A year ago today in Pakistan, the governor of Punjab -- Salman Taseer -- was assassinated by a member of his own elite guard for defending a Christian woman by the name of Asia Bibi for allegedly disrespecting the prophet of Islam.
A few months later, the Minister for Minority Affairs, Shabaz Bhatti, was shot dead for the same reason. Sherry Rahman, the current Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. who started a campaign to introduce amendments to the law, also received death threats for attempting to introduce changes to the law.
Rahman did not suggest repealing the law; she merely proposed the inclusion of "mens rea" or intent to commit blasphemy in the current stipulations. And yet, she faced condemnation from religious fundamentalists. Currently, the law does not recognize intent as a factor in determining culpability in blasphemy cases. One can be accused of blasphemy even if one has not intended to commit such an act.
These unjust laws came into effect in their current form under the military dictatorship of General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. Inspired by a puritanical and punitive brand of Islam, the General introduced amendments to existing blasphemy laws by increasing penalties for certain offences.
The law had existed in the subcontinent since Colonial times, however, it underwent the kind of transformation that rendered religious minorities especially vulnerable to accusations by a Muslim majority that has become increasingly fundamentalist in its religious orientation. As it stands, the law prohibits blasphemy against any recognized religion. However, it only comes into effect when Islam is allegedly under attack by members of minority faith communities.
The most troubling sections of the blasphemy law revolve around alleged blasphemy against the prophet Mohammed. It carries the death sentence and can be accompanied by fines if the charge is considered serious enough. Thus far both Muslims and non-Muslims have been charged with the offence of blasphemy.
There is great potential for abuse of such provisions. Foremost, the possibility of misinterpreting intentions and gestures is immense. The law states that if someone insults: "by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representations or otherwise, promotes or incites, or attempts to promote or incite, on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities," that someone shall be fined and punished with imprisonment for a term that may extend to five years.
This leaves the field wide open for anyone to accuse another of having insulted their religious sentiments.
The blasphemy law in Pakistan must be repealed without further delay. Asia bibi, who still languishes in jail, must be freed and her dignity and good name restored. The state must not police the religious beliefs of its citizens. Nor must the clergy be allowed to determine which interpretation of Islam is correct.
Caring individuals should sign various petitions to free Asia bibi. Let Taseer's murder by a religious fanatic not be in vain.
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