Pakistan Not Expected to Challenge Blasphemy Laws Prized by Radicals

By Patrick Goodenough | March 8, 2011 | 4:59 AM EST

A Pakistani Christian woman mourns the death of Christian government minister Shahbaz Bhatti, holding his picture outside his home in Islamabad, Pakistan on Thursday, March 3, 2011. (AP Photo/B.K.Bangash)

( – Almost a week after Pakistan’s only Christian government minister was shot dead by Islamists angered by his opposition to national blasphemy laws, the U.S.-backed government has given no indication that it is willing to confront radicals determined to keep the laws in place.

Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal minister for minority affairs, was killed as he left his Islamabad home on March 2. Pamphlets left by the unidentified gunmen accused him of blasphemy and said the punishment was death.

Two months earlier, the governor of Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab, was killed by a member of his bodyguard over the same issue. Gov. Salman Taseer had objected to the misuse of the laws against non-Muslims, and sought a pardon for a poor Christian woman, Asia Bibi, sentenced to death last November for allegedly blaspheming Mohammed, the Muslim prophet.

President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani condemned Bhatti’s murder, called for tolerance and spoke out against extremism, but have said nothing about scrapping – or even amending – the controversial blasphemy laws.

The Dawn newspaper of Karachi quoted Gilani as saying the killing should not be “misconstrued” as amounting to persecution.

On Monday, he told visiting religious scholars from 14 Islamic countries that the Bhatti assassination was an attempt to tarnish Pakistan’s image and to drive a wedge between Muslims and Christians, according to a report in another Karachi daily, The News.

Before Bhatti’s killing Gilani assured Muslim leaders that the government has no plans to amend the laws. He has given no public sign since then that that position has changed.

Troubled by international criticism over Asia Bibi’s sentencing, Islamist parties had earlier launched a public campaign to demand that the laws be left alone, with clerics declaring that those battling the law were themselves guilty of blasphemy.

Following the Taseer assassination a prominent lawmaker in the Pakistan People’s Party – the ruling party of Zardari and Gilani – dropped an initiative to have the laws amended. Sherry Rehman, who like Bhatti and Taseer had received death threats, said the PPP had failed to support her effort.

“In the present climate the government of Pakistan is obeying whatever the fundamentalists are saying by their acts,” Naveed Walter, the president of Human Rights Focus Pakistan – a non-governmental organization advocating against the laws – said Tuesday

The proof of this, he told, was the fact that the government was not signaling any changes to the blasphemy laws, even after the assassinations of Bhatti and Taseer.

Asked what response he would like to see from the government, Walter said it should scrap the laws completely, release Asia Bibi from death row and restore “equal rights to minorities in all the fields of life in Pakistan.”

Walter said his NGO’s campaign against the blasphemy laws would continue, despite the risks.

International anti-blasphemy drive

The blasphemy laws are contained in a national penal code dating back to 19th century British rule, and were bolstered in the 1980s with new sub-sections prohibiting “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.”

One sub-section deals specifically deals with insults against the Qur’an, and another on insults directed at Mohammed. A separate provision forbids any remark that is intended to “wound religious feelings.”

Punishment under the laws was “life imprisonment” – 25 years in Pakistan – and the government in 1992 introduced the option of the death penalty for a person convicted of blasphemy.

Rights groups that monitor Pakistan’s legal system say about one thousand people, most of them Muslims, have been charged under the laws since 1986. Although no death sentences are known to have been carried out, hundreds of people convicted under the laws are serving lengthy prison terms.

“The blasphemy laws are misused by extremists to bring false charges against Christians to settle personal scores or acquire land or other property,” said Nasir Saeed, director of the Center for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement, a U.K.-based charity that provides free legal aid to Pakistani Christians.

“Christians charged with blasphemy have been murdered by extremists, even in cases where they were set free by court judges.”

Pakistan’s official stance on the blasphemy issue is one of advocacy beyond its borders, too.

At the United Nations, Pakistan plays a leading role in a campaign by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) against what it terms “religious defamation.”

Citing sensitive incidents like the publication of newspaper cartoons satirizing Mohammed and threats to burn copies of the Qur’an, the OIC says the international community should take steps to outlaw “defamation” of religions.

The OIC has succeeded in getting a religious “defamation” resolution passed at the U.N.’s top human rights body every year since 1999 – when Pakistan introduced it for the first time – and at the U.N. General Assembly every year since 2005.

Opponents say the issue is an attempt to introduce in Western countries restrictions on free expression about religion similar to those in place in countries like Pakistan.

Pakistan’s representative at the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, Asim Ahmad, said last week the international community should not link Bhatti’s killing to the blasphemy issue.

“We believe it would not be helpful to link the highly regrettable killing squarely in the context of defamation and blasphemy,” he told the council.

In an op-ed published by the Washington Post early this week, Zardari appealed for more understanding and patience from the international community as Pakistan’s confronts what he called “the battle between extremism and moderation.”

He made no direct reference to the blasphemy laws, but implied that challenging them would be reckless and counterproductive.

“Our concern that we avoid steps that inadvertently help the fanatics is misinterpreted abroad as inaction or even cowardice,” he wrote. “Instead of understanding the perilous situation in which we find ourselves, some well-meaning critics tend to forget the distinction between courage and foolhardiness.”

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent body that advises the government on religious freedom issues, has since 2002 recommended that Pakistan be named a “country of particular concern.” The designation allows the government to take steps, including sanctions, against governments that are responsible for, or tolerate, violations of religious freedom.

The State Department has overruled the recommendation each year.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow