To quote a 2016 Amnesty International report, “As Good as Dead: The impact of blasphemy laws in Pakistan,” once an individual is accused of blasphemy, “they become ensnared in a system that offers them few protections, presumes them guilty, and fails to safeguard them against people willing to use violence.”
On Saturday, Rome’s Colosseum was lit in red in support of persecuted Christians, including Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. At the Rome gathering, Pope Francis described Bibi, alongside a Nigerian woman who was captured by Boko Haram, as “martyrs.”
Bibi, an illiterate berry picker, was convicted of defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed. She was accused by her Muslim neighbors who objected to her drinking water from the same glass as them because she was Christian. Under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, her alleged comment is punishable by death. In 2010, Bibi, at age 45, was sentenced to hang, but her case is still pending.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws date back to the military dictatorship of Gen. Muhammad Zia ul Haq. In 1980, making a derogatory remark against any Islamic personage was defined as a crime under Pakistan’s Penal Code Section 295, punishable by three years in prison. In 1982, another clause was added that prescribed life imprisonment for “willful desecration of the Quran” and, in 1986, a separate clause was added to punish blasphemy against Prophet Mohammed with “death, or imprisonment for life.”
Bibi’s case illustrates how blasphemy laws are used to persecute the weakest of the weak among Pakistan’s religious minorities. As a poor Christian from a low caste, Bibi was among the most vulnerable and susceptible to discrimination. And the legal system — which, in theory, should be designed to protect the innocent — failed her in every way
However, Bibi’s case isn’t the first case in which Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been used to punish minority groups. Since Zia ul Haq imposed the laws, their application has unleashed extremist religious frenzy.
Procedures for investigation and prosecution lend themselves to widespread abuse. Assertion by a Muslim witness that blasphemy was committed is sufficient for filing of charges and arrest of a suspect — even without corroborating evidence. Furthermore, the testimony of non-Muslim witnesses in defense carries less weight, and, in most cases, the filing of charges is tantamount to punishment, because bail is denied.
Worse still, once blasphemy is alleged, mob violence or targeted killing becomes a possibility. According to researcher Mohammed Nafees, from 1990-2011, there were over 50 cases “wherein blasphemy suspects were either extrajudicially murdered or died in jail.”
Lawyers who dare to represent someone accused of blasphemy have also been killed. In 2014, Rashid Rehman, a distinguished human rights lawyer brave enough to represent those most vulnerable to blasphemy charges — women and children of religious minorities, people with mental disabilities, and the weak and impoverished — was shot dead in his office by two unidentified gunmen.
Meanwhile, judges who have dared to acquit an alleged blasphemer or convict the killer of an alleged blasphemer have either had to flee the country or face death.
Nonetheless, until now, Western governments, which viewed Pakistan as a strategic ally in the war on terrorism, did little to protect Pakistan’s religious minorities.
However, that might now be changing — albeit slowly.
The Pope’s attention to Bibi’s case parallels efforts by the European Union’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief to secure her release by making it a condition for continued European market access for Pakistani products.
More specifically, Jan Figel, part of the special envoy, informed the Pakistani government that the future of Generalized System of Preferences, or GSP, status to Pakistan, which allows Pakistan duty-free access to the EU markets, would be directly linked to the peaceful resolution of Asia Bibi’s blasphemy case.
Farahnaz Ispahani is a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a senior fellow for South and Southeast Asia at the Religious Freedom Institute. She is a former member of Pakistan’s Parliament where she served on the foreign affairs and human rights committees. Her book, “Purifying The Land of the Pure: The History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities,” published in 2017. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
After years of neglect, the State Department is finally responding to Pakistan’s dismal record on religious freedom. The time is ripe for more serious action.
This past Monday, a student in Pakistan shot his high school principal dead after being reprimanded for skipping school to attend a sit-in organized by one of Pakistan’s Islamist parties. The killer argued that the principal had committed blasphemy by questioning his right to attend the sit-in condemning “blasphemers.”
The sit-in had been organized by Tehreek-e-Labaik-ya-Rasool-Allah (TLYR), or the Movement for the Call of Allah’s Prophet—only the latest addition to Pakistan’s pantheon of extremist groups. The party opposes any change in Pakistan’s stringent blasphemy laws, demands full implementation of sharia law, supports institutionalized discrimination against religious minorities, and describes vigilantes who kill those accused of dishonoring Islam’s prophet as heroes. It was created by clerics supporting the killer of a governor who had spoken up for a poor Christian woman condemned to death for blasphemy, and who had called for reform of the blasphemy laws. And along with the many other extremist groups which share its sympathies, it has morphed into the Frankenstein’s monster of Pakistan, fostering an environment that encourages violence in the name of Islam, exalts those acting against “blasphemers,” and uses the world’s harshest blasphemy laws to mistreat religious minorities, including Christians, Hindus, and Ahmadis.
Earlier this year, the U.S. State Department finally included Pakistan on a special watch list for “severe violations” of religious freedom, after years of ignoring recommendations by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) that the country be listed among “Countries of Particular Concern” for its mistreatment of religious minorities. The decision is a step forward, albeit not far enough.
American diplomats have chosen in the past to ignore persecution on religious grounds by strategically important countries like Pakistan. But as the increasing U.S. disillusionment with Pakistan indicates, such concessions do not always advance American interests. When Washington overlooks its values to accommodate authoritarian or semi-authoritarian states, it only emboldens them in defying its strategic interests as well.
The American Congress created USCIRF under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to report violations of religious freedom by other countries to the executive and legislative branches of government. Once designated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) by the State Department, the U.S. government can deprive a country of foreign aid and other benefits of partnership with the United States.
Pakistan has repeatedly been found by USCIRF “to perpetrate and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations.” As this year’s report aptly notes, “Religiously discriminatory constitutional provisions and legislation, such as the country’s blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws, continue to result in prosecutions and imprisonments.”
The historic roots of this reality run deep. The word Pakistan literally means “the land of the pure.” In their effort to create a “purer” Islamic state, Pakistan’s leaders have allowed extremists to target different minorities at different times. Soon after the country’s creation in 1947, Hindus and Sikhs were driven out, reducing the population of Pakistan’s non-Muslims to around 3 percent. The two wings of the country, which until 1971 included East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), would have included 23 percent non-Muslims had there been no ethnic cleansing amidst communal riots during India’s brutal partition.
Pakistan declared itself an Islamic Republic when it belatedly adopted its first constitution in 1956. Since then, Christians have been victimized by the country’s blasphemy laws, with many of them ending up in prison on false charges. Rivals in property disputes and even spurned lovers have turned to blasphemy accusations to condemn their enemies. Blasphemy is often punishable by death, and attacks by Islamist vigilantes on judges who acquit those accused of blasphemy makes it virtually impossible for victims to secure bail or acquittal under the flawed laws.
Over the years, the ranks of Pakistan’s endangered minorities have only expanded. In 1974, Pakistan’s parliament amended the constitution to pronounce members of the Ahmadiyya movement—who consider themselves a sect within Islam—to be non-Muslims. That amendment created a religious dilemma for the Ahmadis: their faith required them to insist that they were Muslims, but the law would punish them if they did so. Ahmadis were barred from identifying as Muslims on government documents, while later decrees imposed by Islamist military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq further restricted Ahmadis’ use of Islamic symbols and their public practice of the faith.
These days, as several Christians and Ahmadis sit in Pakistani prisons facing blasphemy charges, terrorist groups have also attacked Shi‘a Muslims, who represent almost 20 percent of the populace. Jihadi groups created and trained to fight “infidel” communists in Afghanistan and “Hindu” India pose a growing a threat at home, but no one in a position of power has the will or courage to shut them down. And sectarian violence, including attacks on places of worship, continues to claim innocent lives. Just before Christmas last year, an attack on a Methodist Church in Quetta, Balochistan killed eight people. This came a few weeks after the TLYR sit-in, in which three thousand rabid Sufi-professing Sunni Muslim men—including the high schooler who would later kill his principal—took over Islamabad for almost three weeks, paralyzing the government.
Unfortunately, authorities’ response to this mounting radicalism has been conciliation, not confrontation. Instead of enforcing the law against the small number of protestors, the civilian government was forced to accept their demands. With the country’s army chief acting as negotiator, a truce was signed between the government and the extremists’ leader. Witnesses spotted military officers giving money to some of the protestors, raising suspicions that the protests had been engineered to further undermine the authority of the civilians.
Ironically, one of the protestors’ demands was not to allow Pakistani Ahmadi citizens to vote alongside the majority Muslim population. That reflects a tragic pattern in Pakistani history of political mobilization through intolerance for religious minorities.
In short, Pakistan’s dismal record on religious freedom is longstanding and deeply rooted. USCIRF and other advocates have spent years lamenting this state of affairs, and have repeatedly demanded that the U.S. government exert greater pressure on Islamabad over its lack of religious freedom. But the State Department has repeatedly overlooked these findings to avoid jeopardizing Pakistan’s cooperation on strategic matters.
In 2016, Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) added the “Special Watch List” option to the International Religious Freedom Act so that the State Department could protest a lack of religious freedom even when it is reluctant to trigger sanctions for a particular country. The Secretary of State seems to have taken advantage of this halfway house designation in his recent attempt to put Pakistan on notice.
The Special Watch List designation for Pakistan could help Pakistan’s religious minorities, who have received little support within their country. Such is the sway of extremist ideology in Pakistan that the cold-blooded murder of Ahmadis, Shi‘a, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs barely registers within the country, let alone abroad. The State Department’s new designation will hopefully change that reality, by publicly recognizing Pakistan as a violator of the universal norms of religious freedom and raising awareness of the precarious situation of Pakistani citizens persecuted solely for their faith.
Yet the State Department can go beyond naming and shaming Pakistan on the Special Watch List. After the confirmation of former Senator Sam Brownback as the new U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, the United States could include religious discrimination as an important plank in its diplomatic interaction with Pakistan. That might mean further relegating Pakistan to the list of Countries of Particular Concern, and thus triggering sanctions, unless Pakistan reforms its discriminatory and dangerous laws.
As U.S. Senator during the 1990s, Mr. Brownback wrote legislation that helped Pakistan partially overcome American sanctions resulting from pursuing a nuclear weapons program. He could use the goodwill he has with Pakistan’s civil and military leaders to remind them of their duties towards religious minorities under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Prioritizing this issue is not simply the right thing to do for Pakistan’s beleaguered minorities. It is also a smart course correction for Washington at a time when the United States is finally reconsidering its strained alliance with Pakistan.
The writer Farahnaz Ispahani is a former member of Pakistan’s Parliament, where she served on the foreign affairs and human rights committees. Her book Purifying The Land of the Pure: The History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities (Oxford University Press) was published in 2017. She is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC.
Farahnaz Ispahani ‘85 has been a leading voice for women and religious minorities in Pakistan for over two decades, working as a journalist, member of Pakistan’s National Assembly, and most recently as a United States-based scholar. An advocate of Pakistan’s return to democracy during the military regime of Pervez Musharraf, she served as a spokesperson and international media coordinator for the Pakistan People’s Party, working alongside the late Benazir Bhutto. During her tenure in parliament (2008-2012), she was a member of the Foreign Affairs and Human Rights committees and the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus. In 2013 and 2014 she was a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where she completed “Purifying the Land of the Pure: A History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities” (2016), a book on the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan. In 2012 she was listed among Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers, as well as Newsweek Pakistan’s Top 100 Women Who Matter.
What led you to Wellesley?
I arrived at Wellesley through family connections to the college. My grandfather, M.A.H Ispahani had spoken at Wellesley when he was Pakistan’s first Ambassador to the United States. My eldest sister attended Wellesley in the late 70s. I had never been to the United States before and I wanted to go to school in a warmer part of the country but I got in and the choice was made for me!
However, once I got to Wellesley I appreciated its unique and very special education and community and made it mine. Wellesley changed my life.
How did your childhood and family influence your work as an adult? Â Who was your biggest role model growing up?
Growing up in Pakistan in the 1970s I attended a convent school run by a teaching order of nuns from Ireland. My class was made up of girls from every religious and ethnic community of my city Karachi. We never knew who was a Christian or Shia or Sunni Muslim or a Hindu or a Parsi. The nuns ensured an atmosphere of inclusion. I started understanding that I belonged to a religious minority when my mother, siblings and I used to attend majlises or religious gatherings in the month of mourning which is called Muharram. We saw a city and country where we could commemorate this month in peace and our Sunni neighbors would acknowledge the solemnity and respect us to a point where our places of worship are surrounded by tanks and armed police or army men and we are frisked for metal objects and guns when we enter in case we are terrorist wanting to blow us up.
My career in journalism, politics and as a scholar was deeply influenced by what we as a family witnessed and experienced.
My greatest role model was my Iranian grandmother. She was an amazing woman who made Pakistan her home and founded and ran the first day care center in Karachi that enabled middle class and poor women to work and have their children in a safe environment where they were taught and fed. She also founded and ran an orphanage for unwanted children. Some were left outside in the dead of the night in a basket. In a society that rejects illegitimate children Kashana e Atfal and Naunehal took in and educated thousands of girls and still does. Some of the young women who were adopted from Kashana attended Oxford, Cambridge and the Sorbonne.
Khanumjoon, as we called her lovingly, spoke 5 languages including Farsi, Urdu, French, German and Turkish. She also attended London University and got a social science degree during WW11.
Her affection, love, guidance and time were a constant for us throughout her life.
With Pakistan being Sunni run and about 77 percent Sunni, does that lead to distrust towards them from religious minorities? Based on the number of claims of blasphemy and harsh penalties for it, is it hard to people of different religions (and within Muslims for Shi’ites and Ahmadis) to trust each other?
The founder of Pakistan, M.A. Jinnah was a Shia Muslim and he was supported in the creation of Pakistan by the head of the Ahmadi Muslim community. Unfortunately, Mr. Jinnah died a year after the birth of Pakistan. The downward descent of what I call ‘communal majoritarianism’ kicked in immediately and anti-Shia and anti-Ahmadi movements gained strength. Today, we see sectarian terrorist groups that kill those of Muslim minority and Christian and Hindu minority faiths and blow up their places of worship. The leaders of these groups are known to the authorities but remain free to address open public rallies and travel. The Blasphemy Law in Pakistan is considered the toughest in the world and carries a death penalty if convicted. Once this law was passed it gave the general public of Pakistan a sort of license to judge and convict anyone they feel has blasphemed.
You said in a paper in 2013 for the Hudson Institute that Ahmadis make up only 0.22 percent of the population of Pakistan. How much of a change is that since the Partition? I saw an article recently in Dawn that another Ahmadi Muslim was killed. Do you think they’ll ever be safe in Pakistan?
Members of Ahmadi sect forbidden to call themselves Muslim. Ahmadis are some of the most common defendants in criminal charges of blasphemy, which in Pakistan can carry the death penalty. By law they cannot call their place of worship mosques or distribute religious literature, recite the Koran or use traditional Islamic greetings, measures that they say criminalize their daily lives.
The legal restrictions began in 1974, when the then-Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto passed a constitutional amendment declaring Ahmadis non-Muslim. A decade later military dictator General Zia ul Haq barred Ahmadis from identifying themselves as Muslim.
The exact percentage is hard to calculate as though many Ahmadis have fled the country and gained asylum in the US, Canada, UK and Australia the constant increase of the Pakistani population which is not easily attainable as many Ahmadis have to hide their faith to be able to work and ensure the safety of their families.
I do not think they will be safe in Pakistan in my lifetime. In the month of November alone, nuclear armed Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad has been taken hostage by thousands of religious extremists demanding further restrictions on the county’s Ahmadi Muslims & praising convicted criminals like Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of our former governor, Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer.
Also, The National Assembly (Parliament) has passed the new Elections (Amendment) Bill 2017 challenging the voter registration of anyone accused of being an Ahmadi.
The bill relates to the fresh delimitation of constituencies keeping in view the provisional results of the recently conducted census with respect to the upcoming general elections in 2018.
Speaking on the new law ‘Elections Amendment Bill 2017′ Senate Deputy Chairman Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, who belongs to the Islamist Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-F, said that the Ahmadis’ status is the same as it was back in the 1973 Constitution. Reinforcing the Ahmadis vulnerable position and demonstrating that the parliament and government consider them non-Muslims.
Can Pakistan ever be a place where all feel safe and welcome regardless of religion?
In my lifetime only former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf had the power during his ten year rule to change the laws and ensure prosecution of those who attacked minority groups. And, to disband sectarian terrorist organizations. But he did not. I am not hopeful in the rational sense but one has to keep hope alive to ensure change one day.
Can social media be freely used or is it regulated as part of the blasphemy laws?
It is regulated to some extent. People have been arrested for blasphemy because of blasphemy allegations of online comments and killed as university student Mashal Khan was. But, like others, his family has not received justice. Journalists and bloggers speaking freely on social media have disappeared, been tortured and fled the country.
Especially after writing Purifying the Land of the Pure can you safely return to Pakistan? If not what would have to change for that to be possible?
I have gone back on a handful of occasions – but in a very low key manner and with a full understanding of the risks. Anyone who has written and spoken as much about the issues I do can never be safe in Pakistan. Vigilante justice continues unimpeded.
Do you think it’s possible to have a country based on a religion that’s welcoming to those who don’t follow that religion?
No. There has to be a separation of church and state and all citizens must be considered equal under the constitution. Religion or ethnicity cannot be a part of any modern and civilized nation.
Your work has largely focused on bringing Pakistan back to democracy. How do you hold onto hope for a country with such a history of violence?
Hope does spring eternal. However, as Pakistan is a relatively young country one can only work for a better tomorrow. But, I know how ugly the lives of those of minority community faiths are. That spurs me on. The country belongs to every single Pakistani and they deserve that.
I can’t even imagine getting to work with Benazir Bhutto as you did both when she was in exile and when she returned to Pakistan in September 2007. What is your favorite story about her?
Benazir Bhutto, was human and had faults but what a great leader she was. I still miss her every day. She had political intelligence, knowledge of her country and the world and a deep compassion and empathy for women, the disadvantaged and the persecuted. She was hated by the religious right wing forces.
My favorite story about Bibi as any of us referred to her was the day after her arrival. Estimates say that 1 million supporters gathered to welcome her arrival. As her caravan slowly inched through Karachi terrorists set off two bombs to kill her. Many died but she managed to survive.
The following day Benazir Bhutto held a press conference in her small garden at her Karachi home. It was packed with PPP party officials and reporters. Benazir arrived in a old pair of glasses from her bedside drawer as the ones she had on were shattered in the blast. The audio didn’t work. Bibi picked up a hand mike and without missing a stride spoke so clearly and with an unshaken sense of mission.
She answered every question although she was mourning those who had lost their lives and been up all night talking to her family and party people.
That was Benazir. Brilliant and unbowed. And, kind..Finding a bond with every woman she met. Rich or poor, educated or not. Privately her humor, and love of chocolate and ice cream, and escaping to a movie or a having a cozy chat for a brief respite from her lifetime of heavy responsibility. I always thought of her as the perfect Wellesley woman though she went to Radcliffe!