It was a painfully cold, dark night. Not a star was visible in the sky. There was an eerie silence that shrouded us – not even the crickets were chirping. The only sounds were of determined footsteps trampling – even punishing, the ground beneath our feet. Those marching steps pounded the earth with devious glee: A hushed jubilation of sorts, oblivious to their approaching ruin. It was a monstrous trudge to condemn society. In fact, all of us. For not taking a stand against the transgressions around us. Understandably, most are afraid of speaking up for fear of loss, even though a much more menacing judgment awaits. Still, no one could see it.
A heavy fog had obscured our vision, but our transgressions had blinded us much before. The air was thick with the rancid scent of burnt flesh. I was witness to this. I was among them, but not from them. Nevertheless, I will be judged. Why? Because I heard a cowardly voice shriek “Blasphemy!” and did nothing. Such is the perversity of charging former Prime Minister Imran Khan with the unholiest of unholy offenses. How absurd to say a man who galvanized the international community for Islamophobia Day at the United Nations, is blasphemous? How perverse it is to condemn an individual who wishes to genuinely educate society to emulate Prophet Muhammad? What kind of corrupt political order allows such venomous manipulation of religious sentiments? The desperate lows that Pakistan's new unrepresentative government has fallen are igniting a fire that will not spare them either.
The draconian “Blasphemy Laws” in Pakistan originate during the tumultuous British Raj. In 1860, when neither India or Pakistan existed, the British lords began to solidify territories under their titular control bypassing numerous edicts such as the Blasphemy Laws. Originally meant to placate religious sentiment, they often worked to inflame tensions. In 1947, when the British supremacy ended over the vast multiethnic/religious expanse of South Asia, all successor states – Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and India, inherited these laws. In each country, these laws have been weaponized in different ways. This is because these are not organic laws, rising from internal socio-cultural negotiation.
In Pakistan, the blasphemy laws have undergone several additions. From Pakistan's late Prime Minister Zulfiqar Bhutto's government declaring the Ahmadi community non-Muslim – directly bearing on the instrumentalization of the law, to the 1980s that penalized derogatory remarks against Islamic personalities, desecrating the Quran, and recommended the death penalty. Ever since, these laws have been widely condemned – including in Pakistan. While it is popularly misrepresented that these laws persecute minority faiths, the reality is that victims have been overwhelmingly Muslims. This is confirmed by the Center for Research and Security Studies that shows from 1947 to 2021 a total of 1,504 blasphemy accusations were made, 1,007 against Muslims. Looking closely, the blasphemy laws have little or nothing to do with religion. They are weaponized to discredit litigants over land disputes, inheritance and property issues, and/or petty conflicts. Qibla Ayaz, who heads Pakistan's top advisory body on religious affairs, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), told BBC he had advised strict penalties for misuse of this law. However, that has not happened.
Now, a case of blasphemy was registered against Khan. The charge stems from slogans raised against the new Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif while he was entering Prophet Muhammad's Mosque in Medina. A video of pilgrims calling him a “thief” went viral. Of course, politicizing a religious pilgrimage is unacceptable, but what did this have to do with Khan or several other leaders in his political party? Absolutely nothing. These random pilgrims are not card-bearing Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) members, nor can any reasonable claim be made that they were encouraged by others. These are furious Pakistanis who resent Sharif, currently on bail for corruption, for the alleged crime of coordinating with foreigners to usurp power in their country. To blame Khan for this is a vicious manipulation of an already controversial law.
Specifically, Khan has been charged under sections 295, 295A and 296 of Pakistan's Penal Code (PCC): Section 295 PPC specifically relates to destroying or defiling a place of worship; Section 295A deals with deliberate and malicious intent to offend religious sentiments; Section 296 is obstructing the performance of religious duties. Together, these are not even applicable, considering the incident occurred in a foreign country. In addition, there is no evidence that the waylaying pilgrims were encouraged by Khan or belonged to his political party. In fact, he has outright condemned it. Considering that, how was he even charged? It all smacks of deliberate maneuvering of the judicial system for political objectives.
Lastly, the grim political situation in Pakistan necessitates condemning reckless manipulation of religious zeal and the weaponization of the blasphemy law, or any laws for that matter. In desperation, Pakistan's current government has chosen to inflame people's sentiments by supporting these false accusations of blasphemy. This sets a dangerous precedent. The judiciary stands at a critical juncture and must do its part to dissuade those who for petty privileges, political opportunism, or narrow self-interest would burn down the house. Just a few days ago, in the latest of the ongoing political saga of Pakistan, the Supreme Court finally gave its verdict prohibiting horse-trading and defection from political parties. This was a welcome, albeit late step, which if resolved earlier would have prevented state institutional and economic collapse. Still, better late than never and now it is crucial to compel early elections to secure the mandate of the people. Otherwise, there will only be a greater risk of further instability.
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