A one-man tribunal in Pakistan set up to investigate the riots in Gojra in August 2009 which killed eight Christians has recommended a review of the country’s controversial blasphemy law. The 325-page report, produced by a former Lahore High Court judge, highlights five provisions in the law relating to Islam which should be revisited both to prevent misuse and to ensure that it aligns with Article 25 of Pakistan’s constitution, which stipulates the equality of all citizens. Before going to parliament for approval, various schools of Islamic thought and the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) will be consulted on the changes.
Between 28 July and 1 August 2009, a mob of more than 800 Muslims raided a Christian settlement in the town of Gojra in Pakistan’s Punjab province. Around 60 houses were burnt down and eight Christians were killed, seven of whom were from one family. The attack was regarded as retribution for an alleged charge of blasphemy following rumours that a Quran had been burned during a wedding ceremony. Seven years on still no justice has been served for the Christian victims of the crime.
The five provisions – two of which cover the defiling of the Quran and defamation of Muhammad – have been highlighted because they give a platform for injustice between religions to thrive. This stands in conflict with Article 25 of the Constitution of Pakistan stipulating the equality of all citizens. According to The Express Tribune, “The judge also pointed out that the law is often misused for ulterior motives. He referred to the rising number of blasphemy cases registered in the country, though conviction rates remain low and none of the sentences awarded have been fully executed.”
Barnabas Fund has reported on a number of incidents in Pakistan where the blasphemy law – which for some types of blasphemy imposes a mandatory death penalty – is used as an excuse to attack not just the individuals alleged to have committed blasphemy but also the wider Christian community. In one recent example, Christians in Gujrat were attacked after a Christian man allegedly sent blasphemous messages insulting Muhammad via WhatsApp. Because legal provision is made for punishing blasphemy, the authorities tend to do little either to stop the attacks or punish the perpetrators.
To prevent the blasphemy law from being misused in future, the judge also suggested that provision is made for punishing people who make false accusations.
Whilst the recommendations made by the judge are welcome, it is unlikely that they will be heeded in practice. In Pakistan, the Federal Sharia Court is supreme over the country’s constitution, and the blasphemy law is aligned with sharia. This means that any recommendation that appeals to the constitution but conflicts with the sharia court will be rejected. Furthermore, the recommendations will only be considered by parliament after “achieving consensus of Mujtahideen of all Muslim schools of thought” and consultation with the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII). Given the hardline stance taken by some within these camps, as well as the wider population’s support for the blasphemy law, it is difficult to see how an agreed consensus on easing the injustices of the law can be reached in the immediate term.