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The Revival of Pakistan's Cruel Blasphemy Laws

Saving Junaid Hafeez = Saving Pakistan

by FAWZIA AFZAL-KHAN

In a piece published by the Jackson Free Press on June 25th, 2014, about the sad and shameful case of blasphemy charges registered against a young professor of English in Multan, Pakistan, named Junaid Hafeez, the writer, Carmen Christo, quotes Sarmad Ali, a Pakistan-based journalist and activist, as well as NY-based long-time feminist and Human Rights activist and writer Meredith Tax on the current and evolving situation:

Tax and Ali say that, during a trial [that had been scheduled for the accused in his hometown of Multan after he had been imprisoned for over one year in solitary in Sahiwal], prosecuting  attorneys threatened Rehman [a human rights lawyer who had finally decided to take on Mr  Hafeez’s case as defense counsel], that he would not be alive to attend the next hearing. Though  the threats were issued before the presiding judge and Rehman reported their names, they were never charged or investigated.

Christo further goes on to tell us that

Pakistan lawyer and journalist Sarmad Ali said that this kind of behavior on the judge’s part    comes as no surprise since 96.4 percent of Pakistan is Muslim, according to a study by The Guardian in 2010. “Out of every 100 people, 99 would be in favor of blasphemy laws,” he said.

While I am horrified and saddened by what has transpired in Junaid’s Hafeez’ case, and so many others before him (including the high-profile murder of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer who was shot by his own bodyguard because of his defense of a Christian girl accused of blasphemy; the murderer was showered with roses by a large contingent of Islamist lawyers en route to court)—I believe it is a mistake to state/believe as Ali does that “Out of every 100 people, 99 would be in favor of blasphemy laws,” amongst his fellow Pakistani Muslims who comprise the majority of the Islamic state’s citizens.

While the high incidence of baseless blasphemy accusations and refusal of state authorities to punish murderers acting in the name of Sharia’h certainly gives some credence to Ali’s statement (though it must be noted that Mumtaz Qadri, Taseer’s murderer, has been sentenced to death), it is more likely that average Pakistanis are simply fearful for their lives at the hands of extremists. These Islamists have in recent decades—and in no small part thanks to global geopolitics including western and Saudi-sponsored jihadism in the region—become so emboldened in their terrorizing missions which include the fanatical dream to establish a Sharia’h-driven Islamic state in Pakistan and indeed, everywhere amongst the Muslim Ummah—that they have become non-state actors sowing murder and mayhem on fellow citizens. The Pakistani state too, has a long history of sponsoring these jihadist outfits including the likes of the Tehrik-Tahafaz-e-Namoos-e-Risalat, a derivative of Jamaat e Islaami, which is the organization whose members threatened Junaid Hafeez and his other liberal-minded colleagues such as his mentor and Chair, Prof Shirin Zubeir, at Bahauddin Zakaraiyya University where Junaid was teaching and studying for his MPhil in English Literature, and later, charged him with blasphemy. It is a well-recognized fact that jihadist groups in Pakistan have been nurtured by the ISI (Pakistan’s equivalent of the CIA), with knowledge and covert support of successive governments and ofcourse the Pakistani army. The army, in turn, has received billions of US dollars in aid along with arms and other military equipment, especially since the 1970s when the US decided it needed Pakistan as a proxy state to help it end the Cold War by defeating the Soviet Union next door in Afghanistan. Clearly, the rise of “Islamic Law” or Sharia’h, under the military govt of Zia ul Haq in the decade of the 1980s and whose fallout is what we are witnessing in Pakistan’s continuing lurching toward extremism today, underscores the main thesis of Dr Shemeem Abbas’ book, viz. that so-called Islamic law is tied to state politics.

The fact is that, as Professor and noted scholar of Islam and Islamic History Dr.  Shemeem Burney Abbas writes in her recently-published and well-researched book, Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws: From Islamic Empires to the Taliban:

Some origins of blasphemy and heresy laws in the Islamic state post-Muhammed seem to be rooted in the fitna (schism) that followed his death, the selection of his successor, and the two fitnas that followed. These schisms divided the community.

Each group, whether it was Shi’a or Sunni, called the other kafir, and each group created its own hadith (recording and interpreting the words of the Prophet) to uphold its claim that it was following the true successor to the Prophet.[1]

Since these ahadith—used by different camps to charge their enemies with blasphemy, thus condemning them to death if those claims were upheld by courts of law– evolved or were collected after the death of the Prophet, establishing the reliability of the transmitters of these sayings has posed an immense problem within the Muslim scholarly community. Thus, as Abbas goes on to assert, “Hadith, at best, has a historical interest”—which is why many reputable Islamic scholars and Muslims disregard the Hadith altogether.  Indeed, even “the more astute and independent among the Prophet’s successors” such as the second Caliph Omar al-Khattab, who is highly venerated among Sunni Muslims, used his own judgment to pronounce legal verdicts, rather than citing the sayings (Hadith) or the actions (Sunnah) of the Prophet Muhammed, even though he was one of the latter’s closest Companions. According to Abbas, Omar even avoided recounting those hadith that were compiled and transmitted by a well-regarded and oft-quoted hadith transmitter of the times, Abu Hurayra. The fact that Maulana Maududi, the founder and Spiritual head of the Jamaat-i-Islami, the largest Islamist party in Pakistan, which is today linked to many of the jihadist/extremist outfits such as the one (supposedly outlawed by the state) whose members brought the blasphemy charges against Hafeez–attributed many of his claims about Islamic Shariah and history to Abu Hurayra in his book A Short History of the Revivalist Movements in India (Abbas 49)—should alert us to the manipulatively dangerous uses of Islamic Sharia’h being practiced in places like Pakistan today. As we have seen countless times, and as Abbas also documents,

The 1997 report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says that blasphemy cases are slammed on members of Pakistan’s minority communities to settle land and other disputes.(81).

In Hafeez’ case, it is quite clear that his ascendance to a position of respect and authority within the university hierarchy, based on his brilliance and open-minded approach to the study of literature and the humanities, rubbed petty-minded competitors the wrong way and this is how they decided to punish him. Using Islam as a terror tactic helps such thugs in their grab for power, and it is for this reason that I believe it is imperative that better-educated citizens and the state machinery should challenge their nonsensical claims instead of allowing themselves to be cowed by such bullies masquerading as Muslims.

Ofcourse, in order to get to such a point of justice and fearlessness, the state—and its citizens—must uncouple the politics of the nation from Islamic law, or Sharia’h. If this law remains “fuzzy” even after centuries “despite clearly-identifiable Sunni schools of fiqh—the Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi’I, and Maliki” (Abbas 60)—and we can see evidence of this “fuzziness” in the widely differing standards for Islamic law as they apply to women’s rights, for eg, in different parts of the Muslim world, where, until 2000, women could file for divorce in Pakistan (yes, its true!)—whereas they could not do so in Egypt—then it should be clear that “the Talibanization of Islamic law, especially toward women, is more tribal than Islamic” ( Abbas 60). As a corollary, the revival of Blasphemy laws in Pakistan is also a form of tribalism, where one group of people (Sunni Muslims) go after another different group (Christians, Ahmedis, Shi’ia Muslims) to maintain and increase their own hegemony and dominance.

The trumped-up case against Junaid Hafeez (based on flimsy evidence of some facebook activity) is in itself blasphemous if we understand the word in its broadest connotation as ungodly, impious, irreverent. Surely it is a most ungodly act to condemn a man (or woman) to death for the “sin” of free speech and thought, and especially in the light of the fuzziness surrounding Islamic jurisprudence through the ages? And to murder people for trying to defend the human rights of citizens who must be protected under the conventions of UN charters that the state is signatory to?

In the spiritually progressive city of Multan where Junaid Hafeez remains imprisoned and in danger of his life given the latest heinous episode involving the cold-blooded murder of his lawyer Rashid Rehman, citizens should rise up against extremists in their midst. After all, as noted Pakistani architect and conservationist Fauzia Hussein tells us in her beautiful book, Multan: A Spiritual Legacy (Topical Press: Lahore, 2013):

[By 1005 A.D.) Multan [had] turned into a centre for Islamic learning and pilgrimage and was thronged by Sufis for three hundred years. It was also during this period that this region became a hub for Arab scholars to develop Indian sciences which were later passed on to the West (xiii).

These Sufis’ influence and heritage is what Multan  is known for even today, dotted as its urban landscape is by gorgeous blue-tiled shrines of various Sufi saints representing the different Tariqas or spiritual orders. Indeed, Islam in the subcontinent of India/Pakistan did not spread through conquest by Muslim invaders, but rather, as Hussein also verifies, it was these mystical and tolerant Sufi orders that “spread Islam at a popular level.” Why and how, one might ask? Because, as Hussein rightly points out

The congenial, unstructured environment and unassuming ways of the Sufis contrasted sharply with the stratified social structure of the ruling class as well as the caste system of the Hinduism that was prevalent at the time (313)

Some of the “congeniality” of Sufi Islam is exemplified even today in such devotional rites and rituals as the annual Urs festivals which mark the birth or death anniversaries of the various saints buried in these Multani shrines. Here is a brief description of these festivities from Hussein’s book:

The annual Urs is marked with Qawwali, dance, music and a fair where pilgrims throng for festivity and fun. The pilgrims light oil lamps and lay chaddars (sheets) of cloth embossed with calligraphy and Quranic verses) and flowers on the tombs of the saint and his descendants buried in and around the shrine. The wealthy often offer degs or cauldrons of sweets and food as offerings to the poor gathered at the shrine (315).

Qawwali, music, dance, festivity, food and fun….at fairs that celebrate the life of Muslim holy men (and there is also at least one shrine to a female Sufi saint in the city, that of Bibi Pak Damani), with rich and poor, men and women commingling in celebrations which are life-and-joy affirming, not cults of death and destruction. This is the Multan that has endured for centuries, not the Multan where illicit gangs perform dastardly deeds in the name of religion against their fellow citizens. How ironic that the charges of blasphemy against Junaid Hafeez were lodged on the grounds of the Bahauddin Zakariya University which takes it’s name from the venerated and peace-loving Sufi saint of the Suharwardiyya order, Shaikh Zakariya, whose calm and loving wisdom and genuine piety managed to avert the murder of one of his townsmen! Sadly, the university bearing his name has not managed to live up to the saint’s legacy as it failed to protect one of its own.

It is high time the institutions, the citizens and the state of Pakistan band together to say “NO” to extremists who have with impunity, succeeded in holding the majority of peaceful, open-minded Pakistanis hostage to their unique brand of closed-minded madness that they have dubbed “Islam.”

Fawzia Afzal-Khan is a Professor of English, University Distinguished Scholar, Director of Women and Gender Studies at Montclair State University. She can be reached at: khanf@mail.montclair.edu
Notes.


[1] Abbas, Shemeem Burney. Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws: From Islamic Empires to the Taliban. University of Texas Press, 2013, p, 48.