Pakistan and freedom of expression


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PAKISTAN’S blasphemy law is more known for its discriminatory treatment of religious minorities. The case involving Asia Bibi, sentenced to death at the first and second trial and held in detention since June 2009, is unfortunately not an isolated one. But where did this provision contained in the Penal Code’s articles 295/B-C and 298/A-C come from? In short, it is the sinister legacy of the pro-Islamist dictator Zia-ul-Haq (1978-1988). Promulgated between 1982 and 1986, these norms amend the original Article 295/A, which the British added to the Indian Penal Code in 1927.

However, while the colonial law was aimed at protecting the places of worship of all denominations against the backdrop of growing tension between Muslims and Hindus in British India, the new clauses introduced by Zia-ul-Haq (which Pakistan’s federal shari’a court later censored as being excessively moderate) work only in one direction. It is unlawful to defile the Quran in any manner, as are all forms of expression offending the Prophet of Islam, ‘by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation’, as is any offence to the main figures of Islamic sacred history, in particular the wives of the Prophet and his family, as well as the four righteous Caliphs and the Companions.

And that is not all. Article 298/B forbids ‘any person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis)’ to give the title of ‘Commander of the Faithful’ to someone other than the righteous caliphs, or that of ‘Mother of the Faithful’ to someone other than a wife of Muhammad. It also forbids any person to call ‘People of the House’ those not belonging to the family of Muhammad, to call their places of worship a ‘mosque’, or use the word azan for their call to prayers. Alleged violations could result in draconian sentences that include life imprisonment and the death penalty.

While providing an effective example of the stiffening of classical shari’a (originally a corpus of jurisprudence rather than a code of law) resulting from its translation into modern state legislation, these norms are set within a climate of constant mobilization that tends to present Islam in Pakistan as being under constant threat. This is, to say the least, surprising in a country in which 96 per cent of the population is Muslim and in which Article 31 of the 1973 Constitution attributes to the state the primary duty ‘to enable the Muslims of Pakistan, individually and collectively, to order their lives in accordance with the fundamental principles and basic concepts of Islam and to provide facilities whereby they may be enabled to under-stand the meaning of life according to the Holy Quran and Sunnah.’

There is little doubt that laws such as the one on blasphemy are aimed at maintaining high social tension in the country, perpetuating the existence of scapegoats (non-Muslim religious minorities, but also the Shiite community) blamed for the blatant economic and political failures that have occurred in Pakistan’s recent past.1


In truth, and contrary to what one might instinctively think, many studies (among them those by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life) have proved that the level of religiously motivated violence is directly proportional to efforts made by the government to privilege one faith over others. ‘The more restrictions are imposed by the States the more religious conflict increases’,2 and Pakistan is no exception. Between 1927 and 1986 there were only seven cases involving blasphemy, while between 1986 and today there have been more than a thousand and the blasphemy law has resulted in the deaths of over 20 people. Although for the moment no death sentences have officially been carried out (presumably due to the international reactions they would cause), many of the accused have been killed in prison by hired assassins and many others have been lynched by enraged mobs.

Even proposing to modify this law can be extremely dangerous, as proved by the murder of two brave politicians who fought to change it: the Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti (a Christian), and the Governor of the Punjab, Salman Taseer (a Muslim). In spite of this, or perhaps precisely because of this, the law has achieved iconic status, to the extent that in April 2009 Pakistan presented to the United Nations Human Rights Commission a proposal against defamation of religions, viewed by many international observers as ‘an attempted globalization of its own blasphemy laws.’3


After thirty years of abuse, there is a strong temptation to brush off as provocative not only Pakistan’s proposal, but also a series of similar requests invoking the protection of religions (in the plural), presented over the years by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. It is easy to oppose these requests, invoking the principle of freedom of speech, but one must also acknowledge that in contemporary pluralistic societies there really is a problem as far as religious symbols are concerned. A long list of incidents linked to religious issues has been reported in recent years, ranging from burnings of the Quran organized by an obscure pastor in Florida, to films offending the person of Muhammad, as well as many desecrations of Jewish and Christian places of worship or religious symbols. To provide just one example, in 2012, the Egyptian Salafi Sheikh Abu Islam publicly burned a Bible calling on his followers to urinate on it.

In this perspective, should proposals to ‘protect religions’ be perceived as the wrong answer to a real need to define the extent of freedom of expression and whether there is a limit to the right to criticize and to artistic creativity? Instinctively, the average westerner will answer such questions with a ‘no’, only to be obliged to acknowledge the continuous incidents occurring all over the world, proving how every individual gesture must now take into account the sensitivities of a potentially global media audience.


On the other hand, many voices can be heard in the Muslim world calling for preventive neutrality, based on the principle that ‘every religion must respect all others.’ The formulation of this concept though per se acceptable, can in reality end up meaning that any criticism of any religion should be rejected. It is not difficult to understand how this option is, in fact, unacceptable, not only (as obvious) for those who hold no religious beliefs and who would thus be reduced to silence, but also for believers, who would end up being obliged to establish a polite dialogue with no chance of a real debate. And in fact, when invoking this principle, Muslims usually do so on the basis of an understanding of other faiths implicit in the Islamic concept of (mono) prophecy.4

According to this, other religions are effectively not to be criticized insofar as they conform to the image the Quran provides of them, i.e. old ver-sions of the one divine message that all prophets are assumed to have delivered over the millennia until its full embodiment in the Quran. By this logic, any element that openly conflicts with the Islamic message is usually considered to be the fruit of subsequent falsification. This however implies, by way of consequence, that other religions are acceptable only as long as they are Islamic; not exactly what one would expect the call ‘respect for all religions’ to mean.

One must acknowledge that the problem is more complex than it appears to be at first sight, because every faith inevitably contains elements of disagreement with, and thus also of vigorous criticism of traditions preceding them. It would be curious if, by applying the principle of a ‘protection of all religions’, Muslim preachers would be forbidden to stigmatize the pagan practices of pre-Islamic Arabia. It is, to say the least, hard to envisage that this was the objective of the request Pakistan presented to the United Nations.


Another request that is frequently put forward, which shares some elements with the campaign against the defamation of religions, is to officially punish Islamophobia. This request is particularly dear to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which regularly holds conferences and workshops on this subject.5 The fact that anti-Semitism is punished by law in some western countries like France adds weight to this request.

Nevertheless, it must be observed that this term lacks clarity. If Islamo-phobia means criticism of Islam, its limitation would raise the same problems mentioned above. If, on the other hand, it means discrimination against Muslims, it could be more effectively dealt with under headings such as racism, and within the framework of universal human rights. In contemporary societies it seems imperative to resist the temptation of ‘provincializing’ human rights, and this (to be clear) applies to so-called Christianophobia as well. In this respect, it should be noted that when demanding religious freedom in Middle Eastern societies, the Catholic Church does so for the sake of all citizens regardless of their religious affiliation, and not for Christians alone.6 Generally speaking, we need more universalism rather than more particularism when defining (and defending) human rights.7

Second, and no less important, Islamophobia tends to nurture the image of Islam as a religion globally under attack. The outcome at a global level results in a paradoxical mirror perception; both ordinary non-Muslims and Muslims see themselves as threatened by the other. This seems to be the perfect premise for a long conflict, in which each side could justify its actions as a reaction to a previous threat.

Last, it must be observed that Islamophobia as a category easily leads to victimization attitudes and complexes, where responsibility, by definition, always lies with the other side. With large sections of the Islamic World swept by global jihadism, this is the last thing Islamic societies need. Rather than asking, ‘Why do they fear us?’ (five minutes of a jihadi video from Iraq can suffice as an answer), they should ask themselves – and especially the Sunni religious authorities – ‘How have we allowed Islam to become the monopoly of extremists?’


If, therefore, ‘protection of religions’ and punishment of Islamophobia (not to mention blasphemy laws as applied in Pakistan) are not viable solutions for tension arising from the use of religious symbols in contemporary societies, are we to conclude that freedom of expression should not be restricted in anyway?


Commenting on events involving a number of Salafi militants in the summer of 2012 and once again emphasizing the problems posed by restrictions to freedom of expression, the Tunisian jurist Ben Achour wrote: ‘If the notion of muqaddasât (holy things) is left to the political powers, the latter will set themselves up as arbiters and thus the masters of consciences. In this way, one returns to a theocratic state. … In my opinion, freedom of artistic and philosophical expression must be expanded without limitations, unless it disrupts public order.’8 Ben Achour’s statement appears to significantly advance the discussion. In principle, priority should be given to the right to criticism, without which there can be no real progress. The many Muslim intellectuals who have been obliged to take refuge in the West, proves that the real problem nowadays in many Islamic countries is to release words from the fear of allegations of heterodoxy, not to protect a religion that is already massively present in everyday life.

The Egyptian editorialist Muhammad Khair clearly commented on the 2012 Islamist Constitution saying, ‘The drafters of the Constitution fight an imaginary battle against the ghosts of "identity", "proselytism", "Shiite propaganda" and "westernization", and various other "conspiracies", but the result is that instead of carrying out its task of guarantor of rights and freedoms, the Constitution ends up doing the exact opposite, insofar that it tries to protect all those who enjoy majority status, power or authority.’9

There is, however, also an important clause in Ben Achour’s idea, which is the reference to public order.10 Although this principle too can be the object of manipulation, it has the advantage of affecting practical matters and not beliefs. What should be forbidden is behaviour that moves from criticism to an attack on people and their dignity, putting at risk peaceful coexistence, while the state has no right to assess a theological issue’s orthodoxy, or lack thereof. In our opinion, this simple principle, which also inspired Pakistani law before the amendments introduced by Zia-ul-Haq, is sufficient for allowing free expression of critical ideas without neglecting the effect of individual choices on the communities and the offence caused by uncalled for attacks on holy symbols. It is one thing to burn the Quran, an act to be unreservedly condemned, and another to discuss exegetic methods without being threatened with allegations of apostasy, as was the case, for example, with the Egyptian thinker, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd.

The proposal to generally punish all ‘religious defamation’, precisely because that would mean a one size fits all solution would be confusing and potentially dangerous. What must be condemned instead is any incitement of hatred. Of such incitement, however, the current Pakistani blasphemy law sadly offers a sophisticated example.


* This article was submitted before the Charlie Hebdo episode in Paris. Despite the massive impact on public opinion, these terrorist attacks do not seem to significantly modify the questions at stake, insofar as the limits of freedom of expression are concerned.


1. On the condition of Pakistani Christians, the reader can refer to the well documented article by John O’Brien, ‘Christians in Pakistan’, Islamochristiana 39, 2013, pp. 175-189.

2. Angelo Scola, Non dimentichiamoci di Dio. Rizzoli, Milan, 2013, p. 78.

3. Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, May 2009, p. 65;

4. Cf. Alfred-Louis de Prémare, Aux origines du Coran. Questions d’hier, approches d’aujourd’hui. Téraèdre, Paris, 2010, p. 34.

5. Cf. for instance: http://www.islamophobia. info/en/default.asp

6. One can refer to the conclusions of the 2010 Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, in particular the proposition n. 42 which calls for citizenship and freedom, without any reference to religious belonging: http://www.

7. Cf. Syla Benhabib, Dignity in Adversity: Human Rights in Troubled Times. Polity Press, Cambridge, 2011.

8. Yadh Ben Achour, ‘The Measure of Freedom: Freedom Without Measure?’ Oasis 16, 2012, p. 18.

9. Muhammad Khair, ‘The World of Man’, originally published by Al-Tahrîr newspaper, 13 November 2012. English translation in:

10. Curiously the same reasoning can also be found on the Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, approved during the Second Vatican Council (no. 4 in particular): councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_ 19651207_dignitatis-humanae_ en.html