The persecution of minorities under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws has attracted serious attention from the international community. While Christians and other minority groups plea for their safety from mob violence and injustice resulting from false allegations of blasphemy, ending in death sentences and long prison terms under the blasphemy laws, many Muslims, as a gesture of their respect for the Islamic religion and love for their Prophet Muhammad, robustly advocate for the same laws and would not allow any changes to the laws that might reduce persecution.
Yet, the history and development of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws should raise concerns as to whether the laws have served their intended purpose. That is to say, are blasphemy laws protecting the sanctity of the Islamic religion? In an important case called Muhammad Mahboob v. The State, P.L.D. 2002 Lahore 587, the Lahore High Court outlined the history of the blasphemy laws, noting that the blasphemy laws were initially enacted by the British to protect the religious sentiments of the Muslim minorities in the Indian Sub-Continent. After Pakistan gained independence, Pakistan made the laws more stringent. The Court alluded to the fact that, after Pakistan came into being, there was no need for additional blasphemy laws because Muslims were no longer a minority in Pakistan, and thus, did not need such protection.
The Lahore High Court noted that in 1980, section 295-A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs, providing ten years in prison) was added to the penal code. In 1982, section 295-B (willful desecration of the Quran, with life in prison) was added. And finally, section 295-C (using derogatory remarks against Prophet Muhammad) was enacted. The Court also noted that, while initially section 295-C provided the punishment of life in prison, in 1991, the Federal Shariat Court replaced it with a mandatory death penalty.
The High Court then cited to a news article stating that, “between 1948 and 1979 [before the more stringent blasphemy laws], 11 cases of blasphemy were registered. Three cases were reported between . . . 1979 and 1986. Forty-four cases were registered between 1987 and 1999. In 2000, fifty-two cases were registered.” The court stated that the spike in blasphemy accusations
shows that the law[s were] being abused . . . to settle [personal] scores. . . . [T]he police would readily register such a case . . . without checking the veracity of the facts [or] without taking proper guidance from well-known and unbiased religious scholar[s], [and then] would proceed to arrest an accused. [In addition,] an Assistant Sub-Inspector . . . was academically not competent to adjudge whether or not the circumstances constitute [an] act of blasphemy.
As the government has made the laws more stringent, the statistics demonstrate an increase in blasphemy. Accordingly, blasphemy laws have not served their intended purpose, i.e., protecting the sanctity of the Islamic religion. Most allegations are false, based on trumped-up charges, and made in an effort to settle personal scores. Complainants, therefore, often create false evidence of blasphemy, e.g., either by producing blasphemous words or desecrated Quranic text for evidentiary purposes. With the creation of false evidence, and each time the blasphemous statements are repeated in court, whether by cross-examination or proffered for evidence in court documents, more blasphemy occurs. Severe punishments for bringing false allegations and producing false evidence are already provided in Chapter XI of the Pakistan Penal Code for serious offences, but these provisions have never been used in blasphemy cases.
It appears that those who make false allegations do not respect the stated purpose of the blasphemy laws. Accordingly, Muslims who genuinely wish to reduce blasphemous acts or statements should advocate for amending or abolishing the blasphemy laws as the abuse of these laws has only increased blasphemy within Pakistan.
The High Court in Muhammad Mahboob, also discussed the element of intent in blasphemy cases. I have argued previously, as do most critics of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, that the laws should be amended to include an express element of mens rea (criminal intent). Although such an amendment would eliminate any ambiguity as to whether criminal intent is required for blasphemy, in reality, the element of mens rea is not only essential but inherent in criminal law (except in strict liability offenses) even when it is not expressly stated in a particular statute. The High Court has emphasized this point in many cases and reversed blasphemy convictions for lack of criminal intent, among other things. See e.g., Pawan Kumar v. The State, 2010 M.L.D. 253; Qari Muhammad Younas v. The State, 2001 Y.L.R. 484.
In Muhammad Mahboob, the Lahore High Court stated that criminal intent is a required element not only under Pakistani law but under Islamic law. The court provided a number of hadiths (Prophet Muhammad’s sayings) that prohibit punishing the accused for blasphemy if no intent to blaspheme was found. Yet, in many blasphemy cases under current Pakistani law, the investigating officers make no inquiries into the mental state of the accused nor do the defense attorneys robustly argue that the accused did not intend to violate the law.
The Pakistani government and the Muslim community must seriously consider these aspects, which are not often the subject of public discourse. Muslims must consider whether it is appropriate to punish innocent individuals (regardless of their contrary beliefs) under the laws that are not fulfilling their purpose. Should Muslims who sincerely love and respect the Prophet Muhammad ignore the real blasphemer, i.e., the person who creates false evidence of blasphemy? Should the real blasphemer go scot-free and an innocent person pay for the blasphemer’s sins? Is this the kind of justice provided in Islam?
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