
There was no unanimity of views on blasphemy and punishment for it among the scholars who appeared before the Shariat Court. A leading lawyer who had been a consultant to the Ministry of Religious Affairs argued that a Muslim who committed blasphemy, deliberately or unintentionally, could be forgiven if he sincerely repented, and that no non-Muslim could be prosecuted for blasphemy. He was not the only one to argue like this.
The issue is not one of tolerating disrespect to the Prophet of Islam (PBUH); respect for him is an article of faith with all Muslims across the globe. But the love of the Prophet (PBUH) also rules out taking anyone’s life on the basis of unsubstantiated accusation or mutilating the victims’ bodies.
However, the Federal Shariat Court held that for an offence falling under Section 295-C only death penalty could be awarded, though it conceded the point that establishment of intent to commit blasphemy was necessary to hold anyone guilty. It also proposed that disrespect for heads of other denominations also needed to be criminalised. The court and the petitioners both expressed concern at the possibility of the law being abused. These recommendations and concerns remain unaddressed to this day.
The National Assembly took up the motion to delete the alternative punishment (life imprisonment) from Section 295-C, in compliance with the Shariat Court order — the possibility of an appeal against it was obviously out of the question. The relevant standing committee found the text much too vague and liable to misinterpretation. It also recommended a survey to find out how the various Muslim states dealt with blasphemy-related matters.
This report of the Standing Committee was published in the Gazette under the label ‘Confidential’. In other words, it was not to be discussed. The National Assembly, obviously, took no notice of the committee’s report. Again, the house was going to be adjourned sine die and there was no time to discuss the merits of the extraordinary piece of legislation. The motion to delete the alternative punishment was quickly adopted.
A similar motion was required to be adopted by the Senate. It is not clear that this formality has at all been completed. Such is the fear of touching Section 295-C in any way that governments have been afraid of completing legislative formalities even.
Deletion of the alternative punishment from Section 295-C was, however, a minor formality as the Shariat Court decision had taken effect early in 1991, and the frequency with which cases had begun to be filed under the provision caused much concern among the people.
Read also: Editorial
The Benazir Bhutto government thought of meeting some of the objections to Section 295-C but was forced by the orthodoxy’s threats to give up the idea. It did, however, tell the administration not to arrest anyone under this section unless a sound case had been made out against him. And the incidence of blasphemy cases did come down.
The Nawaz Sharif government accepted the need for changes in the procedure applicable to 295-C cases though not in the section itself. He backed out at the first volley of thunder from the conservative lobby.
General Musharraf announced his intention to make procedural changes to ensure that innocent people were not harassed and left for Kirgizia. He did not wait for his return flight before denying any such plan.
As a result, a climate of fear has assiduously been created in which the flaws in Sec 295-C and in other Zia-period laws about offences relating to religion cannot be discussed. Attempts made to ensure that arrests for blasphemy can be sanctioned only by senior officers (SP) have had little impact. There is no doubt that these man-made laws are at a lower level of sanctity than other man-made laws that are considered part of the Sharia code and these cannot be raised to the status of divine injunctions.
It seems the ulema themselves, at least most of them, also are afraid of deideologising the issue. Yet one welcomes statements, such as Maulana Fazlur Rahman has made, to the effect that the abuse of the blasphemy law should be checked. Pakistani religious leaders do not go even as far as the Saudi scholar, who was recently touring Pakistan, went when he called for action against the sick people who accused others of blasphemy.
Now that a series of extra-legal killings of citizens on the suspicion of having committed blasphemy, before they are found guilty of the offence, has brought the issue in public domain, the government should seize the opportunity to scrutinise all penal code provisions on offences relating to religion. The exercise may begin with an analysis of superior courts’ judgments that over-ruled the trial courts’ verdicts. This is necessary to test the widely-held view that in many, if not most, of the blasphemy cases the law is invoked to settle personal scores with the accused.
Incidentally, the call for improvements in the blasphemy law and for firmer guarantees against its abuse has been upheld by the Supreme Court in its judgment in the Mumtaz Qadri case.
The issue is not one of tolerating disrespect to the Prophet of Islam (PBUH); respect for him is an article of faith with all Muslims across the globe. But the love of the Prophet (PBUH) also rules out taking anyone’s life on the basis of unsubstantiated accusation or mutilating the victims’ bodies.

Pakistan - The #Mashal we put out

Days after the murder of Mashal Khan’s lynching, the Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan (AWKUM) spread over 2000-kanal with big built structures looks deserted. A dozen armed guards were at the university gate and another dozen were guarding the administration block. One could only be let in amid the tight security after making calls and requesting permission.
Bloodstains in his room, on the stairs and entrance of the hostel where he was shot linger even after a week. Broken flowerpots, shattered doors and smashed furniture tell the story of his tragic end.
The campus is a little more than a kilometre from the main city, which itself is calm and appears unaffected by the violence in the university. There were a few, however, who were concerned by the event and demanded justice for the killing. Mardan is one of the bigger cities in KP, along with Peshawar and has a high literacy rate.
Police, journalism department teachers and many students categorically denied finding or hearing about any blasphemy, in writing or verbal, committed by Mashal Khan. Most of them claimed he was victimised using the pretext of blasphemy – a trend in society to misuse the issue to settle personal scores or take revenge or for vested interests. They said the campaign and plan to attack Mashal was systemically hatched and organised, inciting the students and urging them to kill the student in the name of religion.
Mashal was born and raised in a family with a very humble background in a village Zaida in Swabi. He was an exceptionally bright student with an extraordinary educational trajectory: he had studied civil engineering in Belgorod Shukhov State Technology University in Russia. Unsatisfied with this field, and interested in exploring himself and changing the society for the better, Mashal diverted his attention to journalism, thinking it a more relevant career for himself.
“He wanted to think, write and explore. That is why he told us that he wanted to study and pursue journalism as a career,” Iqbal Shair, Mashal’s father, tells TNS in his village home. “He was very bright and intelligent. We were supporting his studies despite our limited means.”
Activism was in Mashal’s blood as his father has been writing poetry of resistance since his childhood. Mashal was exposed to revolutionary ideas in Russia. Later by joining the Paktunkhwa Students Federation – a student faction of left-leaning Awami National Party in KP – his belief in socialism became stronger and his voice became louder, even on campus.
Hundreds of people from different areas and segments of society are thronging the narrow streets of Zaida, the underdeveloped hometown of Mashal in Swabi, to condole with his father and condemn the barbaric act of the violent mob. Villagers are shocked.
“He was blunt, and a believer in equality, justice, rights and free education,” says Shiraz Paracha, chairman of the Journalism Department at AWKUM, who had interacted with Mashal many times. “Sometimes, he used to come to my office and start a debate, asking for the abolition of the fee structure and demanding free education as mandatory by the state. Recently, when we enforced punctuality in classes, once a teacher did not come to the classroom in time. Later, he went into the office of that teacher and held her accountable for being late. The teacher complained about his rudeness. However, we never received any complaint of blasphemous remarks by any student in the campus.”
One of Mashal’s teachers, who wished to remain anonymous, said that at one point, the department barred some students from sitting in the internal examination for not having paid their dues. This made Mashal quite angry. He protested before the chairman of the department saying that the students should be allowed to sit in the exam because free education is their right and if they do not continue education they may develop extreme views and even turn to terrorism.
A few days before his tragic lynching, Mashal gave a comment in a news-package on a Puhsto TV channel, criticising the university administration. He said that the university had been without a vice chancellor for many months and indicated negligence and then pointed out that some teachers were holding dual posts.
A few days later, some students entered the department, alleging that Mashal and two other students had committed blasphemy by uttering remarks against Islam and the Prophet (PBUH). According to the police investigation, university and security officials from within the university were part of the group that incited the blasphemy accusations against Mashal.
His Facebook account has been preserved as “Remembering Mashal Khan”. The page says “We hope people who love Mashal will find comfort in visiting his profile to remember and celebrate his life.”
Once Mashal wrote: “If you think ‘My life will be upside down’ don’t worry. How do you know down is not better than upside?” At that moment, he may not have thought that his downside will turn into a defining moment against extremism and misuse of blasphemy laws.
Hundreds of people from different areas and segments of society are thronging the narrow streets of Zaida, the underdeveloped hometown of Mashal in Swabi, to condole with his father and condemn the barbaric act of the violent mob. Villagers are shocked and worried about the allegations placed on Mashal. There are, of course, a few exceptions, such as the cleric who refused to lead the young student’s funeral prayers.
“It is a defining moment and all segments of society will have to stand up for this collective cause. It is only the first step towards justice and there is a long journey ahead. We need to change this mindset. Otherwise the society will be in immense loss,” said Shair. He said the boy who was killed was his son but hundreds of Pakistanis, even those living abroad are calling him and sharing his grief. “I believe this is not my loss. This is our loss. And we have to stand up together and turn this grief into our strength.”

In Pakistan, a student’s lynching for alleged blasphemy was a new low — but no surprise

By Haq Nawaz Khan and Pamela Constable
Even in his ancestral village here in northwestern Pakistan, where 23-year-old Mashal Khan was the pride of the community, the pointed finger of blasphemy made him an instant pariah.
As word reached Zaida this month that Khan, a journalism student at a university in nearby Mardan city, had been fatally beaten and shot by an enraged student mob for supposedly blaspheming against Islam, neighbors shrank from his family in suspicion, and the local cleric refused to lead a funeral prayer.
It wasn’t until several days later, after a more complex story emerged implicating university officials and radical Muslim students in falsely accusing Khan, and police declared he had done nothing to insult his faith, that the villagers dared to express grief and organize a funeral.
“I lost my son, my friend and my light. It shattered my world,” said his father, Iqbal Khan Iqbal, a social worker and poet in his 70s. “But my greatest sorrow was that no one in the village came to offer condolences.”
Iqbal described his son as an intellectually curious, outspoken young man who had explored Sufi mysticism and studied in Russia but had never strayed from his Muslim upbringing. He expressed particular horror that Khan had been killed by fellow students, reportedly egged on by university officials in retaliation for criticizing official policies. Police have arrested 22 people in the case.
“Universities are places of learning and knowledge,” Iqbal said. “If such incidents are taking place there, what can we expect from the rest of society?”
Khan’s campus lynching April 13 provoked an immediate nationwide uproar. It seemed to mark a dangerous new low in the intensifying religious and cultural clash in Pakistan over blasphemy, the perceived sin of offending Islam, which is also a capital crime in the 95 percent Muslim country.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif urged Pakistanis to condemn the slaying, and the National Assembly unanimously called for new safeguards in the nation’s blasphemy law to prevent its misuse by false accusers and vigilantes.
But the mob killing was also the unsurprising outgrowth of recent, stepped-up hysteria over the emotional issue, magnified by social media, in which televangelists and conservative talk-show hosts have accused secular activists, bloggers, journalists and others of blasphemy. Even Sharif was denounced for his warm remarks to Pakistani Hindus during the festival of Diwali in October.
Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law is harsh but generally accepted; it provides for due process and trial, and executions are rare. But often it is used as a pretext for attacks on religious minorities or personal enemies, and the merest accusation can be enough to spark punitive riots, in which crowds rampage through poor neighborhoods or drag suspects from jail.
Khan’s killing included both elements: It was instigated by opponents of his campus activism and liberal social views, and it was carried out by an inflamed mob. As the first such killing in a university setting, it also highlighted the spread of Islamic zealotry among young, educated Pakistanis — precisely the populace that might be expected to resist it.
“A seat of higher learning was the venue. . . . The motive was to silence a brilliant student who dared to speak his mind. . . . The charge of blasphemy came in handy to inflame sentiments,” wrote commentator Zahid Hussain in the Dawn newspaper. The anti-blasphemy media campaign, he said, has emboldened accusers while cowing politicians and public figures into silence.
“It reminds one of the Inquisition in Europe during the Middle Ages,” Hussain said.
Even as officials and politicians traveled to Zaida to place wreaths on Khan’s grave, most remained wary of criticizing the anti-blasphemy law. The last official who did so, Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab province, was assassinated in 2011 by his own bodyguard, who said he had acted to defend Islam. The guard was executed, but devotees view him as a martyr and continue to flock to his shrine near the capital, Islamabad.
Since Khan’s death, some legislators and opinion makers have pressed for legal measures to deter false blasphemy charges and the mob violence they often provoke, although religious party leaders immediately raised objections, signaling the initiative’s likely failure.
Sen. Rehman Malik, a strong advocate of the measures, said it was not a matter of blasphemy but of misuse of the law. “The mob cannot be a prosecutor, judge, investigator and executioner,” he said. “What we are saying is that someone who falsely accuses another of blasphemy should receive equal punishment.”
But in the current atmosphere of fervid religiosity, when some Muslims seek refuge in piety and others become righteous rabble-rousers, iconoclasts like Khan — a brash young man who had posters of Che Guevara and Karl Marx in his dorm room and advocated the rights of cafeteria workers at Abdul Wali Khan University — can be seen as dangerous deviants.
Here in Khan’s village, an elder named Ghulam Farooq confessed that he had been among those troubled by rumors that Khan was a blasphemer. After local clerics warned that it would be un-Islamic to attend his funeral, Farooq said he did not offer condolences to the family. Once he learned the truth, however, he was angry and ashamed. “I am so upset that we are being taken hostage by a bunch of mullahs,” he said.
On the Mardan campus, which has been closed since the killing, several students recalled how Khan had angered officials with his criticisms and how some religious student leaders had exhorted others to oppose him on Facebook. They described how the mob burst into the journalism department on April 13, searching for him and chanting, “Allah is great.” Later, the attackers found him hiding in his dorm room, where they broke down the door and beat him to death.
One of Khan’s professors, Shiraz Paracha, called him a “shining” and attentive student who spoke up for others’ rights. “This inhuman killing has left many questions about a university as a place of learning,” he said. “I know it will haunt me for the rest of my life.”
The outrage over Khan’s killing, however, did little to slow what is becoming an epidemic of anti-blasphemy vigilantism. Three days after his death, three sisters in a Punjabi village, carrying guns and wearing burqas, killed a man who had just returned to Pakistan 13 years after they said he had committed an act of blasphemy.
And Friday in the remote northern Chitral region, hundreds of worshipers attacked a man after weekly prayers and accused him of blaspheming in the mosque. Police took him into custody, but people stormed the station house and demanded that he be handed over. Police officials, who said the victim might be mentally impaired, had to use tear gas and fire into the air to disperse the mob.