Out of fear?

January 26, 2020

The resolutions passed by the National Assembly and the Punjab Assembly to make blasphemy laws stricter raise some serious questions

The year 2020 began in the Punjab Assembly with the passage of a resolution to make country’s blasphemy laws more strict and follow a Saudi Arabia-like model of filtering online content to intercept blasphemous material.

Through a unanimous resolution, the Punjab Assembly in the first week of this month, urged the federal government to make new or improve existing laws to severely punish those committing blasphemy. The resolution was moved by Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-i-Azam’s Provincial Minister from Chakwal Hafiz Ammar Yasir.

The resolution stated, “The existing (anti) blasphemy laws in the country had a weak implementation and lack enforcement in letter and spirit, allowing some people to commit blasphemy in the garb of freedom of expression and hurt feelings of Muslims…Therefore, this house demands the immediate establishment of a Saudi Arabia-like central filtration and screening system to prevent blasphemous content”.

The resolution demands that the respective authorities must ban and confiscate books containing blasphemous material. It also stresses that the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 and Pakistan Penal Code Sections regarding blasphemy must be revised to introduce stricter sentences. “Certain blasphemers are uploading blasphemous material on social media platforms in the name of freedom of speech and they must be dealt with iron hands under the law,” the resolution demanded.

Soon after the resolution was passed, Law Minister Muhammad Basharat Raja assured the house that effective steps will be taken to check the publication of blasphemous content. It was decided that the matter will be brought to the attention of the Anti-Terrorism Department, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, Special Branch and other relevant departments. A standing committee decided to ban books — Lesley Hazleton’s The First Muslim and After the Prophet and Mazharul Haq’s History of Islam — and an Ahmadi newspaper Al-fazl.

The National Assembly was quick to follow suit. A week after the Punjab Assembly had passed the resolution, the lower house adopted a resolution to condemn all blasphemous content. Federal Minister for Housing and Works, Chaudhary Tariq Bashir Cheema, moved the resolution to recommend a ban on import, publication, distribution and sale of material containing blasphemous content. The speaker of the house referred the matter to the Standing Committee on Religious Affairs and Inter-Faith Harmony.

“They [MPs] want more and more blasphemy cases to strengthen their religious card,” says human rights activist I.A. Rehman.

There has been some criticism of the resolutions. It has been pointed out that the laws are already being misused to advance vested interests, settle personal scores and persecute religious minorities. A blasphemer can already be punished with life in prison or death. What more can be done to make the laws stricter?

Such resolutions are apparently passed to please a certain constituency. “They [parliamentarians] want more and more blasphemy cases to strengthen their religious card,” says human rights activist I.A. Rehman. “Particularly, after the introduction of cybercrime law, we have seen the number of blasphemy complaints rise.”

“If the ruling coalition is really serious in addressing blasphemy laws, then a strong resolution should have come from the federal and provincial law ministers, not individual legislators,” says human rights defender Tahira Abdullah.

“The proposed legislation needs to be unambiguous in its objective to prevent serious injustice over false allegations for vested interests and personal enmities. The law also needs to address the related issue of vigilante mob killings of both the accused and their lawyers; severe penalties are needed for complainants filing false blasphemy allegations (knowing they carry the death penalty),” she urges.

She maintains that blasphemy-related laws were illegally promulgated by military dictator Ziaul Haq. “These laws were not enacted by an elected parliament. Hence, they do not pass the test of constitutionality or law or justice,” she says. She says unless these resolutions are converted into strongly-worded draft bills it would be futile to speculate on their potential impact.

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Out of fear? NA, PA resolutions to make blasphemy laws stricter raise questions