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Backfiring laws

Shamil ShamsDecember 5, 2014

The police has filed a case against singer-turned-preacher Junaid Jamshed, accused of insulting Islam. Religious groups have appealed for his pardon, but liberals ask why the country's minorities don't deserve clemency.

A vendor shows a DVD of Pakistan's Junaid Jamshed at a stall in Islamabad, Pakistan, Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014 (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/B.K. Bangash

A common target of Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws is the country's poor Christians or the working-class Hindus - the Islamic republic's downtrodden minorities also face cultural and economic discrimination. It is rare though that a Muslim cleric gets booked for insulting Islam, its prophet Muhammad, or the Koran. So when Junaid Jamshed, a former pop-star-turned-mullah, gets accused of committing blasphemy, everyone was a bit surprised: how could an Islamic preacher desecrate Islam?

In a video, which went viral on the social media in Pakistan earlier this week, Jamshed appeared to insult Aisha, Muhammad's youngest wife, in order to prove a point that women were inferior to men. The followers of the Sunni sect of Islam, particularly the Hanafis, revere Aisha and the prophet's other spouses, and any slur against them is considered outrageous.

Junaid Jamshed's Facebook page
Jamshed said he was sorry for 'unintentionally' hurting the feelings of his countrymenImage: facebook/Junaid Jamshed

Jamshed, who was the lead singer of the famous pop band "Vital Signs" in the early 1990s, realized he had made a mistake, and he swiftly released another video on Tuesday, December 2, rendering an apology. "I confess to my mistake," he said. "I did not do it intentionally."

But the hard-line Islamic groups and jihadists are unwilling to forgive Jamshed.

"We demand an immediate arrest of Junaid Jamshed, who is a cursed person," Mobin Qadri, a spokesman of Pakistan Sunni Tehreek party said on Wednesday.

It was not immediately clear whether Jamshed, who is part of the Tablighi Jamaat (party of Islam's preachers), was in Pakistan. His organization's representatives have requested the people to pardon him.

Double standards

"Forgive Jamshed? Why doesn't the same rule apply to Asia Bibi, the Christian blasphemy convict who has been languishing in jail for five years? If a cleric commits blasphemy it is okay, but if a poor Hindu or a member of the minority Ahmadiyya sect does the same, he should be hanged or killed? It's hypocritical," Shahzaib Ahmed, a Karachi-based entrepreneur, told DW.

Angry Pakistani demonstraters torch Christian's belongings during a protest over a blasphemy row in a Christian neighborhood in Badami Bagh area of Lahore on March 9, 2013 (Photo: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)
Blasphemy is a very sensitive topic in the Islamic Republic, where 97 percent of its 180 million inhabitants are MuslimsImage: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

On November 5, a young Christian couple was beaten to death by a mob in a small town of Kot Radha Kishan in the eastern Punjab province, a political stronghold of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The angry crowd, which alleged that Shama and Shehzad desecrated a copy of the Koran, subsequently burned their bodies in a brick kiln where the couple worked.

Their murder outraged Pakistani activists and the liberal segments of the population. "The investigations will likely prove that the blasphemy allegations against the couple were fake. According to unconfirmed reports, they had a dispute over wages with their Muslim boss at the brick kiln factory. Everything else followed after that," Farooq Sulehria, a London-based Pakistani researcher and activist, told DW.

Pakistan has witnessed an unprecedented surge in Islamic extremism and religious fanaticism in the past decade. Islamist groups, including the Taliban, have repeatedly targeted religious minorities in the country to impose their strict shariah law on people.

Rights activists demand the reforms of the controversial blasphemy laws, which were introduced by Zia-ul-Haq in the mid 1980s. Activists say the laws have little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas.

All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) protest against 295-A-B-C- and in solidarity with Rimsha Masih girl accused of blasphemy at Faisalabad Press Club on 26-08-2012
Rights activists demand the reforms of the controversial blasphemy lawsImage: APMA

But if you ask people on the streets whether they are in favor of a repeal of the laws, their answer would most definitely be a no.

"It is not about amending or repealing the law (blasphemy law), or making new laws; those who insult our religion should not go unpunished," Ali Asghar, a student in Lahore, told DW.

Women and Islam

But prominent Pakistani journalist, Beena Sarwar, says that no one, including Jamshed, should be a victim of blasphemy laws. "He (Jamshed) has apologized and that should be that. Too many people have been thrown in prison, sent into forced exile or killed after such allegations, often not even registered with the police," she said, adding that what the former vocalist said was "highly offensive, both from a religious standpoint, and also for women."

Asia Bibi (Photo: EPA/GOVERNOR HOUSE HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++)
Bibi's family members are hoping for a presidential pardonImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But Shahzaib Ahmed says there was nothing "un-Islamic" about Jamshed's comments on Muhammad's wife: "He cited a popular Islamic anecdote. It is mentioned in the most authentic of Islamic books. Does that make Islam a mysoginstic religion? Well, most religions are anti-women and Islam is no different. So I don't understand why both religious people and the country's liberals are making a hue and cry over Jamshed's video?"

Experts point out that the entire issue is proof that blasphemy laws are misused in Pakistan, and that they should be urgently amended or scrapped. The practice of victimizing religious minorities in the name of blasphemy has terribly backfired on the supposedly "better Muslims."