By Umar Cheema
ISLAMABAD: Religious scholars and lawyers, who have unequivocally supported the blasphemy law in its existing shape, said that similar laws that carry capital punishment for blasphemers are being practised in hardly five Islamic countries out of 54.
All of those interviewed affirmed such laws exist at least in two Islamic countries: Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, but were not certain of the exact number of countries governed by such stringent legislation as one of them said it is also being practised in Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan.
One religious scholar, explaining the absence of such laws in other Islamic countries, said it was due to the fact that these countries were set up on the basis of nationalism, not on ideological grounds like Pakistan.
Ibtisma Elahi Zaheer, secretary general of Jama't Ahl-e-Hadith Pakistan, Ismail Qureshi Advocate and Rao Abdul Raheem, the counsel of Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Governor Salman Taseer, were interviewed for the purpose. Sahibzada Fazl Karim, a leading figure of Tuhaffaz-e-Namoos-e-Risalat, couldn't be reached for his version in this respect.
Ibtisam affirmed the presence of such laws in Saudi Arabia but was not certain about their existence in Afghanistan under the new Constitution, though it was practised there in the past. Asked why the stringent legislation was not enacted in other Muslim countries, Ibtisam said majority of the countries in the Islamic bloc were formed on the basis of nationalism hence they didn't form such strict laws.
Another prominent scholar on the issue interviewed was Ismail Qureshi Advocate, who took the blasphemy law to the Sharia Court that resulted in the ruling that blasphemer would be awarded death sentence, deleting the option of life imprisonment, told The News that blasphemy law requiring death sentence for the offender, exists in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Though he mentioned UAE in the list of such countries, he was not certain whether it is practised there.
A study of Egyptian Constitution however found that the minimum sentence for such an offender is six months and maximum five years. Article 98(f) of the Penal Code of Egyptian Constitution, as amended by Law 147/2006 states the penalty for blasphemy and similar crimes states: "Confinement for a period of not less than six months and not exceeding five years, or a fine of not less than five hundred pounds and not exceeding one thousand pounds shall be the penalty inflicted on whoever makes use of religion in propagating, either by words, in writing, or in any other means, extreme ideas for the purpose of inciting strife, ridiculing or insulting a heavenly religion or a sect following it, or damaging national unity."
As regards Afghanistan, the issues relating to blasphemy are governed by Sharia permitting capital punishment for such an offender.
Besides Egypt and UAE, there are several other Muslim countries that have blasphemy laws but no capital punishment for the offenders. For example, Algeria was the only country other than Pakistan that had moved the United Nations for legislation on blasphemous acts, but its Constitution doesn't permit death sentence for blasphemers. This country's law prohibits blasphemy using legislation rather than applying Sharia laws. The penalty for blasphemy may be imprisonment as well as a fine.
Likewise, in Jordan, the punishment for this crime is imprisonment, not death sentence. For example, Jihad Momani, a Jordanian journalist, published three of the cartoons in the Shihan weekly, along with an editorial calling on Muslims to be reasonable. He was fired from job and arrested later on but was not awarded capital punishment.
In Malaysia, the Constitution's sections 295-298A of the Penal Code punish offences against all religions with up to three years in prison or a fine of around US$1,000. Indonesian Constitution's section 156(a) of the Criminal Code prohibits conduct that affronts a "recognised religion" (identified as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Roman Catholicism or Protestantism). But this largest Islamic country doesn't have capital punishment as sentence for the blasphemer but imprisonment up to five years as well as fine. Analysts say if someone commits blasphemy in writing and persistently owns his writing that person must be punished under the law.