Thursday, February 5, 2015

Pakistan's blasphemy laws endanger religious minorities

Blasphemy is a hot potato in Pakistan and has claimed numerous lives, including the lives of two prominent politicians who spoke out against the country's blasphemy laws. Despite the danger involved in speaking out against the archaic laws the struggle to have them taken off law books or repealed must go on.

A Christian family victimized by a blasphemy charge recently appealed for help, and once again put Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws in the spot light.

Asia Bibi, a woman from Pakistan's Punjab region has been on death row for almost five years. According to the BBC, the poor, illiterate woman was accused and sentenced to death for insulting prophet Muhammad after an argument with a group of Muslim women. She was beaten by a mob before her arrest and crowds took to the streets after her conviction calling for her death. Others threatened to kill her if she ever got out of prison. She denies the charges, and her family has been in hiding since after her arrest.

Pope Benedict XVI called for her release in 2010.

The story of Asia Bibi is not unique.

Many other Pakistanis have suffered grave injustice as a result of Pakistan's blasphemy laws which, according to the BBC, prescribes life imprisonment for desecration of the Koran, and death or life imprisonment for blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad. Pakistan's blasphemy craze has claimed numerous lives.

In 2010, two Christians were gunned down outside a court in Faisalabad. A year later Punjab governor Salman Teseer who opposed the blasphemy law and tried to reform it was killed by his bodyguard. Some hailed the killer as a hero. Religious Minority Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, who spoke out against the law was killed a month after the governor. In 2014, a young Christian couple was beaten and burned to death by a mob in a village in Punjab province after being accused of desecrating the Koran.

It is my opinion that Pakistan's blasphemy laws embolden Islamic extremists and endanger religious minorities. Opposition to the law should continue albeit life-threatening danger involved. After all, no civil rights struggle has been without danger. The law, the way I see it, is designed to force non-Muslims to comply to Islamic standards -- and this violates a catalog of human rights including the right to free expression and the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Unspeakable things happen in the name of religion.

Non-state actors like ISS, Boko Haram, other terrorist groups and so-called "lone wolves" are mostly responsible for atrocities in the name of religion - from Peshawar to Punjab in Pakistan to Kobani and Raqqa in Syria and from Paris to Sydney. But some state actors like Pakistan contribute in spreading religious intolerance through archaic blasphemy laws that could be used to settle scores against religious minorities.

The government of Pakistan, in my opinion, should repeal the blasphemy laws and take a tough stance against people who carry out mob killings and assassinations in the name of Islam. Pakistan has seen too many mob killings related to the country's blasphemy laws. Even the police cannot be trusted with enforcing the blasphemy laws. Last year, an axe-wielding Pakistani policeman killed a suspect of blasphemy. Impartial enforcement of the controversial laws is not be guaranteed.

The laws should be eradicated from law books and extrajudicial killers should be reigned in. Only then would Pakistan's religious minorities, including Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus feel some degree of safety from persecution sanctioned by law; only then would religious minority families in hiding, such as the family of Asia Bibi come out of hiding and feel safe in their country. Until then, Pakistan remains an unpredictable place for members of religious minority groups - a place where accusation of blasphemy or criticism of blasphemy laws can be a death sentence.

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