Event Recap - Sharia and the State in Pakistan: Blasphemy Politics | Wilson Center

Event Recap - Sharia and the State in Pakistan: Blasphemy Politics

Farhat Haq’s new book, Sharia and the State in Pakistan, highlights the often censored debates on the controversial blasphemy law that has caused much social instability in the country. She outlines how the word Sharia is not considered a neutral term anymore but invokes strong emotions globally. Haq explains how Sharia used to be an organic part of the social fabric of Muslim lives, but with modernity and the rapid change of the global geopolitical landscape in the last three decades, Sharia is now exercised for different agendas.

...blasphemy law is not a creation of the Pakistani government, but the British Raj.

At a launch event for her new book, Haq, a professor at Monmouth University and a former Wilson Center fellow, explained that blasphemy law is not a creation of the Pakistani government, but the British Raj. These blasphemy laws made under colonial rule were created to protect all religious minorities. However, after the creation of Pakistan, Zia-ul-Haq amended the colonial penal code to ensure that not only non-Muslims, but also non-Sunni Muslims, could easily be convicted of committing blasphemy. It became commonplace to accuse non-Muslims of blasphemy on the basis of personal vendettas. Haq expressed disappointment at the number of blasphemy laws that were written in the constitution, stating that laws should be created to protect people, not disadvantage them. “His (one falsely accused of blasphemy) plight is due to an excess of laws, not a lack of it,” said Haq.

Anwar Iqbal, Washington D.C. correspondent for Dawn newspaper in Pakistan, offered commentary and shared his experience as a journalist covering public flogging during Zia’s regime. He narrated an article he wrote on one of the floggings he attended, explaining how floggings became a much awaited public spectacle in the 1980s. He further shared the severe media censorship that affected thousands of Pakistani journalists.

Even high-level politicians are not safe from false accusations of blasphemy. Haq shed light on the assassination of former Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer. Taseer was brutally murdered by his security guard Mumtaz Qadri, but after his immediate imprisonment, Qadri amassed a large following and his trial ended up taking years. His execution caused nationwide protests, underscoring the shockingly widespread approval of the blasphemy laws. Hassan Abbas, Professor at National Defense University and another event commentator, explained that Taseer never challenged the essence of blasphemy law but the misguided procedural implications of it. Haq blamed the “alienating language of legal proceedings” that makes the legal system of Pakistan “incapable of adjudicating on blasphemy.”

Pakistan was created on the foundation of religion, which makes any reform of Islamic laws near impossible.

Why has the Pakistani government not amended these laws that unfairly target minorities? Firstly, Haq pointed out, a significant portion of the population are in complete favor of the laws and would revolt if any reform is made; the government has tried to amend the blasphemy laws but has had to retreat due to public opinion. Secondly, and most importantly, Haq emphasizes the intrinsic link between Islam and the national identity of Pakistanis. Pakistan was created on the foundation of religion, which makes any reform of Islamic laws near impossible. “Sharia in its current form is not compatible with democracy,” said Haq.  She stressed the blasphemous nature of false accusations of blasphemy, which are quite common, that make the accuser, not the victim, guilty of committing blasphemy. However, this often avoided argument in Pakistan of accusing religious clerics of blasphemy will only lead to more unrest.

Haq’s commentary on the controversial blasphemy laws sheds light on an important topic that is often discussed only within closed circles in Pakistan.

Listen to the full event audio below:

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The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2019, Asia Program. All rights reserved.