Thanks to the recent efforts of Pakistan at the United Nations, it will be even more difficult for any Pakistani government to revise the blasphemy law as Federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti promised to do earlier this year. After all, if Pakistan is at the forefront of an international effort to introduce an law criminalizing “insults to religion” it is unlikely that it will make any serious efforts at home to re-examine the blasphemy law.
On March 25 the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution titled “Combating Defamation of Religions” by a vote of 20-17. The resolution was proposed by Pakistan’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Zamir Akram, on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC). The text of the Resolution condemns what it calls a growing trend of “negative stereotyping” of religions and religious figures. It also condemns the use of the Internet and print and electronic media to target “religious symbols” and “venerated people.”
Pakistan and the OIC are also at the forefront of another effort to amend the International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) to include a clause which would criminalize all “insults to religion”. Essentially this would constitute an international blasphemy law and has been criticized by many human rights institutions around the world.
The OIC has long put forward the idea of a more inclusive definition of human rights. It maintains that human rights are not restricted to individual rights but should be expanded to include the collective rights of practitioners of a religion to protect their religion from being “defamed” or insulted.
Opposing the OIC’s viewpoint is Asma Jahangir of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan who is presently the United Nations Special Rapporteur Freedom of Religion or Belief. In a report presented to the third committee of the UN General Assembly in 2007, she argued that the concept of defamation of religions if sanctioned by international law will inevitably be used to undermine individual rights since it will be used to legitimize anti-blasphemy laws which punish religious minorities, dissenters and non-believers. According to her report, “[i]f it was defamation to say that one religion was better than another, the result would be the religious prosecution of those who embarked on intellectual analysis of religions”. Finally, according to her, human rights law should protect the rights of individuals and should not be applicable to religions, as the OIC believes it should.
There is simply no middle ground between the positions put forward in the resolution proposed by Pakistan’s UN Ambassador and Asma Jahangir’s report. If Ambassador Akram’s approach is used and the definition of human rights is extended to include the right of a group to not have its religion defamed then this will invariably result in an environment which condones the persecution of those whose viewpoints are found offensive to the majority. In short, rather than achieving the stated aim of ending intolerance and discrimination, the resolution and proposed amendment to international law would create an environment similar to that in Pakistan since 1980-86 when the blasphemy laws were introduced into the Pakistan penal code by Zia-ul Haq.
In the case of Pakistan, the state’s protection of the good name of Islam has been at the direct expense of the lives and freedom of those individuals found to be guilty of blasphemy. Two examples that illustrate the blasphemy law’s adverse impact on individual rights as accurately described by Asma Jahangir’s report are the cases of Imran Masih of Faisalabad and Professor Zahid Hussain Mirza of Mirpur, Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
According to a report by the Asian Human Rights Comission, in 2009, Imran Masih, a Christian, was sorting and disposing of some old papers at his grocery store. He was accused by his neighbour of burning a copy of the Quran and after several mosques announced his alleged blasphemy over their loudspeakers his shop was set on fire, he and his younger brother were beaten and he was taken into custody for blasphemy without any initial inquiry being made. Finally, in January 2010, he was sentenced by a Faisalabad court to life imprisonment. The example of Imran Masih shows how anti-blasphemy laws invariably undermine the rights of religious minorities.
The second case, that of Professor Zahid Hussain Mirza, illustrates the point made by Asma Jahangir’s report that intellectual analysis of religions would be threatened by any society that adopts a law that criminalises the defamation of religion. According to a report by Amnesty International, Professor Mirza wrote an academic book on Islam which was accused of being blasphemous by a local cleric. Professor Mirza was imprisoned in June 1999 and despite the fact that his book was cleared by various local and international religious authorities and authorized for republication by the Pakistan government in 2000, he remains in prison to this day.
Perhaps it would benefit Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations to think long and hard about the above examples before he continues with his efforts to foist upon the international community a law that has brought so much suffering to Pakistan.
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