Solving Pakistan’s Blasphemy Problem
Almost a quarter of the countries in the world have blasphemy laws. Yet no blasphemy law has as notorious a reputation as that of Pakistan’s, which is under the spotlight again as a scholar/dean of a university who was accused of blasphemy was shot dead. Only a few weeks ago, a woman and two children ...
Almost a quarter of the countries in the world have blasphemy laws. Yet no blasphemy law has as notorious a reputation as that of Pakistan's, which is under the spotlight again as a scholar/dean of a university who was accused of blasphemy was shot dead. Only a few weeks ago, a woman and two children were murdered by a mob enraged over an "an allegedly blasphemous Facebook post." Unfortunately, these incidents are not rare.
Almost a quarter of the countries in the world have blasphemy laws. Yet no blasphemy law has as notorious a reputation as that of Pakistan’s, which is under the spotlight again as a scholar/dean of a university who was accused of blasphemy was shot dead. Only a few weeks ago, a woman and two children were murdered by a mob enraged over an "an allegedly blasphemous Facebook post." Unfortunately, these incidents are not rare.
Pakistan’s blasphemy law has survived almost unamended for the past three decades. Yet blasphemy cases and even the frequency of incidents of violence have spiked only in the last 10 years or so. A graph from the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad records major blasphemy cases in the 60 years between 1953 and 2012. Although there were very few blasphemy cases between 1953 and 1979 and only a handful of cases almost every year in the 80s and 90s (that is, after Zia changed the law), the number of blasphemy cases only began to increase at an alarming rate after 2004 — almost two decades after the amendment to the law by Zia.
There could be many reasons as to why there was a jump in cases only in the last decade, but it demonstrates quite clearly that neither the blasphemy law’s existence, nor its amendment by Zia can explain the sharp rise in blasphemy-related cases or the descent into blasphemy related violence on their own. To be sure, the argument is not that the law does not have problems. It is very defective — in design and in application. Yet, while Pakistan’s blasphemy law has serious defects such as the lack of intent required for the offence and the vague language used to denote offences and its particular targeting of Ahmadis, as highlighted by Osama Siddique, we do suggest that, based on the data, it is short-sighted to adopt a narrow focus on the law as being the sole instigator of blasphemy related violence in the country. Such a presumption is common where even informed commentators sometimes assume that the law caused the violence — when in reality, the sudden rise in the number of cases indicates something else: that other deeply-ingrained social factors, and not the law on its own, may be at play in increasing blasphemy related violence. A myopic focus on the law thus detracts from getting to the root of the problem.
Further, in terms of reform, one thing is clear: blasphemy is and will remain a sensitive and "popular" issue. Indeed, 75 percent of Pakistani Muslims say blasphemy laws are necessary to protect Islam in their country, according to a PEW Research poll. As one of us has written before in a journal article, considering the place of Islam in popular thought in Pakistan and some other Muslim majority countries (partly due to Islam and Islamic law being seen as "a" — and sometimes the only — mechanism to realize rights and good governance in otherwise unjust political settings), it is not surprising to see wide social support for sanctioning those who are seen to have "attacked Islam" — that is, the law in itself is not controlling or determinative of the support for vigilantism, and social norms are important.
Hence, reform of such a sensitive area of law must originate and be grounded within an Islamic and culturally indigenous framework to be effective. At the same time, perceptions of foreign "colonial" influence should be and should be seen to be non-existent in the matter (indeed, it is not surprising to see people in Pakistan marching in anger in response to statements by foreign figures such as the Pope with regards to amendment or repeal of the law).
An example of a successful reform strategy for Pakistan’s blasphemy law can be gleaned from Morocco, where a strategy of reforming women´s rights — a similarly controversial issue — was successful mainly because it drew upon Islamic arguments and credentials for legitimacy.
As one of the authors has written in an academic article, Morocco features some of the strongest women’s rights in the Islamic world — perhaps second only to Tunisia. However, Moroccan women did not enjoy these rights until only about a decade ago, when in early 2004, the Moroccan parliament passed significant reforms to the Mudawana or Code of Personal Status, which governs the legal relationships that most significantly affect women’s rights including marriage, divorce, child custody, maintenance, and inheritance. The 2004 Mudawana reforms garnered international praise for their progressive interpretation of Islamic law. Notable reforms included making the husband and wife equally responsible for leading the family, prohibiting divorce by repudiation, abolishing male guardianship and wifely obedience, and providing an innovative de facto prohibition on polygamy.
While the 2004 reforms succeeded, previous reform efforts had failed largely due to conservative opposition that characterized Mudawana reform as Western, secular, or un-Islamic. Further, conservative leaders often equated reforming the Mudawana with an attack on Shari‘a, which created a strong social and cultural barrier to strengthening women’s rights. Rather than shrinking from this debate, Moroccan women’s rights activists met this challenge head-on by basing their arguments for reform on Islamic social values and Islamic legal scholarship. Accordingly, women’s rights activists countered conservative opposition by highlighting the egalitarian ethos of Islam as well as the legal principle of gender equality clearly established in the Qur’an. By engaging conservative leaders on their terms, women’s rights activists won public support and avoided claims that they were simply trying to impose Western or secular values on Muslims.
The Moroccan experience provides valuable lessons for reformers within other Islamic states and in our particular case, for blasphemy in Pakistan. Moroccan activists advanced women’s rights not by appealing primarily to international treaties or human rights discourse, but by grounding their efforts in Islamic social and legal discourse specific to Moroccan culture. Using this tact, women’s rights activists successfully argued that patriarchal interpretations of Islamic law were harmful to women, detrimental to the country’s development and modernization, and legally spurious. Perhaps most importantly, this experience illustrates that lasting social and legal reform will occur through domestic efforts and not externally imposed solutions.
For anthropologists, sociologists, and most activists in the field this may be obvious, but it is surprising how this lesson can be ignored by some human rights reformers and not least of all, those who wish to improve upon Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
Dawood I. Ahmed is a Research Fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project. His scholarship focuses on exploring the origins and consequences of adopting Islam in global constitutions.
John Hursh is an independent researcher focusing on women’s rights and land rights in North Africa. Most recently, he was an O’Brien Fellow at McGill University Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism.
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