I have written numerous posts concerning the utilisation of the Blasphemy law across many Islamic countries. Section 295 of Pakistan’s Penal Code has enshrined blasphemy, whereby defiling or defaming the Quran and/or Muhammad is deeply illegal. In extreme cases it carries a death sentence. Aside from the legal ramifications which render many of the accused languishing in prison – some of which await the death penalty – the social consequences are less publicised and therefore widely unknown to the wider world.
For those accused of blasphemy yet never imprisoned, for those released from detention – the mark of blasphemy continues to taint and follow them within their local communities. All too often we hear of instances where those accused of blasphemy are set upon by local, incensed mobs, beaten and in extreme cases murdered. Regular readers of this blog are already very aware of a few case examples. Families of the accused are hardly guaranteed their safety. I immediately think of Asia Bibi’s family who were forced to flee their home in the Punjab province of Pakistan upon her arrest in 2009. In 2010 the BBC reported on the plight of the Bibi family, referring to Asia’s husband – Ashiq Masih – as ‘having the look of a hunted man, gaunt, anxious and exhausted’.
Hunted. Imagery of petrified prey scurrying away from predators on the prowl spring to mind. The Bibis are one example of a family tainted by blasphemy and constant flight is the consequence. I have often wondered which would be the lesser torment – to be caged inside a Pakistani cell at the disposal of prison guards and other detainees or to be ‘free’ at the mercy of local communities who take it upon themselves to avenge so-called blasphemy charges and accusations. Either way neither option constitutes freedom. This rising issue of blasphemy ensnares and entraps those accused.
Christians are targeted above any other religious minority group in Pakistan. Although 2% of the population are Christian, they account for 33% of those charged with blasphemy according to a detailed research report conducted by International Christian Concern. This clearly shows a disproportionate discrimination toward the Christian minority. Reading into the ICC’s special report on blasphemy cases in Pakistan, I discovered that 171 Christians have been accused of blasphemy since the law was enacted in 1986, 157 from the Punjab Province, 12 from Sindh and 2 from Kyber Paktunkhawa. As attacks on Christians have increased steadily over the decade, I can’t help but notice the totalitarian element to blasphemy. Given that the blasphemy law is increasingly being utilised to settle personal scores and vendettas it is obvious that in these instances, Christians are being discriminated against simply because of who they are as opposed to what they supposedly do.
One case study is the example of Adnan Masih, originally from Lahore and who was accused of insulting Islam’s prophet Muhammad in 2013. He continues to be imprisoned. On 7 October 2013 Adnan replaced his brother at the Diamond Glass store and had spotted a book written by the leader of fanatical group Jamat-ul-Dawa entitled ‘I asked the Bible why Qurans were burnt’. Having noting biased religious points of view against Christianity in the book he penned corrections. His colleague subsequently filed a report against Masih at a local police station and he was eventually arrested after the targeting of his family members forced him out of hiding.
Blasphemy is indeed contentious. The Federal Sharia Court issued an order in 2013 to ‘reform’ the blasphemy law, leaving many of the country’s Christians in increasing fear for their lives. December 2013 saw the FSC order Pakistan’s government to remove life imprisonment from the list of court punishments in dealing with blasphemy; thereby bolstering the death penalty for those charged under the penal code. It should be stated that the role of the FSC is to examine and ascertain whether the laws of the country are in accordance with Sharia. They do not have the Parliamentary prerogative of enforcing legislation.
Yet whilst the government has yet to implement the ruling of the FSC – if they ever intend to – it unmistakably places Christians in a sustained climate of heightened fear and uncertainty for the future of their faith in the country. There are no consequences for those levelling accusations of blasphemy and this impunity only furthers the manipulative use of this controversial law.
The legacy of blasphemy should never be undermined. International Christian Concern cites the example of ‘Asif’ who underwent a decade of separation from his family after he served 4 years of his blasphemy sentence in 2002. Upon his release, his fear of being recognised with his family and his desire to blur any connections with them forced him to live as a fugitive in order to ensure their safety. The families of those accused also carry the mark, a ‘legacy’ of blasphemy.
‘’Because people know I have been imprisoned for blasphemy, it is unsafe for me and my family to live together’’
(‘’Asif’’ – blasphemy victim)
To be tainted with blasphemy could well be the fate of any Christian in Pakistan. A fate initially leashed upon religious minorities in 1986 and one that shows no sign of slowing down, much less stopping.