11-27-2012By Joelle Fiss
It’s been called “historic,” “groundbreaking,” and a “milestone in Pakistani history.”
And it was.
Last week the Islamabad High Court dropped the blasphemy case against 14 year old Rimsha Masih who was arrested last August. She was facing life imprisonment after being accused of burning pages of the Quran. Her arrest led to mob violence from angry protesters. Direct threats were waged against her, forcing her into hiding.
In a positive, albeit infrequent move, the Chief Justice of the Court Iqbal Hameed ur Rahman affirmed that there was no evidence for the charges made against Rimsha Masih. In his 15-page judgment, he questioned the widespread practice of blasphemy accusations inPakistan. He warned followers of Islam to be careful “while leveling such allegations against anyone.”
In a country where any talk of blasphemy is toxic, and people who speak out against abuses of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws – not least judges, human rights lawyers and journalists – risk their lives, this was an extraordinary act of bravery and intellectual integrity.
What’s more, this act, which led to the police withdrawing the blasphemy charges against Rimsha, will hopefully serve as a precedent for law enforcement officials and the judiciary to interpret Pakistan’s blasphemy laws more narrowly, so as to reduce the potential for human rights abuses in their application. Indeed, in their current form and implementation, blasphemy laws are frequently used to stifle debate and dissent, harass rivals, and settle petty disputes among neighbors, business partners and political adversaries. Increasingly, these laws also trigger violence. It has become commonplace for mobs to gather in and around courtrooms where blasphemy cases are tried. In many cases, vigilantes are often called to arms over the loudspeakers of local mosques and stand prepared to take the law into their own hands if the court does not hand down a guilty verdict.
Some discussions around blasphemy laws are occurring this week at the United Nations. Today, diplomats in New York are negotiating a text on combating religious intolerance. Until last year, combating defamation of religion, or blasphemy, was the primary focus of efforts by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to combat religious intolerance. The OIC abandoned that focus in 2011 when it agreed to resolution 16/18, adopted by consensus, which calls on states to implement positive measures to fight religious intolerance rather than pushing for legal measures to restrict speech. Still, some of its 57 member states continue to publicly advocate for efforts to pursue a global ban on “defamation of religion.”
Governments should resist calls to revive a global anti-blasphemy code or other measures ostensibly designed to protect religion from defamatory speech. Pakistan is a cautionary tale for the international community. Instead, it should focus on reinforcing the principles of resolution 16/18 and strengthening the Istanbul Process. That is the only way forward to reduce discrimination.