“Pakistan’s blasphemy laws persecute the weakest of the weak” By Farahnaz Ispahani

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.”

Asia Bibi
Asia Bibi- who was sentenced to death under Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law

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.”

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Author Farahnaz Ispahani

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.


The article was originally published by CNN & link: Pakistan’s blasphemy laws persecute the weakest of the weak by Farahnaz Ispahani

Persecution in the Land of the Pure by FARAHNAZ ISPAHANI

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 article was published by “The American Interest” Persecution in the Land of the Pure By Farahnaz Ispahani

on: January 30, 2018

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.

“Reviving Jinnah’s Legacy of Religious Freedom in Pakistan” Farahnaz Ispahani

In establishing a homeland for Muslims, Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, also supported the idea of Islam serving as a unifying force and believed Pakistanis had a responsibility to uphold the principles of religious freedom and to protect the rights of religious minorities.

As religious intolerance and violence against religious minorities grows, it is clear that Pakistan has failed to uphold Jinnah’s original vision. Whether it is attacks on the Ahmadi community as in the one last December, or on the Christian community as in the mob lynching last November of two Christians accused of blasphemy, or on the Shia community as in the bus attack in May in Karachi that killed over 40 – Pakistan must do a better job of protecting its religious minorities. Join us to hear Senator James Lankford, who has been an advocate for upholding religious freedom throughout the world, and a distinguished panel of experts as they address what can be done to revive Jinnah’s legacy of religious freedom in Pakistan.

Link to the speech of Ms Farahnaz Ispahni speech at “Reviving Jinnah’s Legacy of Religious Freedom in Pakistan”

Reviving Jinnah’s Legacy of Religious Freedom in Pakistan