In a Climate of Fear, Pakistani Lawmaker Withdraws Bid to Amend Blasphemy Laws

Patrick Goodenough | February 4, 2011 | 4:56am EST
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Pakistanis protest against alleged blasphemy against Mohammed, in Lahore on Wednesday, May 19, 2010. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

( – A lawmaker who braved death threats to challenge Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws has dropped her campaign, another sign that radical Islamists are gaining the upper hand over moderates in the country, which is a major recipient of U.S. aid.

Sherry Rehman, a former information minister, made the decision after failing to win the support of her own party – the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – and its leadership.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani assured a gathering of Muslim leaders last month that the government has no plans to change the blasphemy laws. He subsequently disbanded a committee that had been established to determine how to amend the legislation.

In a statement Thursday, Rehman said she had little choice but to abide by the party’s decision, but warned that “appeasement of extremism is a policy that will have its blow-back.”

The lawmaker introduced her amendment bill last November, saying the blasphemy laws, which can carry the death penalty for insulting Mohammed and the Qur’an, were being used to persecute religious minorities.

Her effort won the support of PPP colleague Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, who called late last year on President Asif Ali Zardari to pardon a Christian woman sentenced to death under the laws for allegedly blaspheming Mohammed.

Pakistani Christians and other minorities protest against blasphemy laws and call for Asia Bibi’s release in Lahore on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

Islamists then took to the streets to demand that the government not intervene to save Asia Bibi from death row or tamper with the laws. A radical cleric offered a reward to anyone who killed Bibi, and both Taseer and Rehman received death threats.

The controversy deepened in early January when Taseer was assassinated by a member of his security team. Mumtaz Qadri, who shot Taseer repeatedly while shouting “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is greater), said he had acted because of the governor’s opposition to the blasphemy law.

After the assassination some 500 Muslim scholars issued a statement warning clerics not to participate in the slain governor’s funeral in Lahore, Punjab’s capital, or even to voice sympathy about his death.

The scholars also saluted Qadri, giving the assassin the honorary title “Lover of the Prophet, Commander of the Jihad Fighters.”

Lahore-based clergymen declined to take part in memorial services, and police said afterwards that three clerics from elsewhere who did so had received death threats. One went into hiding while the other two were provided with police security.

In the prevailing climate of fear, lawmakers in the federal parliament decided not to offer prayers for Taseer, foregoing a practice customary in Pakistan after a politician dies.

Meanwhile the feting of Qadri continued, his picture featuring prominently at demonstrations in favor of retaining the controversial laws. Hundreds of lawyers offered free representation to the confessed killer, who is in custody awaiting trail.

Pakistan’s ‘moderates’

While the threats of radicals to kill those accused of insulting their religion and prophet came as little surprise in Pakistan, the U.S.-backed government’s capitulation was especially troubling for minority Christians and other critics. 

Gilani’s Jan. 18 assurance to Muslim leaders that the government would not amend the blasphemy laws came shortly after a Christian woman and her daughter were attacked by a mob in Lahore who accused them of blasphemy.

Although Gilani’s statement was tempered with an appeal that no law should be misused, critics say this has been happening for decades.

“While Pakistan’s government keeps up the mantra that it will not allow ‘misuse’ of the law, government inaction has only emboldened extremists,” Human Rights Watch researcher Bede Sheppard said on Wednesday.

“Until this law is repealed, it will be used to brutalize religious minorities, children, and other vulnerable groups.”

With black ribbons tied around their wrists, Christians in Pakistan attend a rally against the country’s blasphemy laws in Lahore on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

Barnabas Fund, a charity working with Christians in Islamic countries, noted that the 500-plus clerics who issued the intimidatory warning after Taseer’s assassination represented the “supposedly moderate” Sunni Barelvi movement, Pakistan’s largest Muslim faction.

“While Barelvis are seen as moderates in the West because of their opposition to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, they are fanatical in their adherence to shari’a and in their defense of the honor of Muhammad,” said the charity’s international director, Patrick Sookhdeo.

“If these are the moderate Muslims of Pakistan, what hope is there for the Christian community there?”

The most notorious of the blasphemy laws were introduced in the 1980s, when additions were made to existing provisions to outlaw “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” Sub-sections dealt specifically with the Qur’an and Mohammed.

Monitoring groups say around one thousand people have been charged under the laws since 1986. Although no death sentences have been carried out, hundreds of people are serving prison terms for violating the laws.

While Christians, Hindus and members of the Ahmadi sect of Islam are often targeted, most of those indicted have been Muslims.

A Muslim teenager arrested in Karachi last week faces trial after being accused of writing insulting comments about Mohammed in a school exam; two weeks ago, an imam (prayer leader) and his son were convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to life imprisonment by a court in Punjab. They were brought to trial after removing a poster from outside their store which reportedly included verses from the Qur’an.

Beyond criminal proceedings, at least 30 people accused of blasphemy have been killed by mobs or individuals, some of them during court appearances or while in police custody, according to figures kept by a Pakistani Catholic organization.

‘Universal standard’

Viewed as a crucial partner in the campaign against extremism in the region, Pakistan is among the world’s leading recipients of U.S. aid, having received some $18 billion since 2001, a sum that includes military reimbursements for its support of counterterrorism efforts.

The Obama administration requested $3.05 billion in fiscal year 2011 in military and economic assistance for Islamabad.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent statutory body that advises the executive and legislative branches, has urged the government since 2002 to designate Pakistan as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) for egregious violations of religious freedom.

Each year the State Department has overruled the recommendation.

When the department released its most recent annual religious freedom report last November, its top human rights official, Michael Posner, said officials continued to raise concerns about the blasphemy laws directly with Pakistan’s government,

He denied that Pakistan’s status as an ally was a factor.

“We apply a universal standard to every country, friends and countries that we have difficult relationships with. That doesn’t mean we don’t have security interests or economic interests or other diplomatic interests. But we will raise these issues as we see them,” Posner said. “We’ll call them as we see them.”

The countries currently designated at CPCs for engaging in or tolerating particularly severe violations are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

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