Pakistan 1: The Blasphemy Laws

Peter is an expatriate Englishman in Thailand, and also a longtime reader and commenter at Gates of Vienna. Below is an excerpt from his extensive writings on Pakistan and other Islamic countries.

From the early 1970s, I have always been fascinated by Islam, and had visited Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, pakistanmobCentral Asia, and Western China amongst many other places to photograph mosques, tombs and other examples of Islamic architecture. In those days, I had the mistaken belief that Islam was a parallel faith to Christianity, and that adherents of both religions worshipped the same God. What I saw, heard and read during and after my visits to Pakistan dispelled this view and drove me headlong into the anti-Islam and counter jihad lobbies where I remain today. As for my vast collection of photo albums, enlarged prints and posters, I eventually committed them to a civic amenity skip between Uxbridge and Harefield, and they are probably languishing in a landfill site somewhere to the west of London.

I do not miss them.

While I was on the plane from Tashkent to Peshawar for my first visit to Pakistan in October 1994, I had a sinking feeling that would not go away. I had spent a great deal of time reading up on Pakistan before I started my journey and the more I read, the more I wondered whether my next chosen destination had been a wise one and I was beginning to have serious doubts as to my future safety. Guns were widely obtainable with little or no restriction on their sale and it seemed that everyone in the entire country owned some sort of firearm. I read stories of tribal blood feuds, civil insurrection, and police and political corruption on a scale to blow the minds of Western observers. With all the weaponry freely available, shootings were commonplace, especially in Karachi, the former capital, and in Sind province, where bandits or Dacoits as they are known in this region, were particularly active.

In some parts of the political world, including the US State Department for a time, Pakistan has been regarded as a failed state and justifiably so. Many say the state failed in 1971 with the creation of the state of Bangladesh but I disagree. In my view the Pakistani state failed from day one. It was doomed even before it started. To quote Hanif Quereshi, the British born writer and film maker, the country had been “sodomised by religion.” Indeed this is one of many major deficiencies in the entire fabric of the state which succeeding Governments have dared not address.

Another is organised crime. This part of the world has been lawless for centuries but now the presence of drugs, helicopters and high-tech weapons has brought the criminal fraternity into the twentieth century. Hand in hand with organised crime, there is corruption. Since the Pakistani state was created there has been one corrupt government after another. These governments may have been elected by the poor, but they have only served to enrich the rich. Democracy here, when the military allows it to exist at all, has rapidly turned into a meaningless charade, repeated but never changed, and the ordinary people are left feeling more and more excluded from the political process. I read some time ago that if Pakistan were to reduce its corruption levels to those of, say, Singapore, its income levels would increase by 50% per capita. But there is no likelihood of that happening any time soon.

Other major issues in Pakistan involve its Islamisation and, arising from that, terrorism, slavery by way of bonded labour, the treatment of women and blasphemy. I first became aware of how seriously the latter issue is taken in the Islamic world from the furore surrounding the publication of The Satanic Verses, but I thought this was just an isolated incident, a one-off. How wrong can you be?

Islamic extremists have caused laws to be passed against blasphemy, which make this offence punishable by death. When I was first in Islamabad, I read in an English language newspaper about the case of Salamat Masih, which, apart from The Satanic Verses, was the first such case to come to my attention. Three Christians — thirteen year old Salamat Masih, along with Manzoor Masih and Rehmat Masih — had been sentenced to death for chalking anti-Islamic slogans on the wall of a mosque. The paper I had been reading had insinuated strongly that the charges had been trumped up and suggested the defendants could not possibly have been guilty since none of them could read nor write. On 5 June 1994, while the case was being heard in Lahore, the defendants had been attacked and shot at by a group of militants. Manzoor Masih was shot dead and the other two wounded, one severely. All the time I was in Islamabad, the two survivors were still in custody under sentence of death. The assassins had not been caught and from what I had read in various newspaper articles, nobody expected them to be.

In February 1995, the sentences of death imposed on Salamat and Rehmat Masih were quashed on appeal by the Lahore High Court. An extremist group calling itself Sipah-e-Sahaba, the Army of Prophet Muhammed’s Companions, distributed posters demanding that the two be publicly executed and Salamat Masih and his co-accused fled the country and sought asylum in Germany under assumed names to escape being murdered. Justice Arif Bhatti, one of the senior judges who acquitted the pair was not so lucky. On 10th October 1997, he was shot dead by motor-cycle gunmen while he was leaving the Lahore High Court Building.

The blasphemy laws are how the militants settle scores, silence opponents or instil fear into their enemies. They get away with it the way people like this have always got away with it. Anyone who opposes them openly risks being murdered or wrongfully accused of blasphemy. Even if the case is dropped or thrown out of court as many of them are, the accused person is hounded by vigilantes. People have been killed merely for being accused and acquitted of blasphemy, and the killers remain free. To some people, to be accused is to be guilty and if the courts do not see it that way, then there are plenty of others who will.

In October, 1998, I was leaving the Church of All Saints, Kingston-Upon-Thames after Sunday Mass, when I became aware of a small exhibition, the theme of which was the tribulations of Christians abroad. One exhibit, little more than a single Gestetner sheet, mentioned the death of John Joseph, former Bishop of Faisalabad, who killed himself in a last despairing act of protest at the wholesale persecution of Christians in Pakistan under dictatorial blasphemy laws. These laws have evolved over a number of years, becoming progressively more severe each time they are revised. Originally life imprisonment or a fine was included as an alternative to the death penalty for a guilty verdict but in 1990, the Federal Shariat Court decreed that death should be the only penalty for blasphemy and, in 1992, Parliament was bullied into ratifying it.

In an interview with the BBC on 23 February 1995, Doctor Zaki Bedawi, Principal of the Muslim College in London stated that there was no basis for such laws in Islam and that it was the exploitation of religion for political ends, a game in which all parties had participated and which had brought Pakistan to the sorry state in which it now found itself. This view is often repeated but few dare to do so openly in Pakistan.

The harsh blasphemy laws are virtually an incentive for those who wish to terrorise and abuse minority ethnic and religious communities. Others merely use them as a means of pursuing grudges or for political or financial gain. One disturbing feature of all these cases is the way, in which accusations are accepted without question by prosecutors. Trials themselves are frequently beset by stage-managed interruptions orchestrated by unprincipled clergy, who whip up the public gallery into a frenzy of religious fervour and bloodlust, calling for the death of the defendants. Bail is frequently denied to those who are accused of blasphemy and they are invariably beaten and abused while they are in custody. Some have been tortured to death by police or murdered by extremists.

My researches have revealed a chilling condemnation of life for non-Muslims, dissidents and women in today’s Pakistan. The number of cases I uncovered was far too many to examine here, but this is understandable when one considers that in the late 1990s, there were over 2,500 people languishing in Pakistani prisons who had been accused or convicted of blasphemy. In 1998, two British journalists managed to interview the man deemed responsible for framing the current blasphemy law. His name is Ismaeel Qureishy, a High Court lawyer and self-styled zealot who during the interview was quoted as saying:

“The only people who are convicted and sentenced under the blasphemy laws are those who are guilty. The guilty will be executed and there will be no pardons.”

Totally unequivocal, unambiguous and uncompromising. A fair trial — hang them in the morning!

The more I searched, the more I uncovered a horrifying catalogue of injustice, corruption and torture, made worse when one considers that, at the time of my visits, Pakistan was still a member of the same British Commonwealth that excluded South Africa for similar activities in the 1950s. There were many cases of vigilante and mob rule. In one journal, Pakistan was likened to Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Given the draconian blasphemy laws and a political climate in which the rule of law has become a hostage to religious bigotry, it is but a small step further down the road of intolerance to find non-Muslims guilty of blasphemy simply because they are non-Muslims. Religious zealots within the Pakistani establishment stand accused of manipulating Qureishy’s blasphemy laws to carry out a purge of Christian and other non-Muslim people, a Nazi-style pogrom to persecute, imprison and kill non-Muslims. To date I have read no official denial of this accusation.

The case that finally drove John Joseph to his desperate act of martyrdom involved one of his parishioners, Ayub Masih, who was accused of blasphemy during a local dispute involving a Muslim family who had tried to misappropriate land from Ayub’s parents. Having been falsely accused, he was beaten severely by a mob, which then handed him over to the police. The police, for their part, accepted the accusers’ word without question and immediately took Ayub into custody. The mob then turned their anger on the rest of Ayub’s family and beat up his younger brother, his sister and his mother before forcing them to flee their home and their village, leaving all their possessions behind them. Other Christians living in the same village were also driven out by the gang and were forced to take refuge in a neighbouring settlement. Although the evidence against him was flimsy, perjured and would not have stood up in a European court of law, Ayub Masih was convicted and sentenced to death on 27th April 1998, two years after his arrest. All the time he was in custody, Ayub was systematically beaten and abused, either by his gaolers or by other prisoners. In January 1999, he was viciously attacked and seriously injured in a Multan jail by four prisoners under sentence of death, but no action was ever taken against his assailants. In the meantime, demonstrations were being staged by militants demanding that Ayub be taken from prison and publicly hanged. On 16 August 2002, Ayub Masih was finally acquitted on appeal by the Pakistani Supreme Court and immediately went into hiding. Although he had escaped wrongful execution, he had been imprisoned on trumped up charges since 14 October 1996 and forced to endure brutal treatment on a daily basis, yet no action was ever taken against his accusers or against his captors, who had tortured him.

These are by no means isolated cases. They arise frequently throughout Pakistan and invariably have dire, often fatal, consequences for those who find themselves unjustly accused. However, not all false accusations of blasphemy succeed in gaining even an initial conviction for the accused. Arif Hussein, a Muslim trader, sold amulets to women in the Mangle Bazaar in Karachi. It gave him a meagre living, but he felt that he could increase this if only he could remove his fellow stall-holder Chand Barkat from the market. Chand Barkat, a Christian, was popular with women customers to whom he sold many bangles, thereby making Arif Hussein extremely envious. After his threats had failed to drive Chand from the marketplace, Arif denounced him to the authorities as a blasphemer, alleging, falsely, that Chand had defamed both the Prophet and his mother. As expected Chand Barkat was instantly charged with blasphemy but, unusually, he was acquitted by the Sessions Court through lack of evidence. After his release from prison, he received a series of death threats from Islamists and was forced to flee Pakistan as a result.

Even so, Chand Barkat was one of the lucky few. Luck ran out for eighty-year-old Bantu Masih and fifty-year old Mukhtar Masih when they were accused of blasphemy. While under arrest and in the presence of Police officers, who stood by and did nothing, Bantu Masih was attacked by a knife-wielding fundamentalist. He was so severely injured that he died later of his injuries. Mukhtar Masih was then taken to the Police station where he was tortured to death by Police officers. There is no record of any action being taken against the perpetrators but, again, this is not unusual in Pakistan.

Christians are routinely the victims of unprovoked attack and, although the attacker is sometimes apprehended, the attitude of the police is often partisan. Take for instance the murder of forty-three-year old Naimat Aimer, a Christian from Faisalabad. He was a teacher, writer, poet and a father of four, who was the victim of a frenzied knife attack by one Farooq Ahmad, a member of a militant religious group, who claimed that Naimat Aimer was a blasphemer. Naimat was never publicly accused, nor was he tried by a court, yet he was the victim of a vigilante murder. When Farooq Ahmed was arrested for his crime, he confessed and was garlanded in prison by Muslim clerics. The accused stated openly that by killing an unbeliever, he was convinced that he would go to heaven. He was somewhat disillusioned to find that the court did not share his belief and he was sentenced to fourteen years imprisonment for his crime.

Tahir Iqbal was paralysed and confined to a wheelchair but that did not prevent him from working as a mechanic for the Pakistani Air Force. He subsequently converted from Islam to Christianity, which upset a number of Muslim clerics, so much so that they accused him of blasphemy. Following his arrest, bail was denied him on the grounds that Tahir’s conversion to Christianity was in itself a “cognisable offence.” This was not true. Conversion from Islam to Christianity has never been an offence in Pakistan but this proved to be academic. Tahir Iqbal was due to answer his accusers on 21 July 1992 but he never made it to court. On the night before his trial he was poisoned to death in his prison cell. He had been warned beforehand that this would happen but when he voiced his concern to the authorities, they dismissed his fears.

Not all Christians accused of blasphemy are men. In June 1997, a seventeen-year-old Christian girl, known only as Saleema, was arrested along with her pastor Arthur Salim and accused of blasphemy for allegedly converting her young Muslim friend Raheela Khanam to Christianity. Both were tortured whilst in prison, Saleema being whipped sixteen times. They were subsequently acquitted and, after threats were made against his life by extremist groups, Salim went into hiding and afterwards moved abroad with his family. Unfortunately, matters then took a turn for the worse. Young Raheela was killed by her brother after her family had failed to force her to renounce her Christian faith. The family claimed that they had no choice but to murder Raheela because she had refused to recant and, furthermore, had rejected an arranged marriage to a Muslim man.

After having murdered their daughter, the family then tried to put the blame on Saleema, and she was arrested again. She later told Pakistani human rights workers that she had been tortured repeatedly in prison and that she had been raped four times by her police captors, who had then forced raw chilli into her vagina. She was released on bail in August 1997 and immediately put herself in the care of Christians who nursed her back to health and aided her recovery from the injuries inflicted upon her while she had been in police custody. However, this proved to be a lengthy process, and she missed several court appearances as a consequence. Ultimately, it became clear that there was insufficient evidence against her and on 6 May 1999, a court in Lahore dismissed all charges. There has been no mention of any charges being levelled against Altaff Khanam for the murder of his sister.

Though they have been cowed into discreet silence by the militants, the Pakistani political establishment disapproves of death sentences for blasphemy. However, their disapproval should not be mistaken for humanity or even sympathy for the injustices suffered by Christians and other persecuted minorities. It is merely a symptom of the pragmatism that drives most political institutions as they cling precariously to power. They know full well that the execution of a single Christian for blasphemy would provoke global outrage from every international organisation concerned with human rights, and this might well reduce or curtail any foreign aid they might have been anticipating.