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In Pakistan elections are no guarantee of liberal democracy

By Riaz Hassan - posted Thursday, 23 May 2013

The recent Pakistani elections have been universally hailed as a democratic milestone in the country's chequered political history. Will this democratic milestone bring a reprieve for Pakistan's minorities who have been victims of Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws? The evidence from the election campaign is not encouraging.

During their campaigns the leaders of all three main political parties- Pakistan Muslim League (N), Pakistan Justice Party and Pakistan Peoples' Party, have either reaffirmed their support for blasphemy laws or simply ignored that they are an instrument of persecution of the minorities.

PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif, the prime mister in waiting, reaffirmed his support for blasphemy laws. It was not surprising since he was an architect for introducing section 295- B of Pakistan's blasphemy law which makes wilful damaging or desecration of the Quran an offence punishable with life imprisonment. And later a more draconian section 295-C which reads: "whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall be also liable to fine".


In the early 1990s Nawaz Sharif's Government amended this law by removing the option of "life sentence" for those convicted of blasphemy making the death sentence mandatory.

Since their introduction these laws have been extensively abused to harass and persecute members of religious minorities such as Christian, Hindus and Ahmadis as well as members of Sunni majority. Hundreds of people have been charged under these laws. Over half of the people charged are Non-Muslims who constitute 5 percent of the Pakistan population and the majority of cases have been filed in the Punjab. In all cases, charges are brought arbitrarily and are founded on malicious accusations, primarily as a measure to intimidate and punish members of minority communities or non-conforming Muslims.

Reports suggest that factors such as personal enmity, professional envy, economic rivalry and politics play a significant role in persecutions. A common feature of accusations of blasphemy is the manner in which they are uncritically accepted by the prosecution authorities, who themselves might face intimidation and threats should they fail to accept the accusations.

In May 1998, as Prime Mister Nawaz Sharif tried to implement Sharia law through the 15th amendment to the constitution, which proposed the creation of an Islamic order in Pakistan based on the Sharia and the Quran. This amendment was never implemented because of opposition in the Senate and the subsequent military coup by General Pervaz Musharraff. The PML-N has frequently portrayed itself as the true successor of Muhammad Ali Jinnah's Muslim League, committed to safeguarding Pakistan's Islamic ideology. Nawaz Sharif has affirmed his support of Pakistan's blasphemy laws and against instituting any changes in them. One hopes that his incoming government will not resurrect the 15th amendment.

Imran Khan's political ascendance is welcomed by many as evidence of a coming secular modernity. This is not borne out by his public statements. He has supported the blasphemy law claiming that in its absence people would be lynched and there would be anarchy. He has claimed that the law helps keeping the peace. The evidence shows the opposite.

There have been more cases registered under blasphemy law. As mentioned earlier in the majority of cases the reasons are personal enmity, professional envy, economic rivalry and politics and not religious offence. One of the most persecuted Muslim sects in Pakistan are the Ahmadis. A week before the election Imran Khan declared Ahmadis as non- Muslim and would not campaign for their support. Not a message of religious tolerance and conciliation for his young followers.


The Pakistan Peoples' Party has a creditable record for seeking to amend Pakistan's Hadood laws (Islamic laws) introduced by the former military ruler General Zia ul Haq in 1980s as part of his Islamization program. These laws have severely eroded and undermined the constitutional guarantees of life and liberty of Pakistani citizens. Instead of protecting these rights they have become instruments of oppression especially for Pakistani women.

Ironically it was the Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the founder of PPP, who passed the law in 1974 declaring Ahmadis as non-Muslim in the first place. In the 1980s under the rule of General Zia Ahmadi faith was declared a blasphemous criminal offence. Since then the Ahmadis are allowed to vote only for parliamentary seats reserved for non-Muslims. In the last five years, hundreds of Ahmadis, Shias and Christians have been killed in Pakistani cities.

The irony of Pakistan's blasphemy law is that in Islam there is no exact equivalent of the Christian notion of blasphemy. But Islamic legal traditions have evolved to use the concept ofkufr (rejection of God and the divine revelation) to define blasphemy. In this sense, expressing religious opinions that are at variance with standard (or prevailing) Islamic views become blasphemous.

Religious tolerance is under siege in Pakistan from all directions. The record of the political parties and their leaders which will now dominate Pakistan's national parliament does not auger well for changes in Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws.

All political parties have declared their allegiance to the vision of Pakistan's founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah who asked legislators of Pakistan's first parliament in August 1947 to work for the well being of new country's masses and said, "...every one of you, no matter to what community he belongs, no matter what relations he had with you in the past, no matter what his color, caste or creed, is first, second and last a citizen of this state with equal rights, privileges and obligations". He again repeated his message of religious equality a few days later saying: "Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic state to be ruled by priests with a divine mission. We have many non-Muslims-Hindus, Christians, and Parsis - but they are all Pakistanis. They will enjoy the same rights and privileges as any other citizen and will play their rightful part in the affairs of Pakistan".

Let us hope that the newly elected members of the National Parliament will reflect on these words and start a national conversation on equality of citizenship for all and give religious tolerance a chance to thrive in Pakistan. That may make Jinnah's dream come true.

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About the Author

Riaz Hassan is Australian Professorial Fellow and Emeritus Professor at Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia and Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies of National University of Singapore. His most recent books are: Islam and Society: Sociological Explorations (Melbourne University Press 2013) and, Life as a Weapon: The Global Rise of Suicide Bombings, (Routledge January 2014).

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