Earlier this week extremists delivered yet another shocker to the world when Salman Taseer, the Governor of the Pakistani province of Punjab, was gunned down by his own bodyguard. The guard, 26 year old Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri defended his actions, insisting that Taseer “did blasphemy about the Prophet Mohammed” which under current Pakistani law, is a crime punishable by death. Yet it is the hero’s reception that Qadri is receiving in Pakistan that is the most troublesome aspect of this fiasco. Bedecked in rose garlands and showered in petals as he arrived in court for the initial proceedings, Qadri is a standard bearer for the extremist movement consuming Pakistan. Even supposed moderates are coming out in public support of an admitted killer, stating that his actions were just and in line with the law.
What is interesting to note is that Taseer never insulted the Prophet, taking aim only at a law on the books that he described as being a “black law.” In fact, Taseer did not even question the existence or need for the law, noting that the law should be modified to make the act of insulting any prophet "a criminal offense, but certainly not punishable by death." These comments were made in light of a media firestorm surrounding Asia Bibi, a Christian woman condemned to death for insulting the Prophet Mohammed, for whom Taseer was seeking a presidential pardon.
The law as codified under Section 295 of the Penal Code of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan forbids damage or defiling of any place of worship or sacred object. Furthermore, §295A forbids inflaming religious sentiments, §295B specifically prohibits defiling the Quran, and §295C forbids the defamation of the Prophet Mohammed. All instances of any violation of these sections must take into account the accused person’s intent at the time of the alleged violation, save for §295C, which does not require a consideration of the accused’s intent. It is the law under which Asia Bibi was charged and convicted.
The blasphemy law in Pakistan gets its teeth from Islamic Law, or Shariah law. As written in the Quran, the basis of Shariah law, “the punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter” (Surah Al Maidah 5:33). The only problem with Shariah law is that is applies only to Muslims, and cannot be applied to non Muslims regardless of where they live. The Quran also refers to “those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger” not those who speak ill of Allah and His Messenger. We must, therefore, give pause before determining who this line addresses; is it the person who carelessly tosses a business card with the name ‘Mohammed’ on it in the trash? Or a poor, illiterate Christian woman who is insulted by her Muslim neighbors? Or does it address a more specific type of person; one who unrepentantly persists in defaming the Prophet publicly? These are weighty questions to consider before issuing any fatwa against a person or cause.
A reflection on Islamic rule and law during the time of the Prophet reveals that there was no blasphemy law in effect during his lifetime. No Muslim nor non Muslim was ever punished by court of law for speaking out against the Prophet. One of the most well known cases of abuse against the Prophet is that of an old Jewish woman who would throw garbage at the Prophet on a daily basis. Instead of condemning her to death, the Prophet tolerated the insults and made it a point to behave respectfully towards her. When she fell ill and he came to inquire about her health, she was so touched by his kindness that she converted to Islam. Every school age child in Pakistan learns this story in Akhlaq (conduct and morals) class, yet as a society, Pakistanis fail to apply its lesson on kindness and forgiveness to their daily lives. With regard to the most unrepentant enemy of the Prophet, Abu Lahab, the Quran has this to say: “The power of Abu Lahab will perish, and he will perish. His wealth and gains will not exempt him. He will be plunged in flaming fire. And his wife, the wood-carrier, will have upon her neck a halter of palm-fibre” (Surah Al Lahab). Even in the instance of Abu Lahab, the Quran does not delineate a worldly punishment for him, instead choosing to describe his reward in the afterlife.
While the Pakistani Penal Code does not run directly afoul of Shariah law, the application of the law does run counter to the interests of a nation struggling to repair its damaged reputation in the international community. What Taseer suggested, a reform of the existing law, could certainly still conform to Shariah without allowing for the persecution of minorities in Pakistan. The law could be changed to include a consideration for the accused’s intent, just as in the other sections of the blasphemy laws, and the punishment can be modified from death or serious injury to exile, or even a hefty fine. Taseer’s strong stance on reforming the law does not run counter to Shariah, it in fact is completely in line with Shariah and instead of being condemned as a blasphemer, Taseer should be recognized for trying to wrest control from the extremists and restore sanity to a country run amok.
Those who support Taseer’s cause should push for reform of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan. If the country wants to establish Shariah law, it should do so correctly, and in line with the true principles of Islam and Islamic law. Islamic law does not apply to non Muslims, and the code should reflect that consideration. In addition to adding a consideration for the accused’s intent, the law should be amended to strike capital punishment for such an offense from the book. It should instead, allow for the forcible removal and exile of a person correctly convicted under the modified law, and a hefty fine to discourage further behavior. This reform will serve a two fold purpose: one, to prevent the misappropriation of justice by those who seek to oppress the voiceless minority, and two, to restore the international community’s faith in Pakistan as a country devoted to the principles of justice and freedom, not vigilantism by extremists seeking to hijack a nation and a religion.