Blasphemy outrage in Pakistan overshadows real issues once again

29th August 2018

By Muna Adil

22.6 million children in Pakistan are out of school. Almost 40% of Pakistanis live in multidimensional poverty. And 237 Pakistanis were killed as a result of violent terrorism in the bloody election month of July alone. Yet, in one of the first actions taken by Pakistan’s parliament since last month’s general election, the senate has unanimously passed a resolution condemning an anti-Islam cartoon contest planned by far-right Dutch politician MP Geert Wilders.

In his first address to the senate in the capital, newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan vowed to take the issue to the United Nations General Assembly in September, calling it a “collective failure of the Muslim world”.

He went on to say:

“Very few in the West understand the pain caused to Muslims by such blasphemous activities… Our government will raise the matter in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and get the countries there to come up with a collective policy that could then be brought up at international forums. This should have been done a long time ago… I understand the Western mindset as I have spent a lot of time there. They do not understand the love Muslims feel for the Prophet.”

It is incomprehensible how condemning the contest, however infantile and unnecessarily provocative it may be, does any good to the Pakistani people. It does, however, feed Pakistan’s obsession with blasphemy and blasphemy laws – a slim façade for the systematic and ongoing constitutional marginalisation of minorities in the country.

The then candidate Imran Khan had previously been accused of using the blasphemy issue to win the backing of the religious right. During his election campaign, he gave his full support to Article 295c, a constitutional clause that mandates the death penalty for any “imputation, insinuation or innuendo” against the prophet Muhammad, and a lifetime in prison for disrespecting the Qur’an.

While regressive and redundant in itself, the article is more often than not used to facilitate state-backed crackdowns on freedom of speech, to further institutionalised economic marginalisation against minorities, and to uphold the religious and cultural status quo in the country.

In 2016, a move to ban child marriages in Pakistan was withdrawn after it was met with robust resistance from religious outfits, in particular the CII (The Council of Islamic Ideology), Pakistan’s official religious advisory body, who dubbed the bill as “anti-Islamic” and “blasphemous”, forcing the female politician who introduced the bill to back down. The proposed legislation recommended raising the minimum age of marriage for women to 18-years-old (currently 16) and advised harsher sentencing to those engaging in marriage with a minor.

The CII unanimously rejected the proposal on “purely religious grounds”. Chairman Mohammad Khan Sheerani said: “Parliament cannot create legislation that is against the teachings of the Holy Quran or Sunnah.” In May 2014, the council emphasised its ruling that girls as young as nine-years-old were eligible for marriage if “the signs of puberty are visible.”

The article has often been used as a front for more sinister motives. In the tragic case of 25-year-old university student Mashal Khan, for example, who was jumped by a mob of hundreds of students and some university staff members who dragged him out of his room, beat him until he was dead, and then mutilated his dead body. He was charged with holding “anti-Islamic” views for a heated debate on religion he had had the day before he died.

It was later reported that no evidence of blasphemy was found and that the real reason for his brutal murder may have been his active criticism of the university management and administration in the weeks before his death.

Sadly, the blasphemy issue has become an easy point-scorer with Pakistani voters, and when one of the first priorities of a newly-elected parliament in a sovereign nation is to condemn a random cartoon contest organised by a Muslim-baiting racist politician in a far away country that has no effect on the improvement of the day-to-day lives of Pakistanis, you have officially made the divisive event a success.