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Stand up against the blasphemy laws

by Sherry Rehman, 24 November 2010

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The Express Tribune, 24 November, 2010

The sentencing to death of a Christian woman on charges of blasphemy by a sessions court in Nankana Sahib has created an uproar in Pakistan. The Aasia Bibi case has touched a raw nerve among thousands of people for more than one reason. The trigger for her ordeal to become a test case for our independent judiciary to do justice without prejudice is obvious. The woman is clearly a victim rather than a blasphemer. She has suffered incarceration for a year over just the kind of charges the blasphemy laws have been used in Pakistan for: to settle personal scores, build pressure for property disputes or simply browbeat minority communities into emigration or life as third class citizens.

But public anger about the case is not just about the mala fide intent of her accusers. It is about the majority of Pakistanis losing memory of what constitutes citizenship and its attendant Constitutional protections. At the heart of this darkness lies our public guilt by complicity. This guilt is about allowing what statutory safeguards we have to be degraded into paper guarantees that only protect the privileged and rarely the vulnerable. It is about standing by, wringing our hands at worst; at best speaking out, writing articles, leading rallies and overturning harsh verdicts. It is about the failure of the silent majority to mobilise resources and marshal support to overturn the laws that allow for such grave injustices to be done in the name of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) who staked his life to protect the weak, especially the minorities, against the bloodlust of zealots.

It is the responsibility of the courts how they interpret the blasphemy laws. And it is the responsibility of the government, as well as parliament, to take notice of laws that allow impunity for such murderous bigotry and initiate a process that dismantles the architecture of these man-made laws. But it is also the responsibility of citizens, especially those who profit the most from Pakistan, to stand up again such attacks on its existential premise. In any civilised country, where the identity of the state was so contested that no one could face the wrath of the self-appointed gatekeepers of Islam, the educated elite would be forced to make common cause with the activist left to put its weight behind reform of laws they all condemn as unjust behind closed doors.

We no longer live in a country where it is ok to retreat behind our affluent enclaves, like the rich do everywhere. Pakistan is burning with extremist fires. It is not enough to mobilise for flood relief or charity where state capacities fail. It is imperative to recognise that democracy in endangered societies is about standing up for the rights of the vulnerable as well as our own. It is about becoming stakeholders in reform, not just marching when one’s own parks and schools are threatened.

Our society is intolerant enough without legal sanction for witch-hunts. This is the time to push for repeal of the blasphemy law in the legislature. If that does not work, just like the Hudood repeal bills did not when we moved them, we need to build positions and craft laws that amend these laws so they become toothless, much like we campaigned to get the Women’s Bill passed in parliament. A PPP government is our best chance of getting some traction on such change. As activists, we should attempt to build mainstream consensus against these laws and create new ones that penalise those that incite violence with malicious intent.

As empowered citizens, it is our responsibility to fight for the promise our founding father made on August 11 of 1947, when he addressed the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan. Everyone who is reading this should know what he said on that historic day. It is time to make good on that promise.

(Sherry Rehman is president of the Jinnah Institute, a former federal minister for information and is an MNA)

copyright © 2010 The Express Tribune News Network

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