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Righting the Wrongs of Blasphemy Laws

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News broke Tuesday that a Pakistani high court dismissed blasphemy charges against Rimsha Masih, a young Christian girl, finding the accusation that she burned pages of the Quran to be "legally unsound." The decision comes after months of religious tension and protests following the girl's August arrest and detention in an adult criminal system -- with potential for a sentence to life in prison -- and then weeks in hiding for the girl and her family, for fear of vigilante retribution. The case sparked international outrage.

One productive result of this terrible incident has been renewed international debate over Pakistan's blasphemy laws. Here, Dr. Douglas Johnston, President of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD) reflects on the original intent and dangerous potential for misuse of these laws. His views are informed by his Center's work with Pakistan's madrasas (religious schools) over the past eight years, enhancing the curriculums and transforming the pedagogy to create critical thinking skills among the students and to inspire greater adherence to the principles of religious tolerance and human rights. The Center has also sponsored inter-faith seminars for Muslim clerics and Christian pastors.

Based on my observations from near and afar, I have concluded that Pakistan would be well-advised to either return to the original intent behind its blasphemy laws, which was to protect the sanctity of all religions, or to simply abolish them altogether. As currently written and interpreted, the blasphemy laws violate the spirit and intent of both the Prophet himself (PBUH) and the sacred teachings of the Holy Quran.

"When thou seest men engaged in mocking and insulting our verses [Quran], turn away from them unless they turn to a different theme" (Quran 6:68).

"And when they hear ill speech, they turn away from it and say, 'For us are our deeds, and for you are your deeds. Peace will be upon you; we seek not the ignorant'" (Quran 28:55).

Illustrative of this misuse of the blasphemy laws were the recent charges brought against a 14-year-old, mentally disabled Christian girl for allegedly violating these laws by burning pages from the Holy Quran. It was eventually determined that the girl had been victimized as part of a larger strategy orchestrated by the imam of the local mosque to drive the Christians out of the village. In this particular instance, justice prevailed after a group of Muslim clerics and Christian pastors intervened to determine the truth of what had actually taken place. As a result of their efforts, the girl was released by the authorities; and the imam was taken into custody.

However, the problem typically does not end with determining the guilt or innocence of the accused; because even those who are found to be innocent and who are released from custody are often subjected to vigilante justice at the hands of enraged mobs, who have a wrong understanding of what has actually taken place and who, because they are often illiterate, are incapable of determining for themselves the guidance provided in the Holy Quran for such matters. They are thus easily manipulated and are almost never brought to justice for such misbehavior, even when the falsely accused victim has been killed -- often burned to death -- by such mobs. As the Holy Quran makes abundantly clear, if a Muslim kills an innocent person, he will be judged as if he had killed the entire human race. Such behavior is an embarrassment to the community, the country; and, most particularly, to Islam itself.

Every civilization and every religion has experienced similar mob behavior and miscarriages of justice, but that is no excuse for the current misuse of the blasphemy laws that is taking place in Pakistan. Not only does it violate the rights of the victims from minority religions, but it violates the rights of all Muslim victims as well. Even more important, it violates the peaceful intent of the Holy Quran and the very teachings of the Prophet himself (PBUH), who prayed for his persecutors and overlooked their insults.

"Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion" (Quran 109:6).

"There is no compulsion in religion" (Quran 2:256).

All Pakistanis, particularly respected imams whose preaching can inspire the masses to either anger and revenge or forgiveness and compassion, should do all that they can to curb misguided behavior and to promote a culture of tolerance that will enable Pakistan to play its rightful role in guiding South Asia to an even brighter future in the years ahead.