BLASPHEMY LAWS VERSUS HUMAN RIGHTS

Prakash Kumar, 35, an innocent Hindu businessman, was falsely suspected for sharing blasphemous content on WhatsApp. He was arrested at Hub in Lasbela district and sent to Gaddani Central Jail. Violence erupted when police refused to hand over the Hindu man to an angry mob.

When newspapers wrote about his arrest, a crowd of one thousand deranged Muslims, including traders, clerics and politicians, surrounded the town’s police station to demand he be handed over, according to the police official Abdul Sattar. After the police refused to hand over Kumar so that ragheads could “administer justice themselves and punish” him, the wild mob started with pelting stones at police. Hub City police dispersed the ragheads with tear gas shelling and aerial firing, and took twenty ragheads into custody, Dawn News reported.

The ragheads became even more violent and took out their guns and five people and a child were injured in the violence. A ten-year-old boy later succumbed to his injuries, as he had received bullet wounds which turned fatal. 

Blasphemy laws are used to infringe upon human rights.  They frequently lead to arbitrary arrest, detention, poor treatment in custody including torture, dubious legal procedures and poor application of justice.  The definition of the offence can be in the hands of police and judicial authorities.

 

Governments have used blasphemy laws to silence political opponents.  Individuals have fabricated blasphemy charges against others in communal disputes.  Religious extremists have used blasphemy laws to attack opponents.  Religious authorities have used blasphemy laws to impose orthodoxy on members of minority religious groups with the sanction of the state.  And people accused of blasphemy have been subject to violence by unofficial mobs.

It is important to guarantee an environment in which a critical discussion about religion can be held. There is no fundamental right not to be offended in one’s religious feelings. Religions per se do not hold rights. Churches and religious groups should be open to hearing criticism, just as every group in society. Intellectual and cultural advance rely on the free exchange of ideas.  Protecting any ideas from criticism does them no favor. It allows them to survive unchanged without being adapted and improved.

Shielding religion from criticism cannot be regarded as a social good. Criticism which is false can be tested and met with legitimate counter-arguments, while criticism which is true should be heard for the sake of correcting errors. In some cases, criticism helps religious thinkers improve theology. In more substantive cases, criticism is essential to shedding light on immoral or unlawful practices carried out in the name of religion.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental right for individuals. It is also vital for all societies, to enable a plurality of opinions. It is protected by all major international human rights instruments (including Article 19 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ICCPR)). The vast majority of countries are signed up to these conventions, and there is a strong claim even on the countries that are not signed up, namely that the right to speak freely is a basic moral right which states should uphold and protect.

While freedom of thought and belief, including religious belief, must be protected, it is equally important to guarantee an environment in which a critical discussion about religion can be held. There is no fundamental right not to be offended in one’s religious feelings. Religions per se do not hold rights. Churches and religious groups should be open to hearing criticism, just as every group in society. Intellectual and cultural advance rely on the free exchange of ideas.  Protecting any ideas from criticism does them no favor: it allows them to survive unchanged without being adapted and improved.

A law against blasphemy depends on some standard of what counts as blasphemy, which assumes something like a correct, inviolable standard of religion which is being blasphemed against. But even when states try to found blasphemy laws on a single religious text, it is abundantly clear that different sectarian groups within a single religion interpret all mainstream scriptures in a variety of ways, with different groups deciding that some declarations or depictions are blasphemous while others disagree, or find other declarations or depictions blasphemous.

The Pakistan Penal Code prohibits blasphemy, providing penalties ranging from a fine to death. Since 1987, three thousand people have been accused of blasphemy. Three quarters of people accused of blasphemy have been murdered before their respective trials were over, and prominent figures who opposed the blasphemy law have been assassinated. Since 1990, a hundred people have been murdered as a result of blasphemy allegations.

An accusation of blasphemy commonly subjects the accused, police, lawyers, and judges to harassment, threats, attacks, and rioting. Pakistan’s blasphemy law is overwhelmingly being used to persecute religious minorities and settle personal vendettas, but calls for change in the blasphemy laws have been strongly resisted by Islamic parties, most prominently the Barelvi school of Islam.

Blasphemy is the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence to a deity, to religious or holy persons or sacred things, or toward something considered sacred or inviolable. Over 60 people accused of blasphemy have been murdered before their respective trials were over and prominent figures who opposed the blasphemy law have been assassinated. Kumar was suspected by various community members under Sections 295-A and 295-C of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. The clause reads:

295-C – Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet: Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.

This was not a first case when blasphemy charges caused large-scale violence. A few months ago, several bloggers were accused of blasphemy. Some of them were allegedly kidnapped and later released. A few weeks ago a vigilante mob lynched 23-year-old Mardan university student Mashal Khan over allegations of blasphemy who was shot and tortured to death in the presence of the police. According to officials, the police have not been able to control such a massive mob. Mobs certainly mustn’t be allowed to take the law into their own hands. The cases of blasphemy should be decided only in a court of law.
In Pakistan, Asia Bibi (pictured with two of her five children), a Christian, sits on death row for blasphemy. Asia’s crime was to use the same water glass as her Muslim co-workers. You defiled our water, the Muslim women told her!

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