Politics is best understood as a game of chess: every pawn, rook and knight has its purpose, every move depends on the previous one. No major law or political event is in isolation; each one has a long history in a philosophy or a series of events and proponents on either side. Without an honest appreciation of this background, the ground-realities and a found understanding of the public narrative many efforts to reform can inadvertently spiral into chaos.
The current attempts to reform or repeal the blasphemy law are such moves. No matter how draconian the law may be it can not be changed so easily and so quickly, as the well-intentioned but rather naive move of proposing an amendment wrongly suggests. This proposed amendment and the legitimate outburst by Human Rights Groups in Pakistan has triggered preemptive action across the country : A cleric has offered a cash reward for murdering the accused; protests against inflation and for the return of missing people have turned into pro-blasphemy law rallies; judges have barred the government from amending the law; lawyers have passed resolutions to pressurize government to not consider this amendment, and the urdu media has its own take on the issue. Will the amendment even pass when not one directly elected MNA has voiced their support for the amendment?
Pakistan has many serious issues facing the common man ranging from unemployment, inflation and security problems but the largest public shows of outrage have predominantly been on issues involving religion. When a newspaper in a country far far away published cartoons mocking Islam and the Prophet (Pbuh) hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets. Majority of the protestors had not seen the cartoons themselves but the very thought that someone dare insulted the Prophet (Pbuh) led to nationwide chaos. 70,000 people took to the streets in Peshawar alone. This is only one city on one particular day.
The blasphemy law is the end product of similar protests that started as soon as Pakistan gained its independence. The trigger for these protests was the notion that a group dared to claim to be Muslims while denying the finality of the Prophet (Pbuh). Two decades of off-and-on riots and protests eventually inspired arguably the most liberal politician to come to power in Pakistan’s history, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to sanction the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan which declared Ahmedis non-Muslims. Zia went a step ahead and sanctioned punishments to Ahmedis who preached or declared themselves Muslim as part of the blasphemy law package. Other factors notwithstanding, it were the anti-Ahmediya riots of 1953 that became a major component in the dismissal of PM Khawaja Nazimuddin and his entire cabinet. Such is the seriousness of the issue for everyday Pakistanis and the street power of these groups. A recent poll conducted by PEW found out that only 16 % of Pakistanis opposed capital punishment for apostasy, only 11 % opposed segregation at work places and stoning to death for adultery and 13 % opposed amputation for theft. Such statistics as well as the past suggest that human rights groups are very misled in believing that they can either match the street power of these groups or have public sympathy for their cause.
Amending the law is in effect trying for a symptomatic treatment of a deep-rooted cancer. Unless the underlying factors which prompt up such a law, grant its abuse and propagate its support are addressed cases like Aasia Bibi’s will come about. The correct approach for the liberal elites is to first understand the realm of possibilities in Pakistan and realize that a repeal of the law is not currently in it. Instead, efforts should focus on strengthening the capacity of the state, improving rule of law in the country and promoting tolerance for others in the society, ideals which do have public support. A strong state will punish those who wrongly accuse, jail clerics for inciting people to violence and the benefits will not be restricted to just the victims of the blasphemy law.
However these reforms must be taken up independently and as an end in their selves. The minute such effort became part of a blasphemy law reform package and the likes of Mehr Bukhari get the chance to stir our ‘ghairat’ they are doomed for failure. Only then, and maybe after decades of promoting tolerance, can the preconditions for a rational debate on blasphemy law be achieved.