Holier than thou

In South Asia on 14. December 2010 at 11:06

Since Pakistan’s inception its wealthy aristocratic yet moderate leadership derived away from its founders principles of a secular nation for Muslims and moved closer to an Islamic state. Three constitutions, several amendments and thousands of executive ordinances later the constitution of today has ended up being a tool for the powerful against the weaker citizen. Most damaging has been the so called blasphemy laws which were included in the constitution after serious pressure against the government in the 50s and 70s by religious groupings and with the ascension of the pietistic General Zia ul-Haq on the presidential slot. British inherited Penal Code was thus amended with articles and clauses which discriminates its citizens and makes them subject to harassment and persecution.

Pakistan Penal Codes chapter 15 deals with the offences relating to religion. Pakistan inherited article 295 of this chapter from the British which made it clear not to tolerate any damage or destruction of any house of worship. Be it Mosques, Churches, Mandirs or Temples. This article is actually what the blasphemy law should be all about; to punish those who promote intolerance and hate. In Pakistan the minorities suffered and still suffer the denigration of their holy places. Right from the creation of Pakistan in 1947, Hindus and Sikhs suffered damage to their lives, property and their holy sites (the case was similar in Hindu/Sikh dominated areas in India). Later on during the 50s and onwards the Ahmadi sect suffered pogroms and denigration of their Mosques. And at present, with the US led operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, Christians face tuff times. Still not any of the big initiative takers who promote violence has been put on trial and jammed behind bars. The article has simply not been used because culprits are influential.

The case is quite the opposite with the other articles in this chapter. Article 295-A regulates the “…acts intended to outrage religious feelings…”. What these acts are is not mentioned and therefore what outrages religious feelings are not easy to tell. With such a vague article women like Asia Noreen are not safe, neither in jail or at home. Asia Noreen was accused of denigrating the prophet Mohammad according to a local cleric who had heard the rumour from some co-workers of Miss Noreen. Following the reactions of the cleric the police had to register a case against the woman (Article 295-C Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet).

Recently she received a death sentence from a district court following which the matter has been taken up to the provincial High Court. The higher courts often overrule the local courts because the latter are subject to threats and harassment from the fanatic clergy. Police officers at local level who do not cooperate are also threatened. These threats are not empty threats. Thereby even when higher courts overrule death sentences the victim in this case is not safe at home and is often forced to flee the hometown or even the country if not killed. Such is with Asia Noreen she is behind bars because of the draconian blasphemy law and a fanatic clergy with supporters who think they are fighting for the honour of their prophet. One Jamaat-e-Islami affiliated cleric in Peshawar even promised a bounty of 500.000 Rupees to kill Miss Noreen. He even asked the Taliban (TTP) not to attack civilians and rather kill persons accused of blasphemy. With such headlines, Land of the Pure is not living up to the meaning of its name.

The clergy in this case, consists of all the major school of thoughts represented in the nation. It is however to be noted that article 298-A hits the nations Shia minority which consists up to 20 % of the population, despite the fact that Shia Muslims were frontrunners in the Pakistan movement. These articles were included during the mid and late 80s was a result of the increasing influence of reactionary groups represented by Jamaat-e-Islami and its founder Maulana Maudoodi. The pressure from this and other religious groups on successive governments led to the victimisation of Ahmadis in the Pakistani constitution (second amendment of 1974 and ordinance XX). Elements still exist in the Sunni and Shia camps who label each others as deviants and much of sectarian violence have erupted from hate speeches by influential clerics who belong to these groupings. The violence against Shia imambargahs and Sunni shrines during 90s and till date is a clear proof in this case. It is to be noted that about 60 % of the victims of blasphemy laws are Muslims by faith, and the intention behind such a case is often a material dispute.

Still these clerics and their groupings manage to unite against smaller Islamic sects who are considered non-Muslims by theology and constitution in addition to Christians, Hindus, Parsis and Sikhs. During the recent floods in Pakistan a whole Hindu village was forced to flee from a enraged mob from northern Sindh because a Hindu boy used a spring from a local mosque to quench his thirst. Even Sufi clerics who have been in staunch opposition to terrorist groups are found in the frontline to prove their faith and prove their devotion to the prophet by promoting violence. One can wonder if it does help to say that Islam does not preach hate when its preachers exactly do the opposite. Do the many traditions of the prophet which tell of tolerant attitude fall to deaf ears? Do not these clerics qualify to be put on trial according to articles 295 and 295-A for destroying religious place of worship and deliberately insult the religion of the citizens of Pakistan?

The reason they are not prosecuted is because of their powerful friends and allies. Pakistan has become a social and religious conservative nation where religious organisations have built stronger control over the masses. For each politician with ambition to win a seat to the national assembly, the candidate needs the blessing of one or more religious leaders. And as we know the cynical nature of human being, these politicians do not even shun terror organisations in order to get elected. Rana Sanaullah, the law minister of Punjab province is known for his open campaign with Sippah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), a terror group which have many innocent lives on its records. This is one case among several hundred others. Surely to some degree the authorities do react, as was the case with the 2009 arson of 9 Christians in Gojra village allegedly led by SPP. But in many cases the political link or the main responsible for the violence are often set free. Even if jailed they are freed just to please the media and the enraged population.

A third group is the law and order authorities represented by the Police, Lawyers and Judges. At local level they suffer threats, but some of these personnel do share the violent thuggish mentality of the igniters of violence and think they are on a divine mission. Such was the case with a Christian who was beaten up because he by mistake spit on a Mosque. Being shifted to a hospital the man was killed by the very same police constable who was supposed to protect him. Initially, the police and the judges do their work, they have to follow the laws and at present blasphemy laws are to be followed, but sane logic and reason has not been banned and being fellow human beings these personnel should be disciplined by their superiors for the ignorant culture in their ranks.

There are also some private citizens who in order to win personal benefit put false allegations on their bosses, landlords, servants, relatives and even doctors. And if it happens that a local cleric catches such rumours hell breaks loose for the poor victim. Recently a Ismaili doctor Naushad Valiyani from Hyderabad was arrested following a complaint by a medical representative who visited the clinic. Mr Valiyanis alleged crime was to throw the medical representatives business card containing his full name, Mohammad Faizan, in a dustbin. Since his name included the prophet’s name it became a blasphemy to throw the card as trash. Police actually did register a case on this and put the doctor behind bars. The question is simple for such cases: Are we savages?

These days, some influential religious groupings have formed a umbrella group to launch a campaign against the amendment of blasphemy laws. This in reaction to human right activist’s long fight to repeal these laws. The current incompetent government gives mixed signals these days and neither furious clerics nor tired activists know what the authorities stand is on this case. Previous dictator Musharraf was personally a moderate man, had to some degree success with amending some offensive laws, but had to compromise himself with the religious parties in order to stay in power. The current government seems to be in love with power just as its predecessor. But in the end, the call for a amendment of blasphemy laws is a necessity, yet merely a amendment or repeal will not end persecution of minorities. For that, the society, media and most of all clerics and political leaders have to be forced to promote tolerance. Activists need to scream louder and regular citizen’s needs to stand up for their neighbours, co-workers and friends who are targeted simply because of greed and intolerance. Such values are not the property of the western world, these are found in Islam as well, and the challenge will be to use the right glasses to look for them.

In a radio transmission in 1948 to the people of the United States the founder of Pakistan said: “In any case Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic State to be ruled by priests with a divine mission. We have many non-Muslims –Hindus, Christians and Parsis – but they are all Pakistanis. They will enjoy the same rights and privileges as any other citizens and will play their rightful part in the affairs of Pakistan”. Are the feelings of any citizen hit by these words? Will there be bounty on Mr Jinnah’s head for such a speech? Will we stand up for our minorities? And most of all, will we stop pretending to have this Holier than thou mentality?


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