Western, Islamic Gov’ts Find Common Ground on Religious Tolerance, But Pakistan’s ‘Blasphemy’ Abuses Continue

By Patrick Goodenough | July 18, 2011 | 3:55 AM EDT

Pakistanis protest against alleged blasphemy against Mohammed, in Lahore on Wednesday, May 19, 2010. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

(CNSNews.com) – Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws continue to be enforced at great cost to those targeted by them, despite an international drive aimed at combating religious intolerance while upholding free expression.

Islamic and Western governments meeting in Istanbul Friday agreed to take steps to implement a resolution passed by U.N. Human Rights Council last March against religious intolerance, but there was no direct call for national blasphemy laws in place in Pakistan and several other Islamic countries to be repealed.

The meeting, co-chaired by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) secretary-general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, aimed at building on an HRC resolution which broke a decade-long standoff at the U.N. over the OIC’s cherished “defamation of religion” concept.

At the meeting in Geneva in March, the bloc of 56 mostly Muslim-majority states agreed to put aside its divisive “defamation” language and the text instead called on countries to combat “intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization” based on religion without seeking to criminalizing speech – except in cases of incitement to imminent violence.

As a result, rather than the customary politicized vote pitting OIC members and their allies against mostly Western democracies, the broader new approach was adopted “by consensus.”

Countries are called on to protect religious freedom and to use education, public debate and interfaith dialogue to discourage offensive speech or actions targeting religious beliefs. In her speech in Istanbul Clinton said the U.S. would also focus on using “some old-fashioned techniques of peer pressure and shaming, so that people don’t feel that they have the support to do what we abhor.”

She urged all countries to “hold themselves accountable” and to report their progress to the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights. The U.S. would later this year host a gathering of “relevant experts” to exchange ideas.

The closest Clinton came in her address to referring to the situation in Pakistan was when she said, “Across the Middle East and Asia, we look to both people and leaders to resist the incitement of extremists who seek to inflame sectarian tensions, and reject the persecution of religious minorities such as the Copts or Ahmadis or Baha’is.”

A joint statement issued by Clinton and Ihsanoghlu made no direct reference to the blasphemy laws either.

Human Rights Focus Pakistan president Naveed Walter, second from left, calls for the blasphemy laws to be revoked, at the National Press Club in Islamabad on July 11, 2011. (Photo: HRFP)

A minefield for minorities

Islamic states charge that Islam, its teachings and prophets are being maligned through prejudice, ignorance or fear and have been unfairly associated with terrorism, especially since 9/11.

Viewed through a very different lens, Western governments and rights advocacy groups see the “defamation” campaign as an attempt to discourage and even outlaw valid debate about Islamic teachings – to spread to Western societies the type of blasphemy provisions enforced in Pakistan.

In fact Pakistan’s blasphemy laws – which make insults aimed at Mohammed and the Qur’an crimes punishable by death – became a central theme in opposition to the “religious defamation” campaign, not least of all because while it was enforcing the laws at home Pakistan was also spearheading the OIC’s annual resolutions at the U.N.

The assassinations earlier this year of two leading Pakistani critics of the law, Minorities Minister Shabhaz Bhatti and Punjab Gov. Salmaan Taseer, brought the issue into the international spotlight.

Six months on from the first of those killings, little has been done to bring the perpetrators to justice. Taseer’s bodyguard, who admitted killing the governor because of his opposition to the blasphemy laws, has appeared in court several times but proceedings appear to be stalled. No-one has been arrested and charged with Bhatti’s murder. After shooting him his assailants left a note accusing him of blasphemy.

Meanwhile radicals have vowed to defend the blasphemy laws to the death, the government has assured religious leaders it has no plans to amend them, and their enforcement continues unimpeded.

On June 22, a 29 year-old Pakistani named Abdul Sattar was sentenced to death by a court in the north of Punjab province, after being convicted of blaspheming Mohammed in text messages.

The previous month, a 25 year-old Christian named Babber Masih was arrested and charged after being accused of using insulting language against Mohammed. According to the Center for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement, which provides free legal aid to Pakistani Christians, the accused man’s brother says Babber has been mentally ill for the last six years.

More than 960 people were charged under the blasphemy laws between 1986 and 2009. While no executions have been carried out, at least 32 people facing blasphemy charges had been killed by angry Muslims – in some cases as they appeared in court or while in police custody.

The laws present a minefield to any attempt by Christians to share or even explain their faith, but are also frequently used as a means to settle business or other disputes. An accuser is not expected to repeat the offending phrase in court, and there is little an accused person can do in the face of vague charges of having insulted the prophet.

Although Pakistan’s situation is the most serious, the advocacy group Human Rights First in a recent study documented more than 70 cases in 15 countries where the enforcement of blasphemy laws led to death sentences and lengthy prison terms, and were responsible for assaults, murders, and mob attacks.

In response to the meeting in Istanbul, Human Rights First’s Tad Stahnke said the group welcomed the human rights-based approach to combating religious intolerance

“Much needs to be done at the national level in U.N. member states to combat violence and discrimination on the basis of religion or belief,” he said, urging all countries “to move toward implementing policies to combat hatred without restricting speech.”

Human Rights Focus Pakistan, a non-governmental organization advocating against the blasphemy laws, is planning a rally outside parliament in Islamabad on August 11, Pakistan’s “Minorities Day,” to focus attention on the plight of Christians, Hindus and other non-Muslim minorities.

At a press conference in the capital, HRFP president Naveed Walter said the blasphemy laws should be repealed, those imprisoned under the laws should be reprieved and released, and they and their families should be secured against retaliatory attacks by radicals.

Walter challenged Pakistanis to recall that the revered founder of the state, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had championed religious freedom and tolerance.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow