Osama Siddique Interview, Part IV

Osama Siddique Interview, Part IV

Harvard Human Rights Journal continues its conversation with Pakistani legal scholar Osama Siddique. This week, Professor Siddique discusses recent developments in the societal debate over the blasphemy laws.

Part III is available HERE.

Interviewer: James Tager J.D. ‘13

You’ve mentioned how enforcement of, along with perceptions of, the blasphemy laws is an evolving dynamic. Can you elaborate on how this debate has been evolving recently?

Events over the last several months have really polarized this already contentious debate because certain obscurantist elements have decided to scale up their efforts to use Section 295 (c) as a rallying cry for their narrow political agendas. The assassination earlier this year of the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, is a tragic outcome of this regressive trend. However, looking back over the last decade or so, there were several phases and points of relative sanity and thoughtfulness where I think we were moving towards very meaningful legislation to essentially take away the exploitative sting of this law, and to iron out its various issues in order to bring it in line with existing anti-hate speech laws in the larger corpus of Pakistani law. The goal of such intended legislation was to address existing lacunae in the text of the law and also to provide additional procedural guarantees to preclude the possibility of admission of weak or false evidence. Certain such procedural guarantees and administrative reforms were indeed introduced over these years to ensure that the police investigation of blasphemy accusations took place at a sufficiently higher level and that the evidence and background factors were subjected to stricter judicial review.

At the same time, greater critical media scrutiny was extended to the miscarriage of justice potential of the existing law and there was greater impetus behind state and non-state endeavors towards public awareness and information. However, vital momentum was lost as certain differences emerged over the extent and precise ambit of the textual reform. At the same time, motivated by political expedience and anxious to avoid controversy, important sections of the legislature adopted a lukewarm approach and did not extend requisite support to the courageous attempt at reform by key legislators. Consequently, the anti-reform elements capitalized on the opportunity to stall this much needed initiative.

The recent assassination of the Governor of Punjab has once again highlighted how a misled vigilante can take the law into his own hand, while visualizing himself as a self-styled defender of the honor of the Holy Prophet of Islam. He has claimed that the late Governor had been guilty of committing blasphemy, whereas a careful and dispassionate review of the late Governor’s statements shows beyond doubt that he was merely criticizing the exploitative potential of Section 295 (c) in the context of a recent implication of a Christian woman in a blasphemy case under that provision. The assassination of the Governor by his own security guard (who admitted being influenced by the sermons of certain minor clerics who were critical of the Governor’s stance and had been preaching the merit of such an action, but had been allowed to continue unchecked by the religiously conservative rival political party currently in power in Punjab, even though such sermons squarely amounted to instigation to murder under Pakistan’s penal code) shocked the nation. But there were also certain very vocal radical elements that hailed it as a commendable act and declared the assassin as a hero. This in turn also generated a strong reaction from many others who were devastated to see how the space for rational debate on this problematic law was usurped by violence and also the very high cost that a legitimate critic may have to pay. Importantly, it also caused various others who have been historically lukewarm about the prospect of reform, or have been blindly opposed to it without exerting any effort to carefully consider the issue and what is at stake, to finally think.

So the said law has been brought to the forefront of a larger tussle between moderate and radical elements in Pakistan. The debate is more polarized than ever. As a matter of fact, at one level, it is hard to describe it as a debate anymore as one side to it has clearly shown that it prefers to shoot first and ask questions later. An additional disturbing aspect of this episode is the fact that amongst those who have hailed the assassination of the Governor, are certain conservative sections of the lawyer community. This in turn has taken some of the gloss off the historical lawyers’ movement in Pakistan over the past few years for the restoration of the illegally removed judges by the dictator General Musharraf and a revival of constitutional democracy. Many ordinary citizens now ask: how can those who are supposed to be the custodians of the law and the Constitution openly condone and praise a blatantly illegal act — and an act of cold-blooded murder, at that? An Anti-Terrorist court has recently found the assassin — who committed the murder in broad daylight in front of many witnesses and also made a full confession — guilty and sentenced him to death. The verdict has been challenged and admitted on appeal by the Islamabad High Court which has stayed the execution. The appeal hearings are currently being awaited. At the same time, a recently retired Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court — a person of very dogmatic leanings and with strong ties with right wing politics — has been reported to have offered to defend the assassin. On the other hand, such has been the environment of open intimidation spread by the supporters of the assassin that the family of the deceased finds it very hard to date to secure a high profile lawyer and has had to rely on a state designee.

Overall, the larger lay public seems confused and divided due to the historical paucity of open debate and information dissemination on the problematic aspects of this law. All this displays an ever-widening chasm between the various shades of parochial right wing politics in Pakistan that silently or openly condone various actions of radicals such as Governor Taseer’s assassin, and the various other shades of more moderate and pluralistic, religious as well as secular, politics in the country. At the same time, such events have made it more risky than ever to sustain a sane and honest debate on the issue without being branded as a blasphemer and threatened with dire consequences. So in many ways, events over the past year have made things much harder for the exponents of considered thought, dialogue, debate and reform. 

However, the multiple dire consequences of the unprincipled politics being played around this issue are not completely lost to many citizens in what is essentially a highly diverse society when it comes to the various sects of Islam. Of late there have been certain very commendable community attempts to preclude religious ideologues or mischievous elements in society from abusing the potentially volatile situations that emerge in the wake of a blasphemy accusation. These positives, however, are inadequately reported by the local and international media.

One recent such episode is from a couple of months ago, where there was some commercial dispute between certain individuals in a small Punjabi town. The disputants in this case happened to be Christian and Muslim. Apparently, heated words were exchanged, including some disparaging ones for both religions and their adherents. Due to the provocation and instigation of some rabble rousers the dispute soon degenerated into a potentially violent altercation with religious overtones. News started coming in that a blasphemy had been committed and Section 295 (c) was soon likely to come into play. However, the religious clerics from that particular community exercised great judgment and entered the fray in order to calm both sides down, initiate a reconciliatory dialogue and successfully resolve the matter before it got out of hand. An accord was duly signed that laid out a mutually acceptable code of behavior and guarantees for abiding by it. By their timely and brave intervention the clerics from both sides as well as various local elders and respected figures ensured that a commercial dispute was not allowed to morph into something much more sinister. They thus precluded any radical elements or sensationalist media from blowing the matter out of proportion; the latter by blocking their access to the disputants. This presents a very welcome and commendable precedent for communities all over the country.

I would like to think that quite apart from displaying the humanity and good judgment of a set of decent citizens this episode may also denote a wider wake up call for communities that they will have to act swiftly before such situations are misused by manipulators to wreak violence and mayhem in their neighborhoods. The happy outcome was that within a day or so of when this development was first reported by the media, it was already over. The media vans that rushed to the town in order to cover unfolding events found a community at peace with itself, rather than an unfolding mini-crusade between Islam and Christianity, as some may have hoped.  But since courageous and statesman-like community control of the coercive potential of this law does not make as good a news as rampant violence and the reenaction of a medieval battle scene, relatively few people know about this and certain other similar recent events with happy endings.

In spite of the various difficulties noted above, I feel that the opposition to the current law will remain. And this is not only because of its coercive and exploitative potential but also due to its larger symbolism. For the vast majority of us Pakistanis who are staunchly pro-democracy and who have valiantly opposed every internationally supported military dictatorship in the country, the very fact that this law was introduced during the dictator Zia-ul-Haq’s time, makes it undesirable. At the same time, as a close observer of and commentator on the Pakistani legal system I feel that the blasphemy law debate, while getting its more than due attention, ought not to be allowed to overwhelm the larger justice sector reform debate in the country. In other words, there is an acute need for the reformers, the academics, the civil society groups and the media to also commit sustained focus on a whole host of other structural and substantive issues which not only exacerbate the situation when it comes to blasphemy cases, but directly contribute at a much larger scale to citizen legal disempowerment and rights violations. I talk here of course for the acute need for reform of the various aspects of the procedural laws, the court system, the alternatives to formal legal adjudication, and the training and accountability of judges and lawyers. Once again, for the 104 reported blasphemy cases that I have spoken about there are hundreds of thousands of rights denials and violations that are directly attributable to these much less discussed unreformed aspects.

Professor Siddique’s interview will conclude, with a discussion of the debate over the blasphemy laws and their place within a larger framework of free speech, in Part V available HERE. The complete series is  available HERE.

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