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Friday, 28 January 2011

Blasphemy Law of Pakistan debate - an update!

The delectable Maya Pastakia Amnesty International Campaigner for Afghanistan and Pakistan meets with Wilson Chowdhry after the debate.
As the debate ensued no tempers frayed - a remarkable gathering of the right people by a group that overtly has genuine concern for the situation in Pakistan.

Although we looked tired at the end of the event, I honestly believe people enjoyed participating and that it was a very useful foundation for future discussion.

Despite the clear banner and theme for the meeting discussion often left the topic?

Of 9 panelists only one speaker was from the Christian minority - it was nerve wracking.

The Blasphemy Law debate at SOAS Brunei organised by PIPA ian an extremely professional manner, was an auspicious affair. Considering the conflict with regards to panel guest position on the theme of the event "Is the Blasphemy Law Good For Pakistan?", I was expecting a more heated debate. However, the event went without any real tension and both the panel and visitors were able to discuss the situation in Pakistan amiably.

Often the debate diverted from the theme and I had to redirect the discussion to the Blasphemy Law and it's worth. My insistence on returning to the Blasphemy Law is not because of any naivety with respect to the convoluted situation in Pakistan, with it's variety of socio-economic factors. Not at all, actually it is because of a deep rooted belief that there are things that we can change relatively swiftly, such as the Blasphemy Law and prejudiced constitution of Pakistan. Cultural and social reform is something that will take decades, before we see any palpable change.

This meeting was powerful as so many influential people and groups attended and contributed to the deabate. The video clip at the bottom of this post means that a broad spectrum of Pakistani's will have gained enhanced understanding of the situation in Pakistan. It was suggested that a follow up discussion is undertaken in Urdu and I fervently agree. If we do not then how will we effectively reach the masses in Pakistan.

At the end of the meeting I met with Maya Pastakia - Campaigner for Afghanistan and Pakistan at Amnesty International. Since the meeting Maya has spoken words of encouragement for reform of the blasphemy laws that have given me great vigour to continue the campaign for justice:

"You spoke very well and made some extremely salient points about the misuse of the blasphemy laws. Well done....keep up the campaign for reform."

I clarify in brief some of the points made at the debate:

  • The need for withdrawal of the prejudiced labelling of Pakistani citizens by maintaining their faith in Passports and Shenakti (ID) cards.

  • Suggested of a return to the Original 295c that was set as a public disorder act rather than a blasphemy law and equally protected the rights of people of all faiths or none.
  • Questioned the need to protect a divine faith by a carnal law. With a purported majority Muslim population of 96% is there need for the Blasphemy Law? Moreover does God depend on human help to retain and protect the truth of his message on the earth?
  • Queried the absence of cases enacted under section 153A of the Pakistan Penal Code. This acts protects people from incitement of hatred and could be used to prosecute accusers of false blasphemy or people involved in ensuing violence.

  • Highlighted the fact that only 10 victims were charged under the Original section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code before 1986. After Zia Islamified the act and introduced amendment 295A (forbidding outraging religious feeling) and 295B (forbidding defilement of the Quran Maximum sentence 10 years) in 1982. In 1986 under pressure from religious extremists a further amendment was made - 295c (forbidding insulting the prophet Muhammed). Our intent was to establish the need for return of the act back to it's original form, which is evidently a more compassionate and less misused law.

  • Challenged the need for Islamic studies in school and promoted the introduction of a broad based religious education, that would espouse better understanding of other faiths whilst removing ill-informed myths.

  • Talked of the educational divide in Pakistan - only 7% of minority faiths attain adequate literacy levels. Admittedly only 40% of the Muslim majority attain adequate literacy. I suggested that we should should tackle the disparity first, before we work on overall educational reform, if we honestly wish to promote equality.

  • Suggested reform of the Constitution of Pakistan to remove the Title "Islamic Republic of Pakistan" and the 2nd Article that states Islam is the state religion. I talked of how when the debate in parliament took place for the Secession of Pakistan, how 4 Christian MP's, Hindus and Sikhs voted in favour but the decision was tied. The decision had to be made by the speaker who himself was a Christian MP Singha. At the time they sided with the pragmatic and egalitarian leader of the separation Quaide Azam - who promised and spoke publicly of freedom for all faiths.

  • Suggested that better scrutiny of Ulema Councils should be undertaken by the government and that a standard code of practice drawn up prescribing measures for use of Mosque Public address systems. Explaining that a number of rogue Imams had stirred up hatred against communities responding to a local complaint without investigation. Not that they should have any remit to incite hatred - surely their role is one of counsellor to resolve community friction and dispute?
  • Talked of the peaceful harmony that people of all faiths can experience in the interlude to major incidents. I expressed a disbelief that 100% of Muslims wanted Sharia Law to be introduced and when I looked to the audience, I saw several visitors nodding approval.

Matters I did not discuss as I could not interject and the point had moved on:

  • The guest from PTI made a bizarre comment that no-one had been killed as a consequence of the existing mandatory death sentence in Pakistan. She failed to mention that 20 victims charged under the blasphemy law and a larger number of innocent people made vicariously liable by by the rantings of extremists preachers and groups? The recent case of Wajid and Sajid Masih two pastors shot dead outside Faisalabad, after being acquitted in July last year is a recent example.

  • Many Christians cannot afford education and subsidies or free education will have to form part of a concerted effort to improve literacy. The Majority of Christians work as domestic servants or sewerage workers, better employment and equality law is required and should be complimented by a rigid investigation and prosecution process for any breach.

  • Police are easily convinced by bribe and should receive better pay to prevent such deviance. A better and stricter tax regime is required to fund change.

  • Law courts and Police authorities should hold to an innocent until proven guilty philosophy and incarceration should not exceed the 24 Hours stipulated within the Pakistan Constitution.

  • Newspapers in Pakistan only talk of the extremist view and much was said about the Fatwa against Governor Taseer and the boycott of his funeral. Only the Jaang reported on our meeting with the High Commissioner when people from two minorities came together to share condolences with the existing Government, family of Governor Taseer and the Nation of Pakistan, who had lost a great humanitarian and their most progressive statesman.

A positive outcome at the meeting was that none of the Panel expressed support for the killing of Governor Taseer.

PIPA deserve great praise for planning and putting on such a wonderful event.

See a full video recording of the debate here:


  1. Hi Wilson

    It was great to have seen you at the debate. I met you after the Q and A (my father-in-law is from Youngsonabad). I worked in Pakistan for most of the 1990s and saw the terrible impact this law has on Pakistani society including in 1998 the tragic suicide of Bishop John Joseph outside the Faisalabad Sessions Court in despair at the continued persecution of members of his parish.

    Some of the panel mentioned the education system and reform there would have a big impact on the attitudes of Pakistani's to non-Muslims. I taught at a very expensive international school in Lahore and many of the kids were just as narrow-minded as those entering government schools or even madrassas. Some kept trying to get me to convert (kids as young as seven or eight), others became very threatening when one day I 'touched' one of their Islamiat text books with my own books. The school system in Pakistan does not teach history, they have this dreadful subject called 'Pakistan Studies' which is mostly anti-Indian propaganda. Several of my Shia colleagues were also very unhappy with the way Islamiat was taught as it has a very heavy Sunni-bias. No wonder the general society is so intolerant.

    Several other issues are also worth bearing in mind :

    1 The blasphemy law needs to be seen not just in isolation but as part
    of a number of repressive laws aimed at women and non-Muslims.

    2 You briefly mentioned (but no one responded) the fact that Pakistani
    have to declare their religion on their passports (ironic as the founder
    Pakistan, M A Jinnah, declared that religion was "not the business of
    state"),in the 1990s an attempt was made to put a religion column on
    ID cards which was fortunately resisted and halted.

    3 Since the 1973 Pakistani constitution non-Muslims are barred from
    holding the
    offices of president and prime minister. Compare this to present day
    India over
    80% Hindu with a Sikh prime minister, female president and Muslim vice
    president. Unthinkable in Pakistan ! (Separate electorates for
    non-Muslims have
    also marginalised Christians and other groups from the Pakistani

    4 The impact of this law on Muslims also needs to be acknowledged, it
    further promoted sectarian divisions between Barelvi and Deobandi. Many
    of the
    most recent cases are linked to disputes between members of these two
    Pakistani society is more fractured and brutal because this law is very
    easy to
    manipulate and misuse.

    5 Although it was touched upon in the debate it needs to be stated that
    three witnesses are required to register a blasphemy case and very
    someone can be thrown into a police cell and handed a death sentence by
    a lower
    court. A positive move would be a reform of the procedure to register a
    blasphemy case so it has to go to a higher level first.

    6 From the days of General Zia the evidence of a non-Muslim in law
    courts is
    worth half that of a Muslim, making it easy to take out legal
    against non-Muslims.

    You also briefly referred to S P Singha who at the time of partition was
    one of
    the leaders of the Punjabi Christians and speaker of the Punjab
    Assembly. It was
    his casting vote as speaker along with other christian assembly members
    allowed west Punjab to become part of Pakistan. It is an irony of
    history that
    the leading Islamic party of the time, the Jamaat-i-Islami under
    totally opposed Jinnah and the Pakistan movement.Islamic groups today
    are very
    quick to forget the role played by the Christians in the creation of
    Pakistan as
    compared to their own role.....

    Anyway a good debate and an interesting evening. Good luck, good to see
    raising awareness of these issues.

  2. I think, for us Pakistani's religion has become an excuse for our own intolerance for people of other religion or cast.