Cartoons spark violent protests across Pakistan
In Pakistan, strict blasphemy laws have prevented an open debate of the issue in both intellectual and social realms.
Minority groups in Pakistan have consistently expressed their concern at the stringent blasphemy laws, which state that if an individual goes to the police and makes an accusation of blasphemy -- even without hard evidence -- the police have to make an immediate arrest before any kind of investigation.
The law calls for offenders to face the death penalty. The law, however, has generally only been applied in cases involving Christians and minority Muslim sects, rather than in restricting the expression of Pakistani Muslims in general.
Under Article 295(c) of the Pakistani Penal Code, "Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall be also liable to fine."
Under pressure from Pakistan's Human Rights commission, President Musharraf suggested amendments to these laws in 2000. However, he quickly changed his stance when conservative clerics voiced their outrage at the hint of any change.
This stringency has manifested itself in the realm of the media, where journalists are reluctant to discuss religious issues given such repercussions. Writes BBC's Karachi correspondent Aamer Ahmed Khan: "There have been blasphemy cases instituted against teachers for trying to explain to their students that the Prophet's parents could not have been Muslims for the simple reason that they died before the advent of Islam."
Consequently, initial reactions to the cartoons were muted, while later protests -- including those in the media -- were extremely homogenous, a testament to the absence of safe space where issues such as freedom of expression versus religious sensitivity can be openly discussed.
However, when prominent religious leaders and several Islamic parties began organizing rallies to protest the cartoons, violence erupted across Pakistan, killing two protesters in Peshawar and two others in Lahore.
Most of Pakistan's national newspapers have defended the publication of the cartoons. While editorials did condemn violence in protests, those opinions were largely expressed in very measured terms.
President General Pervez Musharraf unequivocally condemned the cartoons, and demanded the imposition of an international law to govern blasphemy:
"Whereas this act has hurt the sentiments of all Muslims, irrespective of their affiliation with a religious party or otherwise, the government stands by its people in condemning this act."
"Our Ambassador in Denmark along with six other Ambassadors of OIC countries made a strong demarche to the Danish prime minister. In December 2005, our permanent representative in Geneva, in his capacity as the Chairman of the OIC Group in Geneva, addressed a letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights seeking his intervention with Denmark to help stem out this outrage against Islam."
The founder of the religious Muttahida Qaumi Movement, Altaf Hussain, said:
"Today's convention of the MQM's labour division condemns the publication of sacrilegious cartoons and demands President Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz to take up this sensitive issue in the UN to reflect the shock and grief of the Muslims, which they have suffered in its aftermath."
Religious leader Allama Hasan Turabi said the publication of blasphemous cartoons was entirely unacceptable to the Muslim Ummah, adding that a joint and unanimous strategy should be adopted in this regard to prevent a reoccurrence of such incidents in the future. He called for severing diplomatic ties with Denmark, Norway, Spain and other countries where newspapers had published the blasphemous cartoons, appealed for a boycott of products of these countries, and for international action against those that do no apologize for the acts of their media.
- Pakistan's Blasphemy Law: Words Fail Me (Washington Post)
Akbar Ahmed criticizes the history of Pakistan's blasphemy law in this 2002 piece
- Pakistan's Blasphemy Law U-Turn (BBC)
The BBC's Islamabad correspondent examines President Musharraf's stance on blasphemy laws
- Let's Move On (Dawn)
Irfan Hussain pleads for calm in this column written in the immediate aftermath of the first protests in Pakistan
- Text of Pakistan's blasphemy laws (part of United Nations report on religious tolerance)
- Internews Pakistan's quarterly updates on state of media's legal freedoms
Date Posted: 5/18/2006