Should Shariah, the Islamic religious law, be blamed for the injustices faced by Muslim women and children or its rigid implementation? Can Shariah be adapted to the needs of secularism? Pakistan's blasphemy laws and their political use that resulted in Asia Bibi's death sentence prompted the discussion at a conference on Shariah, segregation and secularism in London on November 25.
The case of Bibi, a Christian woman who was recently acquitted of blasphemy charges by Pakistan's supreme court, is a widely discussed topic all over the world. Earlier this month, Bibi's husband Ashiq Masih requested asylum for his wife and the rest of the family from a number of European countries, including the UK, but some reports claim that British authorities were reluctant to offer it to avoid "religious disharmony" in the country.
Although released from prison, Bibi cannot still leave the country due to protests by hard-line Islamist groups against her acquittal and a pending review petition in the Supreme Court.
The conference also featured Saif ul Mulook, Bibi's lawyer, who fled Pakistan to the Netherlands soon after the court overturned his client's death sentence, which had kept her in prison for nearly a decade.
Mulook praised the Pakistani constitution for its "secular credentials" and cited its Article 25 that guarantees equality to all citizens. He also spoke about his childhood when Christians and Muslims lived peacefully together in Pakistan.
"Small groups of mullahs (Islamic clerics) gained prominence after General Zia-ul-Haq [a military dictator who ruled Pakistan in the 1980s] and the US intervened in Afghanistan, a peaceful country at the time," Mulook told the audience, as he was given a standing ovation by the attendees for his long struggle to get justice for Bibi.
The conference participants urged the British government to grant asylum to Bibi on humanitarian grounds. They also urged authorities to abolish all laws that are against the spirit of freedom of conscience and expression.
Equal rights for all
The participants of the international conference, organized by Maryam Namazie, marked the 10th anniversary of the One Law for All Campaign, which campaigns for equality irrespective of background, beliefs and religions. They demanded "one law for all' in opposition to those in Europe who are calling for more autonomy for the arbitration of religious courts and religious judges, especially over matters related to family law, inheritance, divorce, child custody and domestic violence.
In her speech, Yasmin Rehman, a women's rights campaigner, criticized British authorities for the "mess" they have created by categorizing minority communities "between good and bad migrants."
Rehman alleged that the British government tends to support any organization that speaks against Muslim radicalization without analyzing its credentials.
The rights activist argued that authorities pander to the demands of right-wing Muslim organizations, giving them legitimacy by allowing Shariah courts to have authority in divorce cases, adding that these measures are tantamount to creating parallel legal systems in the country.
Conference organizers shared Rehman's views, saying that often the victims of parallel legal regimes in the UK are the most vulnerable people, such as women, children and minority communities.
"We must acknowledge equal rights for all and stop dividing people into communities. We must all abide by human rights laws that are man-made and are subject to change, of course," said Fariborz Pooya.
Interpretations of Shariah
In February, a report submitted to the British parliament recommended regulation of Shariah courts in the country. It was, however, rejected by the government.
Gita Sahgal, director of the Center for Secular Space organization, accused the British government of legitimizing a parallel legal system in the UK by allowing a dual divorce procedure — one civil and one religious — for British Muslims.
Sahgal explained that the interpretation of Shariah laws is different in Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority countries. In Muslim-minority countries, Muslim organizations campaign for "cultural conservatism" and a more rigid form of Shariah law. Shariah, she said, has undergone a reformation over a period of time, depending on the political views of the Muslims organizing themselves in different societies or as different communities.
Pakistan's blasphemy laws, for instance, are used politically by the ruling class of the Muslim-majority country. Their interpretation, experts say, is problematic. Scores of people have been killed by angry mobs or sent to the gallows on charges of insulting Islam or Prophet Muhammad, they say. Bibi's case, thus, sheds a light on this aspect.
The conference declaration said that "both racist and fundamentalist discourses, whether they appeal to Shariah, facism, anti-semitism, casteism or any ideology, deny the universal dignity of a human being."