We live in a political world. One in which every act, gesture, thought, has a place in the complex butterfly effect equation. Things are no longer what they seem and laws, set in place to protect and safeguard people, have taken on divine mandate oppressing the very people they set out to protect. But blasphemy is a tool of defiance, of open rebellion and is inherently political in nature. Which is why those who commit it are also punished politically. What is the way out, however, when the political machinations of blasphemy transmogrify into a tool of oppression. A means to suppress and subvert – not the heretics per se – but literally anyone.
So when a Muslim woman, who stands in court and professes her faith (Islam), is denied bail and put on trial for calling herself a prophet, one can safely conclude that this has political, extra-religious connotations and ramifications for the prosecution and the defendant. While lawlessness may be the norm in many parts of the country, the manacles of law in this case extend even to the mentally disabled. Last year, a woman school principal in hysterics tried explaining to the police that a local maulvi was trying to frame her in a blasphemy case because she was from an Islamic sect different from his, other news reports mention that she had demanded that the maulvis pay their children’s school fees. That woman underwent psychiatric tests (as she had become hysterical) and is still languishing in prison. This month a Christian couple from Gojra (the same town where a mob burnt 77 houses of a Christian colony in 2009) was sentenced to death for sending blasphemous text messages to a maulvi in the area. The defendants’ lawyer claimed that the husband-wife were illiterate and had lost their phone prior to the incident. Moreover the complainant had a feud with the family so the complaint was clearly mal-intentioned, he explained.
Even the most well-reasoned of arguments cannot stand before the fiery judgment of the religiously motivated.
When Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti were killed, the Pakistan Peoples Party led government tried to raise the issue of amending the blasphemy law. Protests and demonstrations sprang up over the country. There was a lot of burning and demolishing. Foreigners had to leave the country in droves because of the instability of the security apparatus – not even government sanctioned guards were above murder. Sherry Rehman had to leave the country for her anti-blasphemy remarks and former law minister Babar Awan explained to the president in an open letter why Sections 298 A, 298 B and 298 C must be left untouched.
If the British conquered the subcontinent through a divide and rule policy, Pakistan’s pseudo-theocratic legal framework is not much of a departure from that archaic model of subversion.
There are several ways one can analyse the virulent opposition to blasphemy in the country. The first being the internalization of the two-nation theory – the foundational step towards creating the other. The protection of oneself demands the vilification of the other. What better way to do that than through religion.
Another view is the subaltern lens – the war against blasphemy is at some level a war between the imperialists and those opposing it. The godless, money and soul sucking imperialist construct is opposed by its counterweight – the righteous ones.
Sawan Masih, of Badami Bagh fame, was sentenced to death this month as well. Lawyers familiar with his case have written it off as a series of ill-intentioned gaffes that cannot stand on their own weight. His lawyer says that the judge was swayed by his religious sentiments. Be that may, the verdict spells another decade for Sawan in prison. He has appealed his case in the Lahore High Court and his counsel is very positive that they will win the case this time. The only problem is, the first hearing for Sawan Masih will be sometime in 2016 (blamed on the backlog of cases the LHC hears). Once a hearing starts, it takes several years before a verdict is announced. In the meantime Sawan can curse his stars for making him a member of a minority group in Pakistan. Aasia Bibi does that probably. She has been in prison for several years now without any hope for parole.
In the meantime, the complainants, those with an axe to grind, lands to cease, seek revenge, can rest easy. They have condemned someone to death without even raising a finger against them. Pakistan should not expect amendments to the blasphemy laws for a long time. There is a time for sanity to filter through the layers of blind rage – that time is now. The path to this is littered with several more blasphemy cases and protestations and burnt homes but in the meantime, it’s the masses who must shoulder the responsibility of instructing, teaching and explaining the futility of protecting laws grained in hate. Pakistan’s silent majority needs to wake up and pull the blinds off such laws and expose them for what they really are.