Arresting the rot
You are free; free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed - that has nothing to do with the business of the state.” This is the road map of religious tolerance that the founder of Pakistan, Quaid e Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah laid out for the nation at the time of independence. As it were, it has turned out in recent decades that religious tolerance is one among the pillars of the modern state of Pakistan that has been permitted to erode so dreadfully. This is evident from the fact that the country’s blasphemy laws have become increasingly incompatible with the national aspiration to become a progressive, democratic Muslim state and succeeding governments have shied away from revisiting these laws, The Pakistan Penal Code prohibits blasphemy against any religion and penalties are provided, ranging from a fine to death. As such, an accusation of blasphemy commonly subjects the accused to harassment, threats and attacks and such accusation can also lead to vigilantism and rioting.
Blasphemy is actually an extremely sensitive subject for Muslims all over the world. Defiling of the sacred name of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) or the Holy Quran is bound to hurt their sensitivities. Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses created quite a furore back in the 1980s. The Danish cartoons and many other similar episodes before and since have been a source of provocation for the Muslims. Recently, a highly offensive film has been produced in the US depicting the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The film has ignited a massive reaction across the Muslim world. Protests emanated from the Middle East and North Africa, leading to the death of the US ambassador and three other Americans in Libya; the violence soon spread to the rest of the Muslim world. In Pakistan, prominent figures like Salman Taseer (the former governor of Punjab) and Shahbaz Bhatti (the Federal Minister for Minorities), have lost their lives on this count in recent years. There have been other cases in the same vein as that of Aasia Bibi and Dr. Mohammad Younus Shaikh. Another recent example is that of Rimsha Masih, a minor Christian girl suffering from Down’s syndrome, who has been accused of blasphemy.
As already demanded by certain quarters, there is an urgent need for a national debate in Pakistan on the blasphemy laws and the need to overhaul all such laws that can be abused by certain mischievous elements with ulterior motives. It is high time that the state, judiciary, parliament and civil society stepped forward to play a proactive role in dissipating the deep-rooted climate of fear surrounding the blasphemy issue. Now is the time to check the rot and to save the Pakistani society from taking another route to self-destruction. The Muslim world in general must also review its customary reaction to religious provocations and devise a collective strategy to demonstrate religious tolerance.