I assume many of the world’s liberals originate from secular countries, where Blasphemy laws have become a thing of the past. However in countries like Pakistan, these laws still exist to date. People can give their judgement about these laws, but to truly understand the situation you have to hear from someone who’s living in a country where these laws are implemented and enforced.
As a liberal, I object to the punishments made under these laws, they are brutal and unjust. However, there are certain things a person must understand before giving their opinion on Blasphemy laws.
Blasphemy laws Pakistan were created by the British, during their rule of the Indian Sub-Continent. The main purpose of these laws was to prevent religious violence, hate crimes, destruction of religious places and trespassing of burial grounds. These laws were inherited by India and Pakistan after the British left. The death penalty was actually introduced in Pakistan during General Zia ul Haq’s military era. However, the most fascinating thing about blasphemy laws of Pakistan is that no one has ever been executed under these laws.
Blasphemy laws were created to prevent religious violence and consequently to prevent extremism. However, these laws have had no success yet, maybe because they were modified in 1986 during the era of military rule. People often believe that in Pakistan, blasphemy laws can only be invoked by Muslims against the minorities, this is untrue. Blasphemy cases can be, and have been invoked against Muslims by minorities too. Earlier this year, In the Punjab province, a young Sikh filed a police case under the Blasphemy laws against 5 people who were Muslims. All of the accused were arrested.
Initially, Blasphemy laws were thought to be a part of liberal ideology in Pakistan, because, as I mentioned above, they were enacted to prevent religious tensions. Furthermore, the Blasphemy laws were not that tough and there was no death penalty. As a liberal, I think that the main purpose of blasphemy laws should be to prevent people from insulting and degrading each other’s religious beliefs. However, on the contrary, some people have used these laws to promote extremism rather than liberalism. Today, if someone hears the word ‘blasphemy’, the first thing that comes to the mind is religious persecution and extremism, even though blasphemy laws were actually made to promote interfaith harmony and peace between different religious communities.
Today, critics claim that blasphemy laws are being used to win arguments, custody of rural lands, money and for vengeance against minorities. The biggest practical problem with the laws is, that you don’t need to provide much evidence to accuse someone. A simple accusation followed by a few witnesses can land the accused in jail. Inequality is another concern regarding blasphemy laws, there are many hate preachers in Pakistan who publicly use derogatory terms for other sects and religions yet they are not accused of blasphemy.
Pakistan isn’t the only country in the world with blasphemy laws, these laws exist in 16 other countries including in some secular countries such as Ireland and Canada. But in these countries blasphemy laws are not that harsh; they are more like hate speech laws rather than actual blasphemy laws.
Several activists, lawmakers and political figures have called for a reformation of the countries blasphemy laws however very few have actually called for their complete abolishment and the main reason is that now, it’s impossible to abolish the idea of blasphemy laws because it’s embedded deep in the country’s culture. Still, these laws can be reformed or moulded in such a way so that they become a less harsh. Sometimes debating about the blasphemy laws can get you accused of blasphemy. Many argue that since Pakistan is a democratic country, the people should be given the right to debate these laws freely. Salman Taseer, the governor of the Punjab province was murdered because he criticized the Blasphemy laws of Pakistan and called for a change. As a liberal I believe that if they are modified, these laws can also be used to prevent religious violence and religious persecution in the extremely conservative atmosphere of Pakistan.
Walied Ali is a Pakistani student, activist and blogger currently residing in China.