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How Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law Is Misused

The blood-stained car of Shahbaz Bhatti who was gunned down on March 2
The blood-stained car of Shahbaz Bhatti who was gunned down on March 2
Speaking against the Prophet is a sin, no doubt about it. But what about when someone is speaking against the man-made blasphemy law?

For religious parties, which always seem to have a political or social axe to grind, such an act is equally sinful.

Shahbaz Bhatti, the 42-year-old minority parliamentarian, has become the second high-profile member of the Pakistani government punished for opening his mouth against Pakistan’s blasphemy law.

Just two months ago, Salmaan Taseer, governor of Punjab Province -- the country's largest, most populous region -- was assassinated by his own security guard for the same reason.

Among Pakistan’s 185 million people live 1.6 million Christians. In recent years, attacks on religious minorities -- Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Ahmadis -- have increased. There is greater insecurity among minorities in the country, which is fueling an image of Pakistan as an increasingly intolerant state.

Attacks on minority groups really got going around the year 2000 when as many as 15 Christians were killed when armed men attacked a church in Lahore. Since then, minority groups have suffered scores of deadly attacks, including machine-gun massacres of Ahmadi Muslims.

It’s pertinent to note that not only minorities are suffering, but those who raise a voice for minorities face the same security threat. Taseer spoke against the possible misuse of the blasphemy law although he was neither a Christian nor Hindu, but a practicing Sunni Muslim.

Imtiaz Gul, an Islamabad-based veteran journalist and author of “The Most Dangerous Place,” is of the view that the fundamentalists who killed Taseer have become encouraged. He says they feel they have gained a license to kill those who speak against the blasphemy law, a product of the radical Islamist dictator Ziaul Haq.

Gul tells RFE/RL, “Militants are [at the] forefront and they are taking advantage of such circumstances where the government is weak, political parties are silent, and they don’t want any confrontation with religious groups. Thus the militants are encouraged to kill those who speak against the blasphemy law.”

Pakistani human rights groups have time and again pointed out atrocities carried out by militants against minorities, but most inquiries have been in vain. The vice-chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Kamran Arif, says that the country’s laws work against minorities.

Here, a question arises. What is the blasphemy law? Most Pakistanis don’t know what the actual text says and how this prevents any person who speaks against the Prophet.

Gul notes that the existing blasphemy law has been misused as is evident from the fact that 35 such cases were reported from the Dera Ghazi Khan district of Punjab alone.

In many cases, it was found that people are leveling blasphemy charges against others just to settle scores. "The trend is alarming. The political parties should come forward to control the situation," he says.

At the same time, a majority of Pakistanis -- who want the return of some sense to the prevailing situation -- are becoming disappointed with religious parties, most of which remained silent and some of which actually supported the assassin of governor Taseer.

Chief of the Ulema Council of Pakistan, Allama Tahir Ashrafi, speaking to RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal, said the killing of Bhatti is part of a series of terrorist attacks across Pakistan. Ashrafi does not believe that the killing of Bhatti was an attack against the Christian community.

Whether the killings of Taseer and Bhatti were against Christians or Muslims, the two incidents speak volumes about the security threat posed by hard-liners to moderate and progressive forces in Pakistan.

-- Gul Ayaz