In Pakistan, the blasphemy law provides the legal basis upon which “a larger, mainly social problem” is expressed: often, in fact, the accusations are used instrumentally in order to resolve personal disputes, or to grab land. It is a social problem, says Pallardel, in part because in the majority of cases “the victims belong to the poorest parts of the population, who suffer the abuses of the most wealthy. The Catholics, for example, are among the poorest in Pakistan, and therefore among the most vulnerable.”
The increase in the number of blasphemy cases
In 1987, when general Zia ul-Haq made the Islamization of Pakistan a cornerstone of his presidency, the blasphemy law, introduced in the Indian subcontinent in the times of the British rule, was tightened and took its current form, which calls for the death penalty for anyone who insults the Prophet Mohammed, with no possibility of pardon or waiver of prosecution. The data collected by the NGO Engage Pakistan highlights how 1987 represented a turning point: from that year the number of blasphemy cases increased by 17,500% - from seven in the 1947-1987 period to 1,335 in the 1988-2014 period. According to the NGO, which confirms Pallardel’s words, it is not as if Pakistanis have suddenly become blasphemous. Simply, “the law is used as a tool of persecution and oppression.” Engage Pakistan shows the the sectarian dimension of the blasphemy charges: out of a total of 1,335 cases, 633 accusations were made against Muslims, 494 against Ahmadis, 187 against Christians and 21 against Hindus. This means that the minorities, which together account for just 4% of Pakistan’s population, were responsible for more than 50% of the violations.
The picture becomes even more complicated when you consider that “many of the allegations do not even make it to trial as the alleged offenders are killed beforehand,” says Pallardel. Such is the case of Salman Taseer, former Punjab governor killed by his bodyguard because he criticized the law on blasphemy, or the most recent case of the activist Khurram Zaki, killed in Karachi. According to the reports by Engage Pakistan, 1987 was the watershed year in this case too: +2,750% in extrajudicial killings since the changing of the law.
The Supreme Court’s decision
The government of Nawaz Sharif, Prime Minister since June 2013, seems to be aware of the dimension of the problem and, according to Pallardel, is taking action, including military action, in order to counter the religious fundamentalism that exacerbates the religiosity and foments the anger of the masses against those who are deemed guilty of blasphemy. An important signal came from the Pakistani Supreme Court in the case of the conviction of Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of Salman Taseer, who was hanged at the end of February. Reporting on this case, the Court established that questioning the blasphemy law is not, in itself, an insult to Islam and therefore an act of blasphemy punishable by death. A conclusion that is anything but insignificant, underlines Pallardel, considering that the majority of the Barelvi, one of the country’s main Sunni organizations, strongly supports the blasphemy law. According to Pallardel, this represents an important conclusion because “the mere fact that it can now be discussed means that a change is possible.”
Although in the current socio-political situation the abolition of the law remains a highly improbable scenario, there is no lack of those who strive to introduce amendments that restrict their abuse, like the attempts made by former minister Shahbaz Bhatti, who paid for his commitment with his life. Engage Pakistan is another example of an attempt to demonstrate, starting from Islamic sources, that the blasphemy law is not a divine law (making it therefore modifiable), that it should not call for the death penalty and that it should be possible to forgive the crime, once the repentance of the accused is verified. A reform in this sense could improve the situation of the Pakistani minorities, but alone it would be difficult to change the widespread social climate in the country that leads to the extrajudicial killings or the protests in support of people like Mumtaz Qadri or attacks like the suicide bombing that happened in Lahore at Easter, in which more than 70 people were killed (mostly Muslim, although the declared objective was the Christian community). In order to change this climate, according to Pallardel, a reform of the Pakistani education system is needed. Often, in fact, the State does not manage to provide the essential minimum services that allow citizens access to public schools and this, combined with the difficult economic situation, pushes parents to send their kids where education is free, and therefore in Islamic religious schools, which have often been accused of incubating the violent and intolerant vision of Islam. Pallardel however, is confident: the Nawaz Sharif government is trying to do something in this regard by suggesting, among other things, the monitoring of educational methods, of grading criteria and the affiliations of madrasas. Nevertheless, the road towards a reform, which has been discussed for decades, still appears to be long.
This article was translated from the original Italian