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Using Religion for Reform: Trying to Change Pakistan’s Oppressive Blasphemy Law from Within

VICE News spoke to a group of activists who are adopting a unique approach to reforming Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy law by engaging religious language and leaders rather them eschewing them.

by Sarah Munir
Mar 20 2015, 6:48pm

Photo by Anjum Naveed/AP

When it comes to sensitive religious matters such as blasphemy, there is little room for pardon, repentance, or justice in Pakistan. The country has witnessed a staggering rise in the number of blasphemy accusations, increasing from seven cases between 1947 and 1987, to 1,335 cases from then until 2014.

Most of the charges have been against the poor and disadvantaged who have little clout or resources to defend themselves. In 2012, Rimsha Masih, a young illiterate girl from an underprivileged community, had to leave the country and seek asylum in Canada after she was framed by a local cleric for desecrating the Quran.

In some cases, punishment has been meted out even before the court passed a verdict.For example, in November 2014, a violent mob lynched a Christian couple in Lahore and later burnt their bodies in the brick kiln where they worked for allegedly committing blasphemy. Not just the accused, but even the police, lawyers, and judges involved in the cases have been harassed, intimidated, and threatened. In May 2014, unidentified gunmen shot and killed Rashid Rehman, a human rights lawyer who had taken on the controversial case of a college lecturer accused of defaming the Prophet Muhammad on social media.

Despite its rampant misuse, very few, if any, have challenged, debated, or attempted to reform Pakistan's blasphemy law that was originally codified by the subcontinent's British rulers in 1860.

The legislation took a much more oppressive form, however, following a series of amendments during military dictator Zia-ul Haq's rule in the 1980s. The law in its current form prescribes life imprisonment for willful desecration of the Holy Quran and death for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad. Politicians who opposed the law on humanitarian grounds, such as Salman Taseer, former governor of Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, federal minister for minorities, met equally violent ends, both assassinated in 2011.

It was Taseer's assassination by his own bodyguard in broad daylight for defending a Christian woman accused of blasphemy that prompted a group of young activists to research and reflect on this controversial law that has polarized Pakistani society into even further extremes.

"With one ill-informed camp obstinately seeking repeal [of the law] and another frenzied group violently insisting it was untouchable by divine sanction, we realized that a lot of nuances were probably missing in the mix," Zain Moulvi, a lawyer and one of the activists, told VICE News. So Moulvi, along with researcher Arafat Mazhar, decided to delve further into the controversial law and its interpretation and application over the years.

Related: Pakistan's death row prisoners face broad 'terrorism' charges, harrowing conditions, and a crumbling justice system. Read more here.

What they found in the research phase was unexpected. Moulvi explained that even though the mainstream claims about blasphemy are dominated by a rigid and reductive interpretation of religious texts, there is a surprising range of diversity and intellectual openness on many questions, including blasphemy bythe religious clergy in the community.

"Various traditional religious scholars have been providing alternative interpretations of the blasphemy law all along and that these simply have not been engaged by academics, journalists, lawyers, judges, politicians, activists etc.," Moulvi said. For example, Ammar Nasir, a renowned religious scholar, told VICE News that the law needs to be more flexible and should include an element of pardon if the accused repents.

To introduce similar pluralistic views into religious discourse and prevent things like the blasphemy law from being used as a tool for intimidation and persecution, Moulvi, Mazhar, and psychologist Ayesha Iftikhar decided to institutionalize their research findings. They set up Engage, a non-profit research and advocacy platform in 2014.

'Instead of preaching at them, we want to work with them to bring about a change.'

One of the first steps on Engage's agenda is a drive on fatwas (rulings by authorities on a point of Islamic law). Under this program, fatwas on the parameters of the blasphemy law and its prescribed penalties will be procured from local and international religious clergy members. The rulings will then be disseminated to the masses through Friday sermons at mosques and also sent to parliamentarians, the Council of Islamic Ideology, advocates defending blasphemy convicts, and, at a later stage, judges.

By doing so, the initiative hopes to open up debate and dialogue around the blasphemy law and eventually pave way for its reform. The team, however, is particularly careful about its approach and emphasizes the use of classical Islamic jurisprudence and the active involvement of local religious scholars, clerics, and prayer leaders to propagate the findings. "We want to use the very same language that the masses use to defend the law," explained Mazhar. "Instead of preaching at them, we want to work with them to bring about a change."

Aurangzeb Haneef, a former professor of Islamic studies at Lahore University of Management Sciences, told VICE News he sees the approach as "not only wise but necessary." According to Haneef, the human rights and legal framework works in a system where people accept these frameworks and are somewhat literate in them. "Pakistan is not that case. Here, religion forms part and parcel of identities of majority of Pakistanis," he said.

Related: Stay of execution granted for Pakistani prisoner convicted at 14, but his case could be one of many. Read more here.

Haneef elaborated that since religion already occupies a huge public and private space in Pakistani society, framing a response in religious terms will allow existing spaces and existing religious discourse to transform from within. "By doing so, the idea is to invoke religious scholars in responding [not rejecting as they usually do when the criticism is from a human rights/legal perspective] to these ideas," he added.

To prevent its credibility from being compromised, Engage has also chosen to raise funds through the relatively novel crowdsourcing route, rather than relying on external funds, which leaves room for suspicion and mistrust. Even though raising money through this alternative medium has slowed down the pace of the project, the team is prepared to take on this issue in order to earn confidence in the long run.

The campaign is currently in its initial phase and has been generally well received, but Mazhar admitted that people are reluctant of being openly affiliated with it. "It is a good thing for their own security now, since we don't want them to be isolated or be perceived as partisan," he said. "This will automatically change later when we have strength in numbers."

There has also been criticism from right-wing elements, who fear that if things like the blasphemy law are reformed, it will challenge the status quo. On the other hand, more liberal sections of society feel that the initiative may end up giving more space to religion in a country where it already enjoys too much power.

Mazhar, however, feels that you can either criticize the conversation from the outside or become part of the discourse that can shape the country's social climate. "Our intention is to get involved, raise questions, and seek answers that can make a difference," he said. While reformation of the blasphemy law is currently Engage's topmost priority, it also hopes to initiate the same dialogue and debate around similar concerns in the future. 

Follow Sarah Munir on Twitter: @sarahmunir1