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Blasphemy arrests continue unabated

Four people were recently arrested in the Punjabi village of Khodi Khushal Singh, near the eastern city of Lahore, under charges of blasphemy. The four men, who were reportedly all Muslim, were arrested under sections 295 and 298 of Pakistan’s penal code which could see the four men be imprisoned for up to two years.

The initial police report read: “As soon as they (the accused) arrived at the mosque, they started cursing the mosque’s imam (religious cleric), disrespected the mosque and insulted Islam.”

It is reported that the four men had come to the mosque to have the death of a Christian man announced, which the imam of the mosque did not allow, following which the four men fell into an argument with the imam.

The arrest hasn’t gone down too well with human rights activists across the country. Activist and lawyer, Nadeem Anthony comment on the case: “If there was a Muslim who in good faith wants to have an announcement such as this made in the community, it’s not an attack on someone’s faith, it’s a good cause. So, if someone announces [a funeral] on a loudspeaker, how is it a religious violation?”

The decision of the imam, itself is a rather controversial one since, despite there being rulings against the announcement of deaths – of people belonging to all faiths – in mosques, yet the practice is fairly common in the country, with followers of some Islamic factions believing it was not prohibited by the Prophet.

The announcement of death via loudspeakers was prohibited by Prophet Muhammad according to certain followers of the religion, to prevent them from continuing the practices of pre-Islamic – or ‘Jahiliyya’ – times. In those times, it was customary to announce deaths in loud voices on the streets, along with a narration of the good deeds of the deceased. The practice of presenting a eulogy was reportedly prohibited by the Prophet, however, the act of announcement itself was not, as long as the voice was not raised.

The counterargument, on the other hand, states that the prophet himself made such an announcement on the death of An-Najashi and offered four rakaats as funeral prayers for him. It is ironic to observe that An-Najashi was a Christian king of Abyssinia, who is now portrayed as a “Crypto-” – or undercover – Muslim.

Blasphemy has proven to be an Achilles’ heel for the Islamic country, of late, with the country coming under fire from the international community for its rising blasphemy cases, and arrests that follow. Although the country has not, so far, executed anyone arrested for committing blasphemy, yet at least 79 deaths have occurred since 1990 in related crimes. The international media house reports that those arrested or accused for committing blasphemy are frequently target-killed or executed by a mob.

One such high profile case was the execution of the-then Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, by his own security guard, Mumtaz Qadri on January 4, 2011. The reason behind Qadri’s assassination of Taseer was reportedly his public support of the Christian woman accused of committing blasphemy, Asia Bibi. The murder, therefore, was not even the result of a direct incident of blasphemy.

While the rise in blasphemy-related arrests in the country is earning it a global reputation of intolerance, within, it faces the wrath of right-wing movements who are pushing the government to take due action against those arrested for committing what is widely believed in the Muslim majority country as a ‘sin’. Blasphemy can be punishable by death in the Islamic country, and when it fails to enforce the capital punishment on those charged with it – which, thus far, is always – far-right extremists blame the state of slacking and bowing down to global secular powers.

Although in the most recent case the convicts are Muslim, yet a vast number of cases are registered against non-Muslims. Human rights organizations believe that – due to the ‘my word against yours’ nature of the crime – the blasphemy laws in the country are repeatedly misused, putting citizens at the risk of being subjected to injustice, which they frequently do.

“The blasphemy laws in Pakistan continue to pose a serious threat to human rights. The available evidence shows that increased religious regulation by governments results in more violence, not less,” notes analyst Adnan Ahmed.

“Moreover, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, by virtue of elevating Islam above other religions, make the practitioners of other religions vulnerable to accusations of blasphemy in Pakistan.”

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