Claims by some of Pakistan’s hardline religious leaders that the media and NGOs are using the Rimsha Masih case to undermine Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, focuses the world’s attention on the use of Islam as a weapon of intellectual terror.
Delegates to the twenty-fifth Khatme Nabuwat (End of Prophethood) Conference in Lahore on Monday dug deeper into their mental bunkers, as Muslim journalists and intellectuals discussed their despair with Lapido.
Masih, an 11-year old girl with Downs Syndrome living on the outskirts of the capital Islamabad, was released from prison in an armoured car on Friday 7 September, and taken to a secret location for her own safety. It had emerged that the local cleric who had accused her of blasphemy - burning the Quran - was himself allegedly spotted contaminating the evidence by planting fresh pages of the Quran on her.
According to Najam Sethi, Editor-in-Chief of the Friday Times and anchor of the Geo TV show Aapas ki Baat, ‘The minute you begin to question the orthodoxy, whether from within or outside their discourse, you are shunned.’
Just to criticize these draconian laws, the worst of which, defaming the Prophet, carries the mandatory death sentence, has become tantamount to criticizing Islam itself, it appears.
Even chatting about an aspect of Islam can lead to arrest on a charge of blasphemy, as in the case of a so-far unnamed father-of-two who was arrested in Chakwal two weeks ago simply for discussing marriage rights in Islam.
Pakistan’s constitution has articles and clauses that allow freedom of speech, and the free practice of religion by minorities who number around five percent of the population.
However, in Pakistan today the dominant discourse belongs to extreme right-wing Sunni orthodoxy, which seems largely beyond mediation or law.
Many ordinary folk resort to the use of religious terminology in an attempt to make their point safely.
As lawyer Saroop Ijaz put it, ‘When a “moderate” religious cleric or view is adopted by the liberals as a model of tolerance, then we have already conceded to an “extreme” as a starting point.
‘We never write on the issue of blasphemy in religious terms, as in we never say whether the laws are according to Islamic teachings or not,’ says Editor Badar Alam about his monthly magazine The Herald, which has often provoked ire from rightwing elements. ‘We base our stories and analyses on arguments that revolve around human rights, minority rights, the law and the constitution.’
According to I. A. Rehman, the director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, ‘The religious argument is prevalent on many channels, and has been left to the orthodoxy.
‘Anybody who gives a liberal interpretation of Islam cannot live in Pakistan.’
Those who criticize the so-called ‘orthodox’ religious element in any way, be it a comment on the release of a terrorist organisation’s leader or demands for the amendment of the frequently abused blasphemy laws, are either threatened or summarily killed.
Badar Alam recalls, ‘In early 2011, when Salman Taseer was killed [by his own bodyguard for proposing reform ], the atmosphere was so negative for free speech on the issue that many public venues like the Karachi Press Club refused to allow the holding of a memorial reference for the slain governor at its premises.
‘Even the strongest opponents of these laws are always very careful in how they put forward their demands for the repeal or the reform of the law.’
Dr. Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, professor at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad believes that the blasphemy laws are actually not the problem, which lies in the socialization of the people and how the state is constituted.
The underlying issues are rooted in Objectives Resolution of 1949, which specifically called for Pakistan to be an Islamic State, and required that all laws favoured the teachings of Islam and its Prophet.
The religious right in the country often argue that the blasphemy laws were passed in the name of Islam by General Zia-ul-Haq and therefore cannot be repealed.
This lack of an ability to differentiate secular from sacred, with the secular being made subject to the absolutist requirements of one particular take on religion, has the emotional and intellectual life of the nation in increasingly deadly lock-down.
‘You need to look at the educational system, what ideas proliferate through the media, which frames the narrative,’ Aasim Sajjad Akhtar claims.
‘When talking about educational institutions we are not just talking about madrassas, which is the obvious, but also public schools, where children are also taught about jihad.’
Akhtar is optimistic but says change will not happen overnight. A ‘generation shift’ may renew the debate about Islam.
Meanwhile the right have the streets and the media in an iron grip, and ‘liberals’ cannot seem to agree even among themselves, or offer each other protection when threatened.
‘If you see the people who conduct these discussions in the media, you will see it is not a discourse but a harangue,’ says Najam Sethi.
According to I. A. Rehman, ‘The forces that can keep a pluralistic society together are not strong enough. This is a political debate not a religious one, and it needs to be handled on a political level.’
However, even if the voices that oppose the prevalent discourse are few and far between, at least they exist.
The sheer volume of media outlets allows a range of opinions to be heard, unlike in most other Muslim countries.
The fact that Rimsha Masih was released on bail after a huge national and international uproar makes this a landmark case.
Those who dissent may not agree amongst themselves, but the fact that they oppose orthodoxy at all generates hope. A united voice may expand the fragile niche of ideological opposition.
NO CONSENSUS ON BLASPHEMY IN ISLAM
To support repeal of blasphemy laws is seen by many - but not all - Muslim clerics as undermining their authority. The Khatame Nabuwat Movement is a loosely structured conglomerate of orthodox (Sunni) Muslims, who have been campaigning for decades to ensure nothing that is in their view blasphemous is said, preached or written about Prophet Mohammed. It was their violent campaign in the early 1970s that caused the government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the parliament to amend the constitution to declare Ahmadis as non-Muslims. Even today they draw their strength from the 'success' of that campaign. More recently they have expanded their mission and have been opposing the demand by liberal Muslims to repeal or amend the controversial blasphemy law.
There are other powerful voices however, who deny that blasphemy was ever intended as liable to punishment by the Prophet.