The murder of a leading Christian lawmaker in Pakistan today made me want to find out more about the cause that he died for. As Pakistan's minister for minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti led a political fight to reform the archaic blasphemy law of this mostly Islamic country.
Leaflets signed by the Pakistan Taliban at the scene of the crime accused Mr. Bhatti of having “insulted the prophet.” They warned that others who try to reform the blasphemy law "will meet the same fate." Sadly, in January, another prominent Pakistani politician did.
A good authority on Pakistan's blasphemy law is the bipartisan US Commission on International Religious Freedom in Washington. Based on the commission's 2010 report, Pakistan's blasphemy law requires no evidence after someone has been accused of violating the law. There are no penalties for making false accusations, which are common. Extremists use bogus accusations to intimidate religious minorities, such as Christians and Ahmadis, or Muslims with whom they disagree.
It's easy to make a false accusation, and once someone goes to trial, it's easy to influence the judge. There is no due process, and "Islamic militants often pack the courtroom and publicly threaten violence if there is an acquittal." The militants make good on those threats.
Each year, scores of arrests for blasphemy are reported in Pakistan. Prescribed punishment includes life in prison and the death penalty, though the state has yet to execute anyone for blasphemy. Here are some examples of the human impact, according to the commission's report:
"Five Ahmadi teenagers were released on bail in July 2009 after six months’ imprisonment following a blasphemy charge. They had been accused of writing the Prophet Muhammad’s name on the walls of a toilet in a Sunni mosque. No physical evidence of this existed.
"In September 2009, a 20-year old Christian man was found dead in his jail cell in Sialkot, Punjab two days after having been arrested on charges of desecrating the Koran. Family and friends alleged that his only 'offense' had been to admire the daughter of Muslim neighbors. Pakistani human rights activists alleged that he had been murdered, although police maintained that the death was suicide.
"In January 2010, a young Christian man was sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly burning pages of the Koran. A Muslim neighbor had reportedly seen him disposing of trash."
The Pakistani government has taken some steps to improve religious tolerance. Minister Bhatti worked hard to get compensation for victims of religious violence and to improve religious tolerance in Pakistan. In 2009, the government announced a 5 percent hiring quota for religious minorities for federal jobs, and it appointed a Christian judge to the Lahore High Court in 2009 (the only Christian judge at that time). But apparently the government recently stifled Bhatti's attempts to reform the blasphemy law.
Pakistan claims to be a democracy, but government by the people is mocked when some of those people are intimidated, imprisoned, and killed for their religious beliefs – or for perceived, or even fabricated, slights to the Muslim faith. Islamabad has a very long way to go achieve real religious tolerance. It can start by finding and prosecuting Bhatti's killers.