The issue of the blasphemy law is still making headlines in the national and international media and it seems that it is no more simply a local issue but has crossed over our borders and into the consciousness of the world’s religious and political leaders.
First, Pope Benedict XVIII asked the Government of Pakistan to change or repeal the law and release Asia Bibi. This was followed quickly by similar calls from Theresa May, the British home minister, and now even the European Union, representing 29 European states.
They do so out of deep concern that the blasphemy law is being misused on a regular basis and is a tool for radicals to persecute minorities. They are not unaware that the blasphemy law is as good as a licence for extremists to kill innocent people.
For years now, minorities have demanded a change to the law and yet the government has done nothing. Either it has no interest in the suffering of minorities or it is too scared of extremists to show any – I suspect the latter.
With the murder of Salmaan Taseer, the government has as good as conceded that change is impossible and decided not to even try after facing strong opposition by the religious political parties and groups, although it has formed a committee of religious leaders to calm down the situation.
The government should not be fearful of religious groups but instead use this opportunity wisely to bring about the change that is right.
The Government seems to be in a difficult situation. On the one hand they are facing internal pressure from the Deeni Ithehad (a bloc of religious groups) who are continually rallying against any changes to the blasphemy law. On the other hand, foreign pressure is slowly mounting for changes to occur.
The Pope has now in recent months twice asked the Pakistani Government to change the blasphemy law. In the past he has expressed his concern over the unfair treatment of Christians and as one who speaks for Christians worldwide, it is imperative that he continues to speak out.
He is not speaking simply about the plight of Pakistani Christians but the millions of Christians being persecuted worldwide and especially in Muslim countries. Christians are grateful but it has annoyed the Muslim world, especially Pakistani Muslims, and they are continuing to protest and organise rallies. They are asking the Pope to withdraw his statements but the Vatican has said they have no intention of changing their policy. The Vatican will continue to respond to the cries of the persecuted Christians and advocating for religious freedom in the Middle East too.
Stefan Muller, German parliamentarian, has also expressed his concern over Christian persecution in Muslim countries and has asked to reduce the grants given to those countries where Christians are being persecuted. In Britain, Theresa May has asked Pakistan to change the blasphemy law.
So far I have seen no reaction to these demands in the Pakistani media, while opposition leader, Ch Nisar has had no problem in gaining coverage for his strong condemnation of the European Union’s statement of the European Union asking Pakistan to amend the blasphemy law and release Aasia Bibi.
Ch Nisar is irritated by the murmurs coming from the EU and what he perceives to be the EU’s meddling in Pakistan’s internal affairs. It remains the case, however, that Pakistan is a strategic partner of the EU and has signed a third generation agreement with the EU, which obliges Pakistan to improve human rights. Unfortunately, Pakistan ranks third in the world for human rights violations, despite several European countries giving us money to improve our human rights record – that they are watching Pakistan closely should therefore be understandable if not desirable.
Pakistan wants access to the European market and last year met the EU to discuss this matter. The talks were inconclusive but have been rekindled by an event far beyond this government’s control. Whilst the floods caused havoc for millions of Pakistan’s poor, they have proved to be something of a lucky break for the government and rejuvenated talks on Pakistan’s access to Europe’s markets.
It will be interesting to see how our leaders proceed but they should know they are in no position to dictate the terms of business to the EU. Instead of trying to deal with our funders on our own terms, Pakistan should fulfil its obligations just as the governments of European states are duty-bound to their citizens.
The money they give to Pakistan is not theirs but the tax payers’ and European governments are accountable to their citizens. The European Union is not like Pakistan where ministers and politicians don’t pay any taxes and live a luxurious lifestyle at the expense of the public who largely live in deprivation. People are committing suicide because they have no money and selling their children because they cannot feed them, while children are selling themselves to support their parents.
Our rulers and politicians have foreign bank balances, offshore accounts and properties where nobody is even living but are still costing thousands of pounds to maintain, while ordinary people cannot even earn enough each day to meet their daily needs.
Ch Sahib ,for your information, this is not the first time that the EU has raised the issue of blasphemy, mistreatment of minorities, growing extremism and the issues of human rights violations in Pakistan. The European troika has raised all these issues in their regular demarches and the Government has neither stopped them nor considered it an interference in the past so why now?
Unfortunately, this is going to continue unless we become self reliant in all respects and minorities are treated fairly. Or should we just resort to disowning them, pushing them out of Pakistan, or forcing them to convert to Islam? Some would sadly be happy with any of these options.
After 63 years, minorities are still not equal citizens of Pakistan, despite their equality being guaranteed by the founder of Pakistan, Quaid El Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. We looked upon them with hate and discriminate against them in all walks of life. They have been crying out but we have never paid any attention and now their cries are reaching the ears of those outside Pakistan.
Some foreign aid is given to Pakistan just for minorities and human rights but these grants are hardly used for these purposes. But where our own government cannot protect them and provide security, God has his own plans.
It is the responsibility and duty of our government and politicians to look into the issue of the mistreatment of religious minorities carefully and use this opportunity to learn from their mistakes and eliminate foreign interference wherever possible, instead of being angry over the statements of the Pope and the EU.
The blasphemy law has not been changed, not for religious reasons but for political. If that is to be the case for the foreseeable future, at least the government must move to stop it from being misused. On that front, there is hope as most political and religious leaders seem to be willing to stop its misuse including.
Now the onus is on the government to make this happen. The government has formed a 10-member committee of religious leaders to look into this matter but I suggest that the government forms a larger committee comprising lawyers, religious leaders, scholars, politicians and minorities so that there is a rational and sober dialogue on the issue of the blasphemy law and reach some kind of consensus.
We have much larger and critical issues to resolve before the public use Tunisia’s example and we are left with no choice. Since everybody has agreed that this law is being misused, let’s start with introducing safeguards to this law so nobody can misuse it to settle their personal scores and nobody could use it as an excuse to interfere in our internal affairs.
(The writer is director of the UK based Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement)