Lahore (AsiaNews) – The Pope’s call on Pakistan to repeal the blasphemy law shows how divided the country is. Radical leaders and Islamic movements are inciting crowds, accusing Benedict XVI of plunging “the entire world into a deadly war”. The Pakistani government has categorically ruled out any amendments to the blasphemy law. At the same time, a group of self-styled young “liberal” attorneys has come out in defence of the blasphemy law, adopting increasingly extremist views. Yet other political and civil society groups as well as Muslim legal experts have described the Pontiff’s speech as “positive”, appreciating his call for religious freedom. Among the promoters of change, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has described those celebrating the death of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer as “the real blasphemers”, urging the government to protect minorities.
In Lahore yesterday, Jamaat-e-Islami leaders led protests against Benedict XVI for his speech. The party’s secretary general, Liaquat Baloch, dubbed the pontiff’s demand as “insane and a plot to threaten Pakistan’s Christian minority’s security”.
Baloch said his party would hold another rally in Lahore on 30 January, stating that the protests would continue until the parliamentary committee dealing with the issue was scrapped and the amendment to the bill, tabled by Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) member Sherry Rehman, was dropped.
He added that Salman Taseer’s killer, Mumtaz Qadri, enjoyed the backing of “the entire nation” and that “proud and honourable” lawyers would secure his release.
A group of young lawyers from Punjab, who took part in the protests in 2007 and 2008 against then President Musharraf’s decision to sack Supreme Court Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, joined the fight to maintain the blasphemy law.
Born during the dictatorial rule of General Zia-ul-Haq (who had the blasphemy law adopted in 1986), these lawyers had hitherto been considered outspoken defenders of democracy and freedom. Now they embody the country’s slip towards fundamentalism.
They are led by 30-year-old Rao Abdur Raheem who in December set up a "lawyers' forum", called the Movement to Protect the Dignity of the Prophet.
The group claims to be independent and liberal, but they also believe that the blasphemy law is legitimate and that Mumtaz Qadri is innocent until proven guilty.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani categorically ruled out any amendment to the blasphemy law. He was backed by Religious Affairs Minister Khursheed Shah, who disowned fellow PPP member Sherry Rehman, who is in favour of changes.
Islamic legal scholars have warned Pakistani Christians against forming a party to seek the repeal of the law. A Faisalabad Muslim leader told AsiaNews under anonymity that any attempt to cancel the law “would lead to confusion in society”.
However, moderate Muslim groups and leaders have praised the Pope for his speech, calling it a sign of hope. “I appreciate Pope`s thoughts. It is the need of the time to take a stand and promote religious freedom. I also back the Pope`s call to repeal the blasphemy laws since they have only been used for settling personal rivalries,” said Mullah Mehfooz Ahmed.
An example that illustrates the problem came yesterday, when two men, Muhammad Shafi, 45, and his son Muhammad Aslam, 20, were sentenced to life in prison and a fine for blasphemy. In fact, the accusations on which their conviction was based stem from arguments they had with another Muslim. Complicating matters was the fact that the parties to the disagreement belong to different Sunni schools, Deobandi and Barelvi.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the ruling PPP, also spoke out against the Salman Taseer’s murder and the progressive Islamisation of Pakistan. In his view, those celebrating the governor’s death are the “real blasphemers”.
Son of the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the current President Ali Zardari, the young political leader slammed violence committed in the name of Islam. He also called for the protection of the country’s minorities. However, his equivocating attitude towards the controversial blasphemy law has been criticised by Shehrbano Taseer, the Punjab governor’s daughter.
Speaking to AsiaNews, she slammed the inconsistencies of the ruling party’s, her father’s party. She noted that in 2008, the PPP had proposed changes in those elements of the law that led to social and religious disharmony, but “demonstrations by religious groups against a pardon for Asia Bibi” undermined the party’s and the government’s agenda.
Mgr Rufin Anthony, bishop of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, told AsiaNews that the “government is clearly under pressure from the religious parties” and has done “a u-turn on [. . .] amendments to the blasphemy law.” Indeed, “There is a clear difference of opinion among the members of the Pakistan People’s Party”.
The only certainty according to Muslim intellectual Babar Ayaz is that “No democracy is complete if it is not secular”. Like the Pope, he believes that full religious freedom is necessary because no one can “impose their thinking [. . .] on others.”