It takes courage and conviction to speak out against demagoguery and the violation of the rule of law. It is even more courageous when free speech invites violence and threats to the lives of fair-minded people. One such person is Mawlana Ammar Khan Nasir. He is a leading traditional scholar based in Gujranwala, Pakistan and editor of the Urdu monthly journal “al-Sharia” and can be reached at Aknasir2003@yahoo.com. After the latest charge of blasphemy against an under aged Christian girl called Rimsha Masih from the Islamabad area in Pakistan, I invited Mawlana Ammar Khan Nasir to provide some comment. His comment is translated below.
Editorial Note: Please bear in mind that the issue of blasphemy is a highly volatile and toxic issue in Pakistan. Therefore, I caution care in the way people present their views and conduct conversation. The goal should be to advance constructive conversation and not inflame the situation or add to the tinderbox situation that would endanger the lives of others.
Latest Incident of Defamation of the Qur’an: A Matter Requiring Attention is the title of a statement issued by Mawlana Mohammad Ammar Khan Nasir.
The original statement is also published for the benefit of Urdu readers.
The latest incident regarding the burning of the Qur’an by a Christian girl from the area of Islamabad has again brought the national and international media spotlight on the negative use of the blasphemy laws. Preliminary press reports (20th August) say the police took the girl and her parents into custody after a mob of Muslims surrounded their following accusations of Qur’an-burning. President Asif Ali Zardari gave directions that this case be urgently investigated.
Should the person who commits blasphemy or defame the Qur’an receive punishment? Should each accused of such a crime receive similar treatment and punishment? This is a separate matter on which detailed scholarly discussions have been published previously in newspapers and magazines. One would also have to leave aside the question as to whether it is wise for Muslims, in their bid to safeguard and respect Islamic sacred symbols, to act on every incident and publicize events that occur in remote areas. Do they consider the negative effects of their vigilance when an incident confined to a rural area becomes a subject of national news? In the light of the news reports, there are three issues pertaining to this latest incident of defaming the Qur’an. It is absolutely necessary to follow objective legal procedures in order to register the case and its subsequent court proceedings.
The first issue is whether pages of the Qur’an were in fact burnt? According to an Associated Press report, a local police officer Qasim Niyazi said that when the girl was brought to the police station she carried a shopping bag that contained partially burnt pages of religious material. However, there were no pages of the Qur’an amongst the pages in her possession. If this is true, then it is obligatory, based on Islamic law and the state law, to restrict this matter to the gravity of the situation (based on the evidence).
The second issue is whether the accused is mentally sane. Can the law apply to her in terms of moral and ethical norms, Islamic law and criminal law? The girl’s parents claim that the girl suffers mental disabilities and mental illness. It is possible that this claim might not be accurate but for the law to be enforced fairly, it is necessary for this issue to be investigated in a non-partisan manner.
The third issue is the age of the accused. According to new reports, the accused is very young ranging between eleven and sixteen years. If this is accurate, then her age as a minor should be taken into consideration according to the law of Pakistan in terms of prosecution. Additionally, legal majority or legal minority of the accused is a consideration and a distinction honored by all legal systems around the world.
The investigation of these three issues is among the basic requirements for the implementation of any law. If these requirements are ignored and mere popular sentiment and the political pressure of the religious sector are given the ultimate authority to decide the issue, then this will be akin to murdering both justice and the law. Unfortunately, this will not be unusual given the current state of affairs in Pakistan.
In my opinion, it is a basic logical demand of Islam, democracy as well as common sense that laws deter insults to prophecy or the Qur’an in a Muslim state. Yet, such laws should be implemented against those accused who are truly deserving of punishment. But, an even more important demand of Islam as well as a basic rule of ethics requires that laws be implemented in a just, non-partisan manner following legal procedures. No element of religious coercion, sectarian pressure or attempts to unjustly make minority groups insecure and vulnerable should be confused with the implementation of the law. Unfortunately, in our country (Pakistan), religious and social attitudes and ethical practices are flouted when implementing the law.
I say this with a sense of grave responsibility since the factors mentioned above are the motives and trigger behind the disproportionate number of legal cases of this nature. According to one newspaper report, more than half of the approximately three hundred and fifty people against whom legal proceedings for blasphemy law were initiated were Muslim.
Is it conceivable that a mentally sound Muslim who abides by Islam can ever commit such a crime? Individuals belonging to one sect often level charges against a person belonging to a rival sect when the latter had criticized a specific belief of the former.
In one incident, blasphemy procedures were filed against persons when the word ‘Oh’ was effaced from a mural that read: ‘Oh Prophet of God’! Personal and sectarian animosities and hostilities are often pursued under the pretext of religion so that rivals can conveniently be accused of blasphemy. In some cases there is compelling evidence that the accused are not even mentally sound. The prosecution also fails to factor in such vital consideration. Both the prosecution and the courts seem unable to ignore popular pressure and therefore they fail to decide such cases purely in terms of the law.
The goal of the West and those groups that are aligned to it is to repeal the penalties for blasphemy in Pakistan. Their opposition to the blasphemy law is based on their intellectual and ideological claims. In making their case against this law they highlight instances of how the law is abused for personal and sectarian interests. Unfortunately, our public conduct inflected with religious and social attitudes provide ample justification to their claims, boosting their arguments against the law.
In my public gatherings (majalis) I have frequently stated that the practice of charging individuals of blasphemy is thriving in Pakistan. As a consequence, it is not totally unforeseeable that in time even committed religious people and those dedicated to faith might be forced to consider the repeal or suspension of the blasphemy laws as a better option than enduring the deteriorating situation where the law is abused against innocents. And if the situation comes to this, I will proclaim without any fear of contradiction that the blame falls squarely on those persons of faith who aided and abetted the unbalanced public conduct in this matter. I will say this even if they ostensibly defend their innocence in claiming that such moves to repeal the blasphemy laws was a “conspiracy conducted by the enemies of Islam.”
Muhammad Ammar Khan Nasir
21 August, 2012