Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws
Originally published in Liberty Magazine
Religious blasphemy laws can be a touchy subject, especially in Pakistan, where just bringing up the subject of the blasphemy laws and whether they are right or wrong is considered, well …blasphemous. This wasn’t always
The sentiment behind most blasphemy laws is easy to understand. No person or group should insult another religion’s beliefs or holy personages, or desecrate their Holy Scriptures, icons, or places of worship. Yet the golden rule is the foundation of many freedoms—from speech to the press to privacy. The right to choose and practice a religion freely, without fear of insult or attack, is usually at or near the top of the list for most people, even those who are not religious. As Jesus said: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (see Luke 6:31). Article 18 of the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights1 states, with regard to a person’s beliefs, that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Blasphemy laws by their very nature tend to compromise the aforesaid principles. However, they also operate on the premise that offensive speech or actions designed to hurt someone’s feelings or provoke physical harm are usually directed at members of one religion by the members of another separate religion—Muslims against Hindus or Christians against Jews, for example. But religious persecution can and frequently does occur between denominations within the same faith—Catholics against Protestants, or Sunni Muslims against Shia Muslims.
It is, in fact, this element of sectarian animosity and persecution that can turn blasphemy laws into a double-edged sword. This is exactly what is happening and has been happening for nearly 30 years in Pakistan, where Sunni accusations of others desecrating the Koran or uttering blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad are routinely used to jail business rivals or personal enemies or members of minority sects, like the Shias and the Ahmadis or members of other religions whose homes or businesses are coveted by blasphemy accusers.
“Proof” of Koran desecration is often only eyewitness testimony, or is found to have been done by the accuser to prove their charge. In the matter of “proof” of uttering blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad, no evidence is presented, because to do so would require repeating the blasphemous remark. As for legal help against such a charge, most lawyers are reluctant to defend the blasphemy-accused because it implies support for them, which could mean losing business—or worse, your life.
And, in fact, lawyers are rarely needed anyway, because just the accusation of Koran desecration or insult to Islam or the prophet Muhammad is enough to generate a mullah-led flash mob of angry Muslims intent on beating or killing the accused. Even police protection in jail isn’t really protection, because those accused of blasphemy are almost guaranteed to be brutally assaulted or murdered in jail by the police or other inmates. As a result of what they know is coming if they are accused of blasphemy, most victims go into hiding or flee their homes or the country itself, if they can afford to. These last are indeed the lucky few.
Because of this sad state of affairs, Pakistan today has a reputation of being one of the most dangerous and religiously intolerant places on earth. And what many people in the West do not appreciate or even understand is that the inferno of religious violence and bigotry that is tearing Pakistan apart is being stoked not just by the anti-Western, Jihadist agendas of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but by the tacit approval—via legislative and constitutional sanctions—of the government.
This began in 1974 under democratically elected president Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who endorsed and signed an amendment to Pakistan’s constitution that declared that Ahmadi Muslims were non-Muslims.2 Below are the amended and added sections of the constitution pertaining to Ahmadis.3
It is vital to understand that Clause 3 of Article 260 was written specifically to legislatively nullify and deny the claims of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908). He founded the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in 1889 in Qadian, India, for the purpose of bringing people back to God and restoring Islam to its original purity and spiritual vitality. Ahmad proclaimed that God had appointed him the imam Mahdi and Promised Messiah4 whose advent was foretold in the Holy Koran and in the Hadith (recorded sayings) of the prophet Muhammad. What particularly incensed Muslims of his day (and to this day) was that he forbade the Jihad of the sword (to convert people to Islam or wage offensive wars),5 replacing it instead with the Jihad of the pen.6 The motto of the community he founded is: “Love for All—Hatred for None.” Despite intense, often violent and deadly persecution by other Muslims, the number of Ahmadis in the world continues to increase.
Most Muslims consider the founder an apostate and his followers “wajibul qatl”—an Arabic slogan referring to Ahmadis, which means “deserving of death.” This expression calling for the murder of Ahmadis is a common sight in Pakistan on government buildings and courthouses, in storefront windows, on banners and signs, in newspapers and magazines, and on religious TV shows hosted by clerics. The question that most non-Muslims would ask is: Why all this hatred against Mirza Ghulam Ahmad and the Ahmadis? The answer has to do with what Muslims expect from the imam Mahdi.
Prior to the twentieth century, Sunni Muslims expected that the imam Mahdi (lit., divinely guided spiritual leader) would be raised by God sometime during the mid-to-late nineteenth century (the beginning of the Muslim fourteenth century). This corresponded with expectations7 by several Christian movements of the imminent second coming of Jesus during this same period. Ahmadi Muslims are the only Muslims who believe that both events—the advent of the imam Mahdi and the second coming of Jesus—are fulfilled in the person of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. All other Muslims believe that Jesus was taken bodily alive to heaven before the Crucifixion and that Jesus will bodily descend from heaven to the earth after the appearance of the imam Mahdi.
Generally speaking, Muslims believe that what will follow after that won’t be peace and love, but war and bloodshed—the “bloody imam” concept—to restore the worldly power and material glory of Islam through the conquest and destruction of its enemies (the Christians and Jews, primarily). Because the Ahmadiyya Community founder’s mission was decidedly nonviolent, nonpolitical, and focused entirely on spiritual and moral reformation, it’s easy to see why the extremist Muslim clerics and their followers (from the late nineteenth century to the present day) have always been so opposed to Mirza Ghulam Ahmad and his followers.
The inherent injustices created by Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are laid bare by just one concept, which is central to our understanding and protection of the basic human right to freedom of religion: the blasphemy laws are unjust on more than just legal grounds because no political assembly has any religious authority or right to interfere with anyone’s chosen religious beliefs.
What is sadly ironic—tragic, really—is that in August of 1947 the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, echoed this in his famous statement promising complete religious freedom for all in the newly created country of Pakistan. He declared: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”9
Fast-forward a quarter century to the time of the constitutional amendment declaring Ahmadis non-Muslims and one can easily see how ethically bankrupt and blinded by religious fanaticism the lawmakers of Pakistan had become. And to take things to even higher levels of absurdity and moral insanity, this official government stripping of Ahmadis of their God-given right to profess to be Muslim and freely practice their faith of Islam was later criminalized in 1984 under Gen. Zia ul-Haq’s infamous Ordinance XX. This addition and modification to the preexisting British colonial rule-era blasphemy laws of 1860 and 1898 was largely instigated by the same Muslim clerics and political leaders (and their followers) who had demanded only a decade earlier that Ahmadis be declared non-Muslims by the government.
To put the bite of law into that 1974 constitutional amendment, Ordinance XX not only specified by name as its target anyone calling themselves Ahmadi, but also increased the severity of the penalties for acts or statements deemed offensive to Muslims or directed against Islam, the Koran, or the prophet Muhammad.
Here is a brief summation of what life is like for Ahmadis in Pakistan, directly because of their being singled out in the blasphemy laws and the constitution:
*Ahmadis may not say “As-Salaamo alaikum,” the standard greeting of “Peace be upon you,” which is said between Muslims countless times a day. It is deemed offensive to non-Ahmadis. In addition, they may not call the Azan (the call to prayer made five times a day), nor perform the Islamic prayer in public, nor hold Islamic conventions or gatherings (large or small) for their members in any public or private venue.
* Ahmadis are forbidden from preaching their faith by word, in print, or by any other form of media. The government used to allow Ahmadis to publish newspapers and magazines that were only distributed among themselves, but complaints by mullahs have caused increased harassment of this activity as well. Printing of Ahmadi books is also prohibited in Pakistan as is access to Ahmadi Web sites.
* Ahmadis may not vote as Muslims. If they wish to register as “Muslim” in order to vote, they must sign a statement declaring they consider Mirza Ghulam Ahmad an apostate and a liar and a false prophet. No true Ahmadi will do this.
* Ahmadi mosques are often attacked, vandalized, burned, closed, or taken over by Sunnis with no arrests of the perpetrators by the police or help from the police in preventing such attacks. In addition, the police are often called on to remove from the outside of Ahmadi mosques the Kalima—the Arabic declaration of Islamic faith (There is no god but Allah; Muhammad is the messenger of Allah). This is almost always being done by people who are themselves Muslims! The irony of this usually escapes them completely. Oh, and Ahmadis are also forbidden to call their places of worship “mosques”—again, it offends non-Ahmadi Muslims.
* Ahmadi students are regularly expelled from schools, colleges and universities only because of their faith. The same goes for Ahmadis in state or government positions, or in banking or the military. Across all levels of society, Ahmadis suffer discrimination. On a family level, people who convert from Sunni Islam to Ahmadiyya Islam are often ostracized by their parents, siblings, and relatives—some are even killed.
* In order to obtain a passport or national ID, a person must sign a statement like the one on the voter registration card, which says they believe that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was an apostate, a liar, and a false prophet. Again, Ahmadis refuse to sign this, effectively preventing them from leaving Pakistan to perform the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, which is an obligation on all Muslims at least once in their lifetime, if their health and finances permit.
While the purpose of Ordinance XX was to destroy the Ahmadiyya community by jailing its leaders and members for publicly “posing” as Muslims or for otherwise practicing or preaching their “heretical” version of Islam, the larger consequence was that other Muslim minorities—Shias in particular—and the members of other religions were now being reilluminated in the state sanctioned spotlight of overall religious bigotry, persecution, and legalized vigilantism. The result has been a catastrophic rise in attacks by Sunni Muslims against Shias and Ahmadis primarily, but also between various Sunni denominations as well. In truth, no one is safe.
Equally disturbing is the escalating tide of attacks since the mid-1980s by mainstream Sunni Muslims against Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and other non-Muslims. A basic review of Pakistan’s history shows that prior to the 1974 amendment to the constitution declaring Ahmadis non-Muslims and before the 1984 enactment of Ordinance XX, there were only sporadic eruptions of violence against Ahmadis, Shias, Christians, Hindus, and others.
In its 2011 annual report, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) stated: “There was a direct link between the rise of the Taliban and the suppression and oppression of the minorities and of all those whose beliefs differed with those of the extremists who dared to expose hatred and violence in the name of religion. . . . It is obvious that the mere charge of blasphemy, however preposterous it may be, is now a conviction in itself.”
Now, as a direct result of these blasphemy laws, hardly a day goes by without another shocking news story from Pakistan about Islamist militants or Muslim vigilantes responsible for stonings, beheadings, attacks on girls’ schools, the burning down of Christian churches and neighborhoods, and the targeted shootings of religious minorities and people like Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti who expressed sympathy or support for them.
The common denominator in all these atrocities and violations of fundamental human rights is twofold: one element stems from the breakdown of the Rule of Law caused by lax, nonexistent or selective enforcement of civil and criminal laws. The other element, ironically, evolves from just the opposite—the sanctioning by the very laws and constitution of Pakistan of vigilantism and religiously motivated hate crimes.
A paraphrase of the famous quote by Nazi-era German Protestant pastor Martin Niemoeller is tragically applicable to the present climate of religious intolerance and persecution in Pakistan:
“First they came for the Ahmadis, but I did not speak up because I was not an Ahmadi. . . Then they came for the Shias, but I did not speak up because I was not a Shia. . . Then they came for the Hindus, but I did not speak up because I was not a Hindu. . . Then they came for the Christians, but I did not speak up because I was not a Christian. . . When they came for me, there was no one left to speak up.”
3 Note: “Qadiani” and “Lahori” are used to refer to two separate groups calling themselves Ahmadis. The Qadiani group is the original community founded by Mitza Ghulam Ahmad in 1889 in Qadian, India. The Lahori group is one that split off from the original in 1914, six years after the death of the founder in 1908. They are called “Lahoris” because they relocated to Lahore, India in 1914 (Lahore is now in Pakistan, following the Partition of India in 1947, which created Pakistan as a Muslim country). The present membership of the Qadian group numbers in the tens of millions in more than 200 countries, while the Lahore group numbers only in the tens of thousands (most are in Pakistan), with only a handful of foreign missions or mosques outside of Pakistan.
5 Forcing people to convert to Islam or being the aggressor in a war or act of hostility is forbidden in the Koran in numerous places, but most Muslims at the time of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad believed that these prohibitions were no longer valid and that Muslims were free to use violence to coerce people to accept Islam or to start wars. Ahmad came to correct these errors of belief, and he proved that no verses of the Koran were abrogated or invalid.
6 He also reminded Muslims of the saying of the prophet Muhammad that Muslims must be loyal to the country they live in, and that the Koran prohibits Muslims from creating disorder (terrorism) in the land.
7 Based on prophecies primarily in the books of Daniel and Revelation, which resulted in the creation of several “Second Coming” movements during the nineteenth century, the Russellites and Millerites being the most famous.
8 This idea that Jesus will return after 2,000 years and join with the main Mahdi in the end times comes from a very literalist reading of the Hadith.
9 Presidential address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947.