Blasphemy Laws and the case of Aasia Bibi

Yesterday, a two-member bench of the Lahore High Court (LHC) upheld the death sentence given to Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman convicted in 2009 of blasphemy.

On June 19, 2009, in a village near Nankana in Pakistan, Aasia Bibi, 50, a mother of five, was jailed after being accused by her neighbors of making derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed. According to her neighbors, she was working in a field when she was asked to fetch water. Muslim women laborers objected, saying that as a non-Muslim she was unfit to touch the water bowl. She entered into a heated debate with her Muslim colleagues, which is when she is alleged to have made the blasphemous remarks.

A few days later, the co-workers went to a local cleric and recounted the blasphemy allegations. Shortly thereafter, Bibi was incarcerated and charged with blasphemy. During her trial, recorded statements of eight prosecution witnesses were presented, and on November 8, 2010, she was sentenced to death by hanging. Bibi became the first woman to be sentenced to death under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law.

In Pakistan, Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), which was enacted in 1986, mandates capital punishment for “use of derogatory remarks in respect of the Holy Prophet.” This blasphemy law has become an all-purpose tool in the service of intolerance. Even though there are parts of the law could technically serve to protect all religions from blasphemy, only the Muslim majority has invoked the provision against the Christian minority.

Bibi’s case attracted the attention of then Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, who visited her in jail and denounced her conviction as well as the blasphemy law. A couple of months later, Taseer was killed by his own bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri. Another high-profile politician, minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti was also murdered in 2011 after calling for reforms to the blasphemy law and describing Aasia Bibi’s trial as flawed.

According to Pew Research, an American research firm, 22% of countries have laws that penalize blasphemy or the insulting of religious symbols. Most of these countries are Muslim and the laws prohibit insults to Islam’s prophet or holy book. However, the list also includes other countries where old laws banning blasphemous or religiously disrespectful speech have remained on the statute books, albeit rarely if ever invoked. Such countries include Denmark, Greece and Germany. As recently as 2009, Ireland introduced a blasphemy law which penalizes “the publication or utterance of blasphemous matter” with a fine of up to €25,000. This law covers blasphemy to other religions as well as Christianity.

As for Bibi’s case, a two-judge appellate panel has dismissed her appeal, but her attorneys can still appeal the case to the Supreme Court for further review.

 

Secularization or Religious Intolerance?

In 2009 in Switzerland more than 57% of voters and 22 out of 26 provinces voted in favor of imposing a national ban on the construction of minarets, the prayer towers of mosques. In 2011, France introduced a law against covering one’s face in public. Muslim women in full-face veils, or niqab, were banned from any public activity including walking down the street, taking a bus, going to the shops or collecting their children from school.  That same year, another law that banned saying prayers in the street, a practice by French Muslims unable to find space in mosques, came into effect in Paris.

In a recent ruling, a Cologne’s (Germany) District Court criminalized the religious circumcision of minors, even with the consent of parents.  In Hof, a small German town near the Czeck border, four German citizens filed criminal complaints with the local prosecutor against a local Rabbi alleging the crime of performing ritual circumcisions. In New York, the City’s Board of Health voted earlier this month to require parents to sign a consent form before having their child undergo an Orthodox Jewish circumcision ritual.

Those favoring the regulation of circumcisions cite as their main reason the health risks to the children of certain circumcision rituals. The principal reason put forth for banning the construction of minarets was to eliminate conflict. Proponents of the law prohibiting the covering of the face saw the law as a way to prevent the oppression of women in Islamic communities.

Is there a trend of governments trying to eliminate religion and impose secularism as the new religion?

Are governments being insensitive to religious beliefs, or are governments only looking out for the wellbeing of their citizens?

Do these laws violate the right of individuals to practice their religion?