Pakistanis Rally Against Changing Blasphemy Law


Pakistan on Friday observed a strike responding to a call by leaders of religious parties to protest against the possible changes to the blasphemy laws.

In all major cities and towns, markets and business centres were closed. Protest rallies and demonstrations were carried out after Friday prayers in Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Gujranwala, Rawalpindi,Quetta, Kashmore and Hazara division.

No public transport was reported in the country's commercial hub of Karachi, where demonstrators blocked traffic as part of the protests called by religious parties.

The strike call was given by the ""Namoos-i-Risalat"" conference held in Islamabad on December 15.

The government, however, has already distanced itself from a bill to change the law, which carries a mandatory death sentence for anyone who insults Islam.

A crippling strike by Islamist parties brought Pakistan to a standstill on Friday as thousands of people took to the streets and forced businesses to close to head off any change in the country’s blasphemy law, which rights groups say has been used to persecute minorities, especially Christians.

The blasphemy law was introduced in the 1980s under the military dictatorship of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq as part of a policy of promoting Islam to unite this deeply fractious society. Many attempts to revise the law have since been thwarted by the strong opposition of religious forces, which continue to gather strength.

In fiery speeches across all major cities and towns, religious leaders warned the government on Friday against making any changes in the law.

“The president and prime minister should take the nation into confidence and assure in unequivocal terms that there will be no change in the blasphemy law under any international pressure,” Sahibzada Fazal Kareem, a religious leader and member of Parliament, said at a rally in the southern port city of Karachi, where the police fired tear gas to stop protesters from marching toward Bilawal House, one of the residences of President Asif Ali Zardari.

The governing Pakistan Peoples Party, which is struggling to keep its government coalition intact, is already on the retreat.

Syed Sumsam Ali Bokhari, the minister for information, tried to placate religious forces by assuring them that the government did not intend to amend or repeal the law. “Neither the Pakistan Peoples Party nor the government has discussed the issue to bring any amendment in the blasphemy law,” Mr. Bokhari said Thursday at a news briefing.

But such assurances failed to calm the religious parties, who had issued their call on Dec. 15 for a countrywide strike.

“I call it a natural result of religious extremism that is on the rise in Pakistani society,” said Dr. Mehdi Hasan, the chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent rights group, while commenting on the strike.

“The liberal and democratic forces in the country have retreated so much that it has created an ideological vacuum that is now being filled by the religious extremists,” Mr. Hasan said.

The human rights commission has documented scores of cases in which men have been harassed for being Christian or for being members of the Ahmadi sect, a minority group within Islam, and then accused of blasphemy. The mere fact of being a Christian or an Ahmadi in Pakistan makes a person vulnerable to prosecution, the commission says. Often the mere accusation of blasphemy has led to murders, lynchings and false arrests.

The latest push to revise the blasphemy law came after the case of Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old mother of five who was sentenced to death by a municipal court, gained prominence in November. Ms. Bibi, a Christian, was accused of blasphemy after her fellow agricultural workers grew angered when she touched their water bowl, her supporters say.

After indicating that a pardon was forthcoming, government spokespeople have recently taken a more ambiguous position and now say that Mr. Zardari can only extend a pardon to someone if the prime minister recommends it. Pope Benedict XVI has appealed for Ms. Bibi to be freed unconditionally.

Rights activists, critics and several government officials, including Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab Province, and Sherry Rehman, a government lawmaker and former minister for information, have urged the government to repeal or revise the laws.

“These laws institutionalize injustice,” Ms. Rehman said. “People have to feel secure as first-class citizens of this country.”

Ms. Rehman expressed disappointment that the government had distanced itself from her proposed amendments to the law.

The general strike and protests Friday are an indication of the power Islamists hold on the streets of Pakistan. It is also a sharp contrast to the campaigns by rights activists and opponents of the blasphemy laws who have vented their opposition and discontent mostly on the Internet and social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Protest rallies by rights activists have been ineffective and relatively small.

Since the 1980s, conservatism and religious extremism have been on the rise in the country, analysts say. The religious right has become extremely powerful by establishing its networks across major urban centers and small towns.

“Their agitation potential is immense,” said Rasul Baksh Rais, a political analyst who teaches at Lahore University of Management Sciences in Lahore. “Their numerical strength is not enough for electoral wins but is enough to create trouble for any government in Pakistan.”

“The government is not in a position to take any drastic step against the sensitivities of the religious right, which does not want to concede any inch, even if that is meant to save innocent lives,” Mr. Rais said.

Ms. Rehman, the former information minister, said the secular, democratic forces need not be deterred by the show of force by Islamists. “Eventually, I think we have to keep at it with the help of the civil society and media; their street power is disproportional,” Ms. Rehman said, referring to religious parties. “The mainstream political parties need to push back and resist the religious extremists who hijack issues through street power.”

However, the huge show of force by religious parties, and even the attention local news media outlets gave them on Friday, would only embolden the religious elements in the country, analysts said. The dynamic was such that “the government may not be able to make any changes in the blasphemy laws in the coming years,” Mr. Rais predicted.

Source: nytimes