Regardless of the merits of the ongoing national and international “debate” on blasphemy, recent history makes it clear that the “people” of Pakistan do not forgive even the clinically insane if they are perceived to be publicly defiling the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), much less the smart alecks fooling around with social media on their laptops and smartphones.
This situation takes away the room even for mounting a legal defence in a court of law; let alone reforming the 1986 law that made the offence punishable with death. Nevertheless, with Nietzsche’s warning in mind, let us look closely at the abyss for a moment.
Nothing can contradict the claim that Prophet (PBUH) was one of the most gifted and accomplished human beings ever to have walked the face of Earth.
But that is not that. While no hanging of a blasphemer accused through judicial process has yet been reported, a 2012 study by the Centre for Research and Security Studies estimated that 52 people were murdered extra judicially since 1990 for being implicated in blasphemy charges, including 25 Muslims, 15 Christians, five Ahmadis (a religious group whose very existence is considered blasphemous by mainstream Islamic sects), one Buddhist, and a Hindu.
From the viewpoint of secular human rights discourse, blasphemy in general and against the Holy Prophet (PBUH) in particular is a freedom of speech issue. However, this viewpoint is too limited to deal with the theocracy in the garb of democracy that has ruled Pakistan since 1973.
Firstly, let us consider the fact that violence inspired by religious beliefs is not restricted to extrajudicial murder of the blasphemy accused. According to South Asia Terrorism Portal, from 1989 till March 12, 2017, Pakistan has witnessed a total of 3,055 incidents of sectarian violence (where mostly Shias and Ahmadis were targeted) in which 5,457 people were killed and more than 10,433 were injured. This is an average of around 550 victims a year. According to the same portal, 30 suicide attacks on average have taken place every year in Pakistan since 2002, resulting in almost 7,000 deaths and more than 14,000 injured.
Despite allegations of foreign funding by the likes of Saudi Arabia, Iran and India, one has to concede the fact that the perpetrators and victims of this faith-based violence were all Pakistani citizens.
Secondly, let us juxtapose this violence with the legislative framework of Pakistan under the 1973 Constitution that, among other things, declares the name of the country to be “the Islamic Republic of Pakistan” and the state religion to be Islam; binds the parliament to pass only Islamic laws, and establishes a constitutional court authorized to strike down any existing law as un-Islamic. Further, as a result of this constitutional dispensation, we have completely Islamised our day to day legal system to the best of our understanding, including our civil, criminal, political, social, economic, and personal laws. Indeed, the only outstanding legal issue of Islamisation of any significance is the prohibition on usury or interest.
Keeping in view the above context, one were to concede that perhaps actual execution of blasphemers through judicial process might convince people to at least leave it to the courts. However, even then, one would still be left with all the other manifestations of religious intolerance, which cannot be appropriated by the state under its completely Islamized ethos. For example, it is logically and theologically impossible for the state to declare merely professing to be a Shia or Ahmadi as an offence liable to death, which the rabidly extremist social elements might openly demand if given a choice.
Needless to say, we have thoughtlessly overdone religion in all aspects of our public and private lives.
To make matters completely hopeless at this stage, one only needs to point out that it is the nature of populist religious laws that they can be enacted without much opposition and even to much fanfare but extremely difficult to repeal or reform without inviting substantial backlash.
From a certain vantage point, it can be argued that the Pakistani state has been at least formally committed to rectifying the error at least since 2004. Former president Pervaiz Musharraf had then explained his vision of “enlightened moderation” in an article for the Washington Post. It can be more convincingly shown that, as of March 2017, the worst backlash against the campaign is over, and violence will subside from hereon.
But how soon will it return to pre-9/11 standards? Or even pre-1977 standards? One cannot say at the moment.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has asked the religious leaders to produce an alternative narrative to counter extremism and violence in society. However, why would the religious leaders change their narrative when it is already in consonance with the law of the land?
It is a catch-22 created by the collective misfortune of an entire nation: you cannot reverse Islamisation of laws because it’ll invite unmanageable extremist violence, and you cannot dissuade people from extremist violence because it is morally sanctioned by the laws of the land.
In these circumstances, the Pakistani state has no choice but to do the least desirable for it: look for a better moral high ground than empty religiosity that has sustained it at least since March 12, 1949. Until such moral high ground is prepared and claimed, the wise ones in this Holy Land should remain alert to the religious sentiments of the Muslim majority.
The author is a lawyer based in Lahore