Blasphemy law in Pakistan: A case study
Blasphemy occurs when some action (speaking, writing, or other expression) reflects evil on God or God-devoted matters. It communicates evil about sacred substances and can be the mocking of a God or superior being or mocking religious traditions. Saying something that is considered to be restricted to the divine can also be seen as blasphemy. Blasphemy is seen as a trespass or transgression against God.
Interestingly, blasphemy can be viewed as a three party concept: first, the speaker who expresses her/himself; second, the listener who disqualifies the words of the speaker; and third, that person’s God, holy person, religious artefact, custom, belief, etc. which are addressed or qualified with irreverence. An interesting point is that the “offended” third party can be incapable of ever feeling offended or showing it (e.g. the artefact). Only the observer of the first party takes offense and speaks or acts on behalf of the third party. This observation reduces the concept of blasphemy to a matter of interpretation of the words, acts, or behaviour of others in the name of a party who is not able or willing to act or react by her/himself.
The offence of blasphemy is always against God or the divine and so can never be against humans. If it is an offence against God, then the blasphemer should not be accountable to humans. Even though an attitude, act, or a word might seem obviously blasphemous to some, that interpretation is always manmade, and any actions triggered by whatever is seen as blasphemous cannot be attributed to anyone’s God.
Some countries have laws to punish blasphemy, while others have laws that give recourse to those who are offended by blasphemy.
Wherever the believers of organised religions exist, blasphemy is offensive and almost unthinkable for their societies. The blasphemer becomes the outcast, since blasphemy is recognised as taboo. If the blasphemy involves speech, it is identified as a crime of utterance. “To the extent that it constituted a religious transgression, theologians and moralists generally defined blasphemy as a ‘sin of the tongue’….Besides falsely slandering God, blasphemous speech could defile God’s honour by addressing him disrespectfully.”
However, all the major religions perceive blasphemy as a particularly grave sin, and their theologians condemn it and sternly warn the faithful against committing this sin.
Monotheistic religions are not the owners of the idea of blasphemy, and their followers are not the only ones who encounter the effects of blasphemy. Many unbelievers believe in superior beings or spirits that influence their destiny. In these societies, their superior beings are seen as offended by the blasphemous actions of others, just as God is believed offended in the monotheistic religions. These religious societies also punish the rejection or scorning of their beings or gods.
Although some consider blasphemy as an intense evil or at least think it undesirable, others view it as just a slip of the tongue or put it in the category of hate speech or despicable actions. George Bernard Shaw believed that all great truths begin as blasphemies. “In Augustine’s thinking, schism, heresy, blasphemy, and treason were strands in a twisted cable.”
In some parts of the world where religion is more dominant in government affairs, blasphemy becomes a slogan. If anyone contradicts any article of the prescribed faith or questions it, that person becomes a blasphemer and makes religion doubtful. Opposing religious leaders is also taken as blasphemy. Probing the judgment and will of God is regarded as blasphemous. Missing or neglecting the religious customs reflects blasphemy. Presenting political and diverse opinions is believed blasphemous. One denomination calls the religious acts of other persuasions blasphemy. The blasphemers are also called faithless, godless, traitors and deemed enemies of God. In this scenario, blasphemy is supreme madness and itself becomes an insult against the Creator.
Blasphemy creates conflict in societies when domineering religions seek to limit free thought and impose their mores on the entire population. examination of the parameters of blasphemy should distinguish blasphemous conduct from that which is not. Mockery of religious beliefs is not the same as questioning. Nevertheless, perceived blasphemous behaviour creates an occasion for oppression. Rational beings have the right to ask questions about anything surrounding their lives, whether it is the type of tea they prefer or their beliefs. However, for some, this type of freedom is threatening.
As Leonard Levy states: “Abuse of freedom as distinguished from its appropriate use, or licentiousness as opposed to liberty has always been the excuse for suppression. What society deems to be blasphemy—a verbal offense against sacred matters—may differ with time and place, but whatever is condemned as blasphemy is always regarded as an abuse of liberty. Any definition of the scope of freedom of religious or irreligious expression necessarily requires the drawing of lines and limits. Boundaries against the impermissible, separating blasphemy from the expression of lawful opinion on religion, reveal what society will not and cannot tolerate. Blasphemy is litmus test of the standards a society believes it must enforce to preserve its unity, its peace, its morality, its feelings, and the road to salvation.”
Religion can be central to a person’s sense of well-being and self-respect and this is worthy of protection by criminal law. Blasphemy could and has resulted in violent protests and killings of the blasphemers. As such, anti-blasphemy laws are needed to protect social stability.
Freedom of Religion Internationally
Freedom of religion is provided in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 (UDHR) and Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966 (ICCPR). Article 18 of the UDHR provides:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
The international human rights law significantly emerged and developed after the end of World War II. The United Nations (UN) aims “to achieve international co-operation … in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all”.
According to Article 18(3) of the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966), the freedom to manifest or practise one’s religion or beliefs can be constrained on the ground of public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. States parties to the ICCPR may have positive duties to protect religious believers from the intolerance, contempt and hatred of others.
According to Article 19(3)(a) of the ICCPR, the exercise of the right to freedom of expression carries with it special duties and responsibilities, and may be subject to restrictions, as are provided by law and are necessary, for respect of the rights of others. Respecting the rights of others includes respecting the right of religious persons not to be offended in their religious belief.
Having anti-blasphemy laws does not mean that religion cannot be criticised, but such criticism must be done with appropriate respect for religious persons’ belief. In other words, the criticism must not be disdainful. On the other hand, religious believers have a mutual duty to tolerate criticism.
In 1999, Pakistan, on behalf of the OIC, (organisation of the Islamic conference) brought before the UN Commission on Human Rights (CHR) a resolution entitled “Defamation of Islam”, expressing deep concern at the defamation of Islam and urging members of the UN to combat religious intolerance against Muslims. The CHR adopted the resolution after changing its title to “Defamation of Religions” so as to embrace all religions. The resolution urged States to take measures to combat hatred, intolerance and acts of violence, including attacks on religious places, and to encourage understanding, tolerance and respect in matters relating to freedom of religion or belief.
In order to put the record straight on the chronology of Blasphemy Legislation in Pakistan, the following timeline has been assembled using information from annual report of National Commission for Justice and Peace.
The sections of 295 till 298 of Pakistan Penal Code are remnant of British colonial times. The blasphemy law is a part of the Pakistan Penal Code, introduced in 1860 by the British Government to protect religious feelings.
In 1927 when religious riots rocked pre-partition India, because a Hindu by the name of Raj Paul wrote a book which was against the honor of the Prophet. 295-A was promulgated.
August 14, 1947:
Pakistan comes into being. The 1860 Indian Penal Code is carried over into the legislation of Pakistan.
Pakistan Penal Code – P.P.C. (Amendment) Ordinance, further amends Section 295-B, extends penalty options to include life imprisonment. This Ordinance also introduces Section 295-C, which outlaws “Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet.”
Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, III of 1986, Schedule 2, makes further additions, adding the option of “death penalty” to Section 295-C. This Amendment also made a minor amendment to Section 296 (Disturbing religious assembly)
1992, Nawaz Sharif – supposedly to be a democratic leader in Pakistan – removed the option of a life sentence from section 295 C and imposed a compulsory death sentence.
“There were less than 10 blasphemy cases between1927 and 1985, when the law was introduced by General Ziaul Haq. Afterwards, there have been some 4,000.”
The meaning of blasphemy in the in the older dictionaries (English to Urdu) is
Blasphemy: Kufr کُفَر کا اِرتَکاب,
جرم ۔ میں بارے کے احترام قابلِ کا وں چیز مقدس ,مذہب
Offence against Religion and religious artifacts.
The word blasphemy has lost its original meaning in Pakistani context. As mentioned earlier in this paper the meaning of blasphemy is irreverence toward holy dignitaries, religious artifacts, customs, and beliefs.
But now it is a well known fact that when someone uses the word blasphemy in Pakistan it gives the meaning that it has to be concerning Islam.
The Pakistan Penal Code prohibits blasphemy against any recognized religion, providing penalties ranging from a fine to death. However, in practice, it is only applied to Islam.
Since Pakistan is a federal republic and has a legal system based both on English common law and on Islamic Shari’ah law, it is no astonishment that Pakistan has laws in its constitution that outlaws blasphemy, and these laws are only lawful against a blasphemous speech made against Islam.
It was under Zia’s regime, that severe penalties including life imprisonment and the death penalty were drafted in to the legislation of blasphemy.
Since 1986, nearly a thousand cases of blasphemy have been registered in Pakistan. Of these, 476 have been registered against Muslims, 479 against Ahmadis and 180 against Christians. (Christians are less than 3 %) In 2010, over 32 people were killed extrajudicially by angry mobs or individuals on the basis allegations of blasphemy and 64 people were charged under the blasphemy law.
The irony of blasphemy laws’ implementation in Pakistan is that when a Muslim citizen is accused of blasphemy he bears the consequences alone. For example of the author vividly remembers the incident which took place in 1994 in Gujranwala, the horrific murder of a hafiz-i-Quran (who has learnt the Quran by heart) the victim of blasphemy was tied behind a motorcycle and dragged through the streets, and then set on fire.
But when someone from a religious minority is alleged for blasphemy than the whole community is at stake.
Christians of Shanti Nagar remember the massacre of 1997. They were attack by more than 30,000 Muslims on the Christian village of Shantinagar on 6 February 1997.
There are number of incidents which I can go on quoting where Muslims in thousands have attacked Christians in the disguise of blasphemy. In 2009 an extreme example of mob violence against the Christian community in Punjab occurred in August 2009 in Gojra. Eight victims were burnt alive, including four women and a child, and 18 others were injured,40 houses and a church on fire.
Alarming situation of Christian women
At least 700 Christian girls are kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam every year. Kidnapping Christian girls, conversion and forced marriages have become common practice in Punjab.
Some of these cases are reported in the newspapers and some are not even heard of. The victims are mostly Hindu and Christian girls, belonging to religious minorities, this has been a worrying phenomenon for the Church in Pakistan for some time and that the Church is trying to address, looking for the cooperation of institutions but it is an uphill battle. The Christian girls are the weakest and most vulnerable, because their communities are poor, defenceless and marginalized, therefore easily exposed to harassment and threats. Often they do not even have the courage to denounce the violence. There are hundreds of cases a year registered and those that come to light are only a fraction.
Whilst Muslims are at liberty to seek new converts, other faith groups are condemned. Non-Muslims are free to convert to Islam, yet Muslims face death, torture, imprisonment and social exclusion if they abandon the Islamic faith. Forced conversion is a threat to Christian women and girls working especially in Muslim households or small factories, where some have reportedly been abducted, raped, forced to convert to Islam and then forced to marry to Muslims. Victims are not allowed to convert back to their original religion. Nor are they allowed to maintain contact with their non-Muslim relatives, not even their parents. They are instead kept under strict custody.
Human rights groups currently following up the cases of Christian girls, who were kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam. The girls should have been returned to their parents but instead their parents are now facing a custody battle for their own children.
The police have decided not to investigate the case whilst the courts have refused to hand the girls over to their parents on the grounds that conversion to Islam forbids Christian parents to maintain custody of their converted children.
The Pakistani government refuses to intervene in the case, despite its clear violation of Pakistan’s own laws as well as international conventions on women and children.
The Christian married women are in double jeopardy according to the Islamic law if they are abducted by any male Muslim. According to the Islamic law their first marriage is annulled. If they have children from the first marriage they cannot keep them with them. As mention earlier they cannot come back to their own religion. It would be considered blasphemous.
In conclusion, the daily anxiety and nightmare of the minorities, who are under the threat of blasphemy at any time and even without even the slightest intention of blaspheming, is beyond the scope of wording. In short laws are made for the safety and security of people. But if the laws create fear and anxiety among the citizen those laws need to be repealed and amended.
Douglas, Mary. (1970). Purity and Danger. Baltimore: Penguin Books.
 Villa-Flores. Javier. (2006). Dangerous Speech: A Social History of Blasphemy in Colonial Mexico. Publisher: University of Arizona Press. P. 9
Levy Leonard W. (1995). Blasphemy: Verbal Offense against the Sacred from Moses to Salman Rushdie. USA: University of North Carolina Press, p. 47.
Ibid., p. ix.
 See Howard Davis, Human Rights Law Directions, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 327.
 For example, Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, decreed that a novelist, Salman Rushdie, had blasphemed Prophet Muhammad in his novel, The Satanic Verses. The Japanese translator of the book was killed, the Italian translator was stabbed, the Norwegian publisher was shot, and Rushdie stayed in hiding under police protection for years.
 GA Resolution 217A (III). See General Assembly Official Records, 3rd Session, Part 1, Resolutions, p. 71.
 Charter of the United Nations, Article 1(3).
 See Davis, Human Rights, p. 320.
 See Davis, Human Rights, p. 344.
 See Wingrove v United Kingdom.
Kufr generally means a person who covers up or hides realities, one who refuses to accept the dominion and authority of Allāh