How Bigotry Against Religious And Sectarian Minorities Is Growing In Pakistan

Yasser Latif Hamdani
On January 18, 2023, National Assembly approved amendments to Section 298-A of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860, enhancing the punishment for “defiling” the sacred names of wives, family and companions of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) to 10 years with a million rupees fine.

This is the newest slip down the slippery slope of blasphemy legislation that this country has had to suffer haplessly.

Earlier, Parvez Elahi, former chief minister of Punjab, doubled down on Khatme-Nabuwat, as the central plank of his political programme. After his government’s great administrative achievement of insertion of the anti-Ahmadi clause in the nikahnama, the latest gimmick is the affixation of the Quranic verses in the committee room of the chief minister’s office and the founding of the Khatim-ul-Nabiyeen university.

The British introduced offences against the religion to the then Indian Penal Code 1860, namely Sections 295 to 298, to keep communal peace. In 1920s, during the famous pamphlet wars of Punjab, leading to the publication by Raj Pal against the Holy Prophet (PBUH), Muslims of the subcontinent agitated for a new law to protect the holy personages of Islam from scurrilous attacks. This led to Section 295-A, which made offence to religious beliefs or feelings of any section a crime i.e. scurrilous attacks on founders of any religion.

At the time of the debate on this amendment in 1927, Mohammed Ali Jinnah stated that it should be ensured the law does not infringe on academic criticism and bona fide study of the religion. Therefore, the words, “deliberate and malicious intention”, were added to the law to distinguish between bona fide inquiries into the religion and said scurrilous attacks.

Make no mistake that these new changes are aimed at the Shia community as well. Moulana Abdul Akbar Chitrali wants to give teeth to 298-A so that Shias are stopped from freely practicing, professing and propagating their faith just like Ahmadis.

Section 295-A remains on the books in all three successor states to British India, i.e. Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. In Pakistan, during General Zia’s dictatorship in 1980s, several new changes were made to offences against the religion chapter. Defilement of the Quran was made a crime.

In 1984, the dictator made it a crime for Ahmadis to “pose” as Muslims or use Islamic terminology as 298-B and 298-C following 298-A as aforesaid. In 1986, 295-C was made part of the penal code, making defilement of the sacred name of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) a crime punishable by death or life imprisonment.

None of these are subject to the malicious and deliberate intention test which is the most troubling part of these laws.

Make no mistake that these new changes are aimed at the Shia community as well. Moulana Abdul Akbar Chitrali wants to give teeth to 298-A so that Shias are stopped from freely practicing, professing and propagating their faith just like Ahmadis.

The basic Shia creed is derived from dispute at inception of the Islamic caliphate between the Ahl-e-Bayt (the family members of the Prophet) – Hazrat Ali (AS) and Hazrat Fatima (AS) and Sahaba or the Prophet’s campanions, Hazrat Abu Bakr (RA), Hazrat Umar (RA) and Hazrat Usman (RA). The battles between fourth righteously guided Caliph Hazrat Ali (AS) versus the Prophet’s wife Hazrat Aisha (RA) and the first Ummayad Caliph Muawiyah made the Sahaba warring parties against each other.

Then came the tragedy of Karbala, where the Ahl-e-Bayt were massacred by Yazid’s army. Yazid was Muawiyah’s son. The first Ummayad Caliph, a companion, is criticized by the Shias for his role against Hazrat Ali (AS) and subsequently his son Hazrat Hassan (AS) not to mention his appointment of his son Yazid as his successor to the Caliphate.

The point of this narration is that criticism of certain companions of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) is part of the Shia faith. The law therefore targets them exclusively. The apologists for the federal government will no doubt argue that they have merely enhanced punishments and that the law was on the books already.

The changes are significant because they indicate a further downward spiral at a time when Pakistan’s human rights record is already the subject of global criticism. Pakistan is one of the worst countries of the world when it comes to curbs on religious freedom and freedom of expression.

This law will be misused. We are likely to see a lot more blasphemy litigation in the country, especially in this age of social media. Clerics and “activists” from the Sunni majority will goad the Shias on social media into debates where Shias will inevitably criticise the companions. This will lead to reprisals, both legal and extra legal.

Imagine, in the 21st century, Pakistanis will remain busy litigating disputes from the 7th century Arabia between the holiest personages of Islam.

There is no occasion for blasphemy laws in the 21st century. You just cannot punish people for things like blasphemy and heresy anymore. That time has passed. Pakistan is merely trying to swim against the tide but the march of humanity cannot be stopped. Even Saudi Arabia has been forced to reform and move with times.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is not an oil rich country but a bankrupt poor country. The persecution of minorities, both religious and sectarian, is not going to win the country any friends in the comity of nations. It will only paint us as a priest-ridden society which privileges one faith over others and infringes on the fundamental rights of its citizens.

Other than finding it tragic, the world also sees us as a joke. In the process, we end up embarrassing Muslims everywhere. Sadly our politicians are more concerned with misusing religion than Pakistan’s reputation.

January 23, 2023


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