Our stance on blasphemy laws

May 23, 2021

Prime Minister Khan has linked the narrative of Islamophobia to the concept of blasphemy that is indefensible on several counts

All believers prefer to follow the light shone by the system of belief they’re exposed to; this does not mean that they resent other people’s beliefs. In fact, subscribing to a religion amongst many makes other religions relevant as well. Moreover, besides the unique elements, the inter-relation between different systems of belief is historical and logical. Therefore, maintaining prejudice against the rest of the systems, being phobic or fearful of others, without a rational threat, and should be seen a rare sickness.

Yet, some enthusiasts are found routinely agitating over one set of victims and instances, while ignoring such incidence where people of different religious identities are found in the same roles.

A majority of people live peacefully with their religious differences; sharing workplaces and neighbourhoods – in some cases even the same roof; sometimes there are interfaith marriages. If not for this practical and conceptual tolerance of theirs, why would there be a relative peace and co-existence in most parts of the world. How would the world have such a rich religious diversity?

On the other hand, we have also seen strife and politics around religious identity growing over the decades. Therefore, efforts have been afoot to understand and respond to crises emerging from the tensions involving religious identity. Researchers working with PEW Research Forum have measured religion-based social hostility occurring alongside the state-imposed restrictions on mainly the minority religions, but ultimately leading to distressing outcomes for everyone. This global survey has found a connection between the hostilities and restrictions.

Among the 25 most populous countries in 2018, India, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and Russia had the highest overall levels of both government restrictions and social hostility involving religion.

Since the great debates on clash of civilisations followed by UN-sponsored Dialogue between Civilisation and Cultures, in 1996, countries and international forums have become increasingly responsive to this global issue. On the domestic front, the governments have created inclusive processing, monitoring and complaint mechanisms. People with socially marginalised identities and religious backgrounds have been elected to the highest positions in local governments, parliaments and even United Nations.

Taking the human rights approach, several countries have established the offices of Special Envoys and Ambassadors at Large on freedom of religion or belief in the past few years. These include Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

Dr Ahmed Shaheed has worked tirelessly to promote and protect rights under freedom of religion or belief under his mandate as UN Special Rapporteur as successor to Asma Jahangir. The European Union issued specific guidelines on freedom of religion and belief in 2013. These mandated its organs and offices all over the world to promote and protects these rights.

In contrast, the foreign policy of Pakistan does not appear to be cognizant of, or taking advantage of an international focus on freedoms in relation to religion – primarily because the narrative that we’ve adopted is based on religious partiality and is not equality or rights centric. Secondly, as Pakistan fails to address the religious intolerance at home, our official narrative does not create any policy leverage for the country, hence the policymakers rely on denying facts, defying international oversight and deflecting allegations by critics; mostly local human rights defenders and civil society organisations.

At the implementation level, a cat-and-mouse fight continues between actors in foreign and domestic policies, each finding faults with its counterparts. In fact, both are partly right when speaking about the other.

To the extent of framing a policy narrative, Prime Minster Imran Khan has chosen the term Islamophobia as the central narrative. His advocacy for fair treatment of Muslims and their faith is for the other countries. The term Islamophobia is under-defined and lacks precision as to whether this refers to hatred against a violent political approach or Islamic-ness. Both cultural divergences and convergences will make it difficult to bring conclusive evidence.

Despite the fact that the premise of victimisation has been used earlier, Prime Minister Khan has linked the narrative of Islamophobia to the concept of blasphemy. This is indefensible on several counts. The reality at home, presents a strong contrast, to start with.

The annual report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, quoting from official data, states that at least 586 persons were booked on charges of blasphemy in 2020. This appears to be the highest number of victims in a year in Pakistan but also a record number in the world. Does this situation provide an argument to the prime minister to convince other countries on introducing an international blasphemy law? After all the accusers and majority of the accused among 586 were Muslims, mostly in the Punjab province. Why would a law claiming to be sensitive to respect of holy personage and holy articles produce so many victims involving false allegations? Has the government bothered to count the actual tally over the past three decades since the law has been in place?

The more one digs into the data related to hate crimes linked to religion in Pakistan, the more baffled one gets. How and why the killing, maiming and subjugation of citizens of Pakistan has enjoyed impunity? Mapping acts of omission and commission on part of the government will yield similar overtures of denial of facts and reliance on rhetoric in the past.

On the foreign policy front, Pakistan as representative of the OIC has presented and got approved a resolution on defamation of religion(s). It sought to address the issue of Islamophobia and it was passed 12 times between 1999 and 2011 at UN General Assembly, Human Rights Commission and Council as well as Durban Conference on Racism and Xenophobia in 2001.

This repeated passing of the resolution was stopped after two high profile assassinations in 2011; Governor Salmaan Taseer and Minister Shahbaz Bhatti. The countries including OIC members that had sympathised earlier, consequentially realised that Pakistan was trying to introduce an international blasphemy law, a prototype of the one existing in the country. The consequences of the legislation were manifest.

This year the UN Human Rights Council passed Resolution 16/18 on combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatisation of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against, persons based on religion or belief, carried forward in resolution 22/31 in 2012. The Rabat process led by UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights prepared a plan of action that reiterated the position of Human Rights Committee in document: General Comments 34:

“Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant, except in the specific circumstances envisaged in Article 20, Paragraph 2, of the Covenant. Such prohibitions must also comply with the strict requirements of Article 19, Paragraph 3, as well as such Articles as 2, 5, 17, 18 and 26 of the ICCPR. Thus, for instance, it would be impermissible for any such laws to discriminate in favour of or against one or certain religions or belief systems, or their adherents over another, or religious believers over non-believers. Nor would it be permissible for such prohibitions to be used to prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith” (Para 48).

Therefore, since 2013 the international law calls for a global review and repeal of blasphemy laws.

The author is a researcher and freelance journalist. He can be reached at jacobpete@gmail.com  

Our stance on blasphemy laws