Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law: Persecution and Prosecutions

By Nida Jafrani, Juris Doctor Candidate (2015), Northwestern University School of Law

The preamble to Pakistan’s constitution states that the principles of “tolerance and social justice, as enunciated by Islam, shall be fully observed” and that “adequate provision shall be made for the minorities freely to profess and practice their religions and develop their cultures.” The professed tolerance in the Constitution stands in stark contrast to the pervasive persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan, aided in part by the country’s infamous blasphemy laws. Pakistan, like Indonesia, is an example of a country in which some there are some constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, but subsequent laws severely curtail that right, with a disparate impact on unpopular minorities.

Pakistan has undertaken more blasphemy prosecutions than any other Muslim-majority country. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reports that between 1988 and 2010, over 1,000 individuals were prosecuted under the provision regarding desecration of the Quran.

Pakistan’s Penal Code section 295, or “Blasphemy Law,” dates back to 1860, but was little utilized until the era of General Zia ul Haq (1978-1988). Between 1980 and 1986, General Zia added several clauses to the code as part of his Islamization of Pakistan, including anti-Ahmadi laws (§ 298-B-C), punishment by death for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammed (§ 295-C), and life imprisonment for willful desecration of the Holy Quran (§ 295-B). Although Christians are not specifically mentioned in the Blasphemy Law, they have been prosecuted using the provisions. In April 2014, a Christian couple was sentenced to death for sending a text message insulting the Prophet Muhammed.

The blasphemy law has been utilized to prosecute religious minorities, lending a legal basis to pervasive discrimination against religious minorities like Ahmadis and Christians. The troubling nature of the prosecutions isn’t limited to the courtroom.

Persecution and Prosecution

In 2012, a young Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, was accused of blasphemy for allegedly burning pages of the Quran. Even though she was eventually acquitted by the Islamabad High Court, the accusation alone created upheaval that forced the girl’s family and the entire Christian community to which they belonged to flee their homes (HRCP Report).

Politicians who have spoken out against the law have been killed for their views. In 2011, Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, was assassinated for his opposition to blasphemy laws, and later that year, Shahbaz Bhatti, Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, faced the same fate.

Pakistan topped the list in a ranking of countries with very high social hostilities involving religion, but was thirteenth on the list of countries with very high government restrictions on religion (Pew Study). This reinforces the idea that the laws serve as a tool for persecution of already unpopular minorities, even if the text of the Blasphemy Law is not externally recognized as the most stringent restriction on minority religions. An accusation of blasphemy using the law, even if legally insufficient, can incite the violence and upheaval. Reforming the penal code’s blasphemy and Ahmadi provisions could be an important part of a reversal of Pakistan’s increasing religious violence, by eliminating the law used to bring blasphemy challenges.

Indonesia and Pakistan

In contrast to the declaration in Pakistan’s constitution that Islam is the state religion, the Indonesian constitution says that the state is based on the belief in the “One and Only God,” without reference to one specific religion. However, Indonesia does officially recognize six religions, and has a blasphemy law. As Melissa Crouch has discussed, the Indonesian blasphemy law allows space for only the officially sanctioned expression of each of the country’s six recognized religions. The blasphemy law, which has been upheld by the country’s constitutional court, provides criminal penalties for those who diverge from the tenets of each of the officially recognized religions. For example, in 2012, Tajul Muluk was prosecuted under the law for propagating Shia teachings in a Sunni community, and was sentenced to two years in prison.

In Pakistan, the sentences for blasphemy are much more stringent than in Indonesia, including death and imprisonment for life. The stakes in Pakistan are much higher, while the space for religious differences is much narrower. Yet on a basic level, the problem in Indonesia and Pakistan is similar: each constitution protects religious freedom to a certain extent, but blasphemy laws limit that right, and are used disproportionately to prosecute unpopular minorities.

Although any punishment for practicing a minority version of a religion is not ideal, the Indonesian example may also serve as a positive contrast to Pakistan: the fact that not constitutionalizing a state religion can help maintain religious tolerance among the population. Indonesia and Pakistan both have large majority Muslim populations – close to 90% in each country – yet blasphemy prosecutions in Indonesia are more rare, and seem to be less violent, than in Pakistan. As stated earlier, the violence surrounding the blasphemy prosecutions in Pakistan is inflicted by Pakistani citizens on each other. A top-down policy of leaving space for religious minorities by refraining from recognizing Islam as the religion of the state could be one factor among many to explain the difference.

Dealing with the high stakes of Pakistan’s blasphemy prosecutions would involve reforming the Penal Code’s troublesome blasphemy sentencing provisions. Refraining from recognizing one state religion, as in Indonesia, could also increase the space for religious differences in Pakistan. Unfortunately, given that politicians have been assassinated for their opposition to the blasphemy laws, these reforms do not seem likely in the short term.

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Posted in Analysis

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Northwestern students and faculty comment on current events, speaker presentations, and original research.

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