Pakistan: Pragmatism or idealism? Advocating against blasphemy laws

By Shobha Das

In my time at MRG, we worked on numerous programmes on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB). We advocated for an end to the death penalty for apostasy in Mauritania. In India and Bangladesh, we challenged discriminatory narratives in textbooks and in Indonesia we helped produce animated comics to promote religious tolerance. In Pakistan, Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka, we shone a light on discrimination against religious minorities including Bahá’i, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sabean-Mandaeans, Jews, Ahmadis, Quranists, and Yarsanis.

FoRB programmes are tricky to design and implement. They touch on issues that are sensitive for reasons unique to each context, and it is not easy to define goals that are sustainable, safe and achievable in the lifespan of a programme.

The most challenging FoRB programmes are ones that touch on laws concerning blasphemy. Blasphemy has been defined by USCIRF (US Commission on International Religious Freedom) as ‘the act of expressing contempt or a lack of reverence for God or sacred things’. Sixty-nine countries prohibit it in their constitutions, civil codes or penal codes, seeking to punish individuals for allegedly offending, insulting or denigrating religious doctrines, deities or symbols, or for insulting religious feelings. Such laws are enforced to different extents by different states, with penalties varying from death to imprisonment and fines. In some countries, these laws exist in a de facto manner (not explicitly mentioning blasphemy but functioning to that effect) and in yet others as ‘dead letter laws’ (they are on the statute books but no longer enforced).

The human rights community is unified in agreement about the non-compatibility of blasphemy laws with other fundamental human rights. But an interesting disagreement exists on the best advocacy approach. There are broadly two positions. One is the idealist position, which says: ‘We must advocate for the repeal of blasphemy laws because by asking for anything less, we would effectively be agreeing to the violation of other rights.’ The other is the pragmatist position which says: ‘One step at a time – let’s first advocate for the laws to be reformed, rendering them less dangerous and discriminatory. We’ll get to repeal after that.’ I have seen both these positions in action.

In 2012, I met human rights activists and politicians in Pakistan, not long after the assassinations of two prominent politicians, Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, for their opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. The atmosphere of fear in the aftermath of these killings was palpable and it appeared to have given rise to a culture of silence about human rights violations, particularly in relation to blasphemy laws. Though most activists considered blasphemy laws to be anti-human rights, they had tempered their advocacy asks to fit the socio-political climate. They were not asking for these laws to be abolished. Their goal was more modest: to ensure that the laws were not used to victimize innocent people. As things stood, blasphemy accusations were often maliciously used to settle personal vendettas, criminal charges were filed based on abysmally low evidentiary thresholds, and blasphemy accusations all too often catalysed deadly vigilante action with impunity for perpetrators. Members of religious minorities in Pakistan told me that the merest suggestion of blasphemy was in effect a death sentence for the ‘accused’. The rule of law just didn’t apply in any meaningful sense.

The best way to get urgent improvement and protection for those being victimized by blasphemy laws, many activists said, was swift legal reform; repeal could come later. Their reform wish list included making laws less vague, having legally qualified persons vet allegations and evidence before accusations turned into criminal cases, making the formulation and application of laws free from political or other interests, protecting accused persons from vigilante action, and making penalties proportionate. In short, this was a pragmatist advocacy stance.

I discussed this position with the then UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Dr Heiner Bielefeldt. His position was that such laws do or could contravene, in intent or in practice, international human rights norms and obligations, including the right to privacy, the right to life, the right to physical and mental integrity and the right to freedom of expression. They tend to privilege the protection of one or some religions or beliefs over others and often deviate from principles of proportionality of punishment and non-discrimination and equality, and the principle of legality which requires precise and unambiguous language to define a punishable offence. While understanding the pragmatist position, Mr Bielefeldt felt that even if the ideal outcome was unattainable in the near term, we must not water down our advocacy asks. We must always and unequivocally demand rights in their fullest form. In this context, that could only mean the abolition of blasphemy laws.

It is no surprise that national actors are often pragmatic, and international actors idealist. The latter have a mandate to promote and secure human rights, and for them it is impossible to advocate for anything less than the internationally agreed human rights standards; to do so risks being seen to agree that the full standard in not applicable in any given context, which is never the case. Local actors, on the other hand, know that advocating for the full standard may mean that no progress is made; given the horrifying impacts of blasphemy law cases, any progress is seen as better than nothing.

Ultimately, the idealist and pragmatist positions are not contradictory. Both eventually pull in the same direction and towards the same goal, albeit with varying conceptions of how to get there and how long the journey should take. MRG’s role is to provide a bridge so that national and international actors can work together and collaborate in safety, making maximum efforts to achieve the change that religious minorities around the world so clearly need. Every effort, idealist or pragmatist, to question and challenge blasphemy laws contributes to holding governments and the international community to account for their human rights obligations.

Photo: A Sikh devotee waits to take part in a religious ceremony during the Baisakhi festival at Panja Sahib shrine in Hassan Abdal, Pakistan / Saiyna Bashir/Reuters