The Blog

Blasphemy in Pakistan

The law that breeds terror.

12:00 AM, Apr 22, 2008 • By BENEDICT ROGERS and JOSEPH LOCONTE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts


A U.S. GOVERNMENT REPORT has faulted the Bush administration for failing to develop a comprehensive plan to combat terrorism in Pakistan's tribal areas, where al Qaeda has established a safe haven. The report by the Government Accounting Office, released last week, charged the administration with relying too much on Pakistan's military and neglecting "the underlying causes" of terrorism in the region. U.S. Rep. Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, complained that "this lack of foresight is harming U.S. national security."

Whatever the merits of the GAO study, it suffers from its own form of myopia. The report completely ignores a crucial ingredient of terrorist breeding grounds in Pakistan--the nation's blasphemy laws. This oppressive legal regime, a trademark of militant Islam, has helped foment a culture of intolerance and extremism for over twenty years. It represents one of the most significant obstacles to meaningful democratic reform and long-term stability. It must be dismantled.

True, there are no shortage of problems awaiting Pakistan's new prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gillani, and his secular-leaning Pakistan People's Party (PPP). The forces of religious extremism, though weakened in the recent general elections, remain potent. Gillani has pledged to make fighting terrorism a top priority, yet it's unclear whether Pakistan's military supports him. He must restore the integrity of the judiciary and root out corruption. And he needs to figure out what to do about President Pervez Musharraf, unpopular and battered but still a presence in national politics.

Yet the enduring outrage of Pakistan's blasphemy laws must be confronted. Introduced by the dictator Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s, the laws offer no precise definition of the crime and require no proof of intent or standards of evidence. The mere accusation of saying or writing something deemed insulting to the Prophet Muhammad or the Koran is enough to be arrested and imprisoned. Indeed, even injuring the "religious feelings" of individual citizens is prohibited. Since 1986, at least 892 persons have been accused of blasphemy--and in virtually every instance the charges were completely fabricated.

The corrupt dynamic of this system is not hard to understand. Blasphemy allegations are used by extremists to target religious minorities--including Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Ahmadis--and by ordinary Muslims to settle personal scores against fellow believers. Through bribery or intimidation, low-ranking police officials are enlisted to file false charges. In this sense, Pakistan's attempt to proscribe "unorthodox" religious speech repeats the injustices of Christian blasphemy and heresy codes of an earlier era. It invites the same hatreds and betrayals, the same perversion of religion to mask the will to dominate. "Is there in all history an instance of so gross and confident a mockery of God and the world as this?" complained Protestant thinker Philip van Limborch, a friend of John Locke, in his History of the Inquisition. "The tender mercies of these wretches are cruelty."

Political and religious reformers we've spoken with confirm reports from leading human-rights organizations about the chain of events triggered by these allegations. Once arrested, the accused are often kept in solitary confinement, shackled, and tortured. Some are killed. Even if acquitted, they live the rest of their lives afraid of being hunted down. (Over two dozen people have been murdered inside or outside of prison in recent years.) Lawyers and human-rights activists involved in their defence face intimidation and death threats. Meanwhile, there are frequent attacks on houses of worship, leading to dozens of deaths each year. "Before this law was introduced we had no cases of blasphemy," explains I.A. Rehman, director of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission. "This is a law which creates offences rather than preventing them."

Repealing the nation's blasphemy laws, however, will not be easy. It will outrage not only the religious extremists, but also many Islamists in the government. Gillani could encounter opposition from members of his political coalition, including former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who tried to incorporate shari'a law into the constitution and has been accused of seeking to turn Pakistan into a theocratic state. Just before her assassination, Benazir Bhutto warned of the growing "Talibanization and Balkanization" of Pakistani society under Musharraf's rule--thanks in part to his willingness to appease extremists even as he touted his credentials as a progressive and a U.S. ally in the war on terror.