Covid-19 fails to halt blasphemy allegations in Pakistan

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by KK Shahid , (Last Updated 2 days ago)

LAHORE: The Covid-19 pandemic might’ve halted the entire world, with almost 3.3 million infections and over a quarter of a million deaths globally, but in Pakistan, its gravity has largely been undermined by the Islamist narrative.

Initially it had been the long-standing tussle with the clergy to close the mosques in the light of the pandemic, which the clerics duly won. Parallel to that particular standoff we have witnessed blasphemy allegations in the country.

While the entire country, and indeed the world, has been completely shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, the coronavirus has failed to stop the relentless spree of blasphemy allegations in Pakistan.

The most recent accusation has come in Sialkot, where a football maker was accused of blasphemy on Friday owing to a design on the ball, which members of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) deemed insulting to Islam.

Indeed, the TLP has become a prominent face as far as blasphemy allegations are considered. Over the past three years, they’ve managed to successfully choke the federal capital Islamabad, and Punjab capital Lahore, over their outraged sentiments. They’ve even rallied against the Ahmadiyya community and condemned the acquittal of Asia Bibi in 2018.

Most recently, just as coronavirus was growing into a pandemic, they ensured that Sarmad Khoosat’s award-winning film Zindagi Tamasha was barred from release, again, owing to the TLP’s claims of blasphemy.

On Friday, the TLP joined hands with the Sunni Tehreek, to protest in numbers in Sialkot, against what they interpret is blasphemy on the part of the football maker. This was in complete defiance of the lockdowns imposed nationwide.

Instead of penalising the Islamist hordes completely discarding social distancing, the local police registered the blasphemy case against the football maker under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code. Section 295-C mandates death penalty for blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

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This took place a little over two weeks after a blasphemy case had been registered against Sindhi singer Zamin Ali in the Kotri town of Jamshoro district. A local shopkeeper Muhammad Ibrahim Mashwani filed the case against Zamin Ali after watching one of his videos on Facebook, with the lyrics of the song outraging Mashwani.

The blasphemy laws have been criticised by global rights groups, including many Muslim activists, maintaining Pakistan’s blasphemy laws persecute religious minorities and dissidents.

“Pakistan’s government should repeal Sections 295 and 298 of the penal code, which includes the blasphemy law and the law discriminating against the Ahmadiyya religious community. The government should also promptly and appropriately prosecute those responsible for planning and carrying out attacks against religious minorities,” says the Human Rights Watch about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Critics also argue that Pakistan’s blasphemy law mandating death penalty and being specific to only one religion has further emboldened the Islamists. That means that often a blasphemy accusation suffices in pressurising the judiciary to rule in the Islamists favour.

“It is an open fact that trial courts in Pakistan rarely acquit accused in blasphemy cases,” says veteran activist IA Rehman, the former general secretary of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

The HRCP has repeatedly called for a review of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Many judges and lawyers involved in blasphemy cases have had to flee the country owing to Islamist pressure.

Prominent lawyer and HRCP member Rashid Rehman was shot dead for defending a blasphemy accused in 2014. The man Rehman was defending, a Multan-based professor Junaid Hafeez, was sentenced to death by a local court in December 2019.

As the world mulls the post-coronavirus changes, rights groups believe that Pakistan would be best advised to undo its succumbing to the Islamists. However, many argue, that it is during the pandemic that Pakistan has showcased an unparalleled level of that capitulation.

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