Following 2010 attacks on the Ahmadi community in Lahore that left 80 dead, Karachi-based freelance journalist Huma Yusuf argues that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws run contrary to its founding spirit

Karachi, Pakistan - Sadly, the recent violence against the Ahmadi community, which left 80 worshippers dead at an Ahmadi mosque in Lahore, is not a new phenomenon. Religious minorities in Pakistan – particularly Ahmadis, Christians, Shi’ites and Hindus – have been increasingly persecuted in Pakistan in recent decades. Their rights are routinely violated on the premise that they are non-Muslims and therefore second-class citizens. 

According to its constitution, Pakistan’s government and any changes to the constitution must comply with Islamic tenets. 

In 1974, under pressure from religious political parties, former President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto introduced a constitutional amendment that declared Ahmadis to be non-Muslims on the basis of ideological differences on theological issues. For instance, Ahmadis regard their 19th century founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as a prophet, whereas Muslims affirm the Prophet Muhammad as the last prophet. This act set a precedent for constitutionally stripping Pakistan’s religious minorities of their rights to freedom of belief and expression. 

During military dictator General Zia ul Haq’s reign from 1977 to 1988, further anti-minority constitutional changes were introduced. In 1982, additions to the Pakistan Penal Code made committing blasphemy a penal offence and anyone found to be critical of the Prophet Muhammad or disrespectful towards the Qur’an could now face a jail term or, thanks to a 1986 amendment, the death penalty. 

Not surprisingly, these provisions – or “blasphemy laws”, as they are commonly known – have facilitated discrimination against religious minorities over the years. Human rights groups have routinely documented how anti-blasphemy legislation has been exploited by some members of Pakistan’s Sunni majority to justify censorship, settle personal vendettas and even effect land grabs – with Muslims accusing non-Muslim land owners of blasphemy. 

In a more troubling trend, religious political parties and extremist groups – emboldened by the constitutional decision to punish blasphemers with the death penalty – have been known to take the law into their own hand when allegations of blasphemy circulate. As recently as July 2009, dozens of members of Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP), a banned sectarian organisation, torched homes in the Christian community in Gojra, a city in the province of Punjab, leaving seven dead. The SSP was able to rally the mob within a matter of hours by falsely alleging that a Christian had defiled the Qur’an during a wedding ceremony. 

Law-enforcement officers have consistently failed to stem violence against minorities. High-ranking police officials have since been arrested for standing idly by while the SSP broadcast anti-Christian propaganda from mosque loudspeakers in Gojra before the riots. And the Punjab police have been lambasted for failing to provide adequate security in the wake of the Lahore attacks against Ahmadis. 

What is more troubling, however, is that successive democratically elected governments have failed to respond to the nationwide persecution of minorities. Since coming to power in 2008, the current Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government has announced on three occasions that the blasphemy laws will be reformed. It was only after the Lahore attacks against Ahmadis that PPP politicians began drafting legislation that called for harsh punitive measures against those who accuse others of blasphemy without sound proof. Though welcome, such legislation is a disappointing reminder that more radical changes to the constitution, which are needed, will not be effected in the foreseeable future. 

Pakistan’s laws were not always meant to be this way. 

Soon after the country’s partition from India in 1947, its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, announced his vision for a secular Pakistan: “In course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense – because that is the personal faith of each individual – but in the political sense as citizens of the State.” 

Justices Muhammad Munir and M.R. Kiyani reiterated this vision in 1953. In the wake of the first agitations against the Ahmadi community in Lahore in which their members became the victims of rioting, they issued a landmark report warning against bringing religious matters into the realm of the state and law. 

The consequences of failing to heed this advice over the years are now apparent: anti-minority sentiment is widespread, deep-seated and state-sanctioned. 

It is essential that the Pakistan government repeal the blasphemy laws as a first step towards truly protecting the rights of religious minorities. A complete overhaul of the national educational curriculum, which was tampered with during the Zia years to perpetuate misconceptions about minority beliefs and foster a culture of discrimination, is then needed to address the growing intolerance of Pakistani society.

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* Huma Yusuf is a freelance journalist in Karachi, Pakistan. This article is part of a series on Islamic law and non-Muslim minorities written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

NOTE:  The article above is also available in Indonesian, French, Urdu, and Arabic.  See the accompanying link for the Common Ground News Service.