"Simply put, you blaspheme, you die,” said activist Arafat Mazhar in a talk on Monday.
Mazhar is the founder and director of Engage Pakistan, a nonprofit organization in Pakistan that aims to reform Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
Before speaking, Mazhar clarified that when he spoke of “blasphemy,” he was referring to any insult or criticism of the Prophet Muhammad. According to Mazhar, there are a number of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, but one of the most controversial is the one regarding statements towards the Prophet.
Mazhar began by discussing the current situation in Pakistan with regard to legal punishment of blasphemy.
He explained that, in his view, Pakistan’s blasphemy law is a deliberate perversion of Islamic tradition.
The blasphemy law was passed in 1986, and at the time there did not appear to be significant debate surrounding what constituted blasphemy and what the punishment would be. The consensus was that there could be no punishment other than death and that retraction of an initial blasphemous statement was not possible.
He noted that the reason blasphemy laws are so powerful in Pakistan is due to the perception of a unanimous consensus by jurists regarding the punishment for blasphemy. However, he pointed out the numerous flaws in the law and how disagreement within the academic community has been unfortunately suppressed.
Mazhar noted a contradiction relating to the blasphemy laws, explaining that there previously was an ijma on the death penalty, meaning that killing due to blasphemy was unanimously prohibited. Ijma is the Arabic term for scholarly consensus. Yet, current law makes the opposite claim, stating that the unanimous punishment for blasphemy is death.
Mazhar attributed this policy to corruption within the Pakistani judicial system. He explained that authority oftentimes ends up perverting tradition. Mazhar discussed how over time, tradition has been misinterpreted and misconstrued and how the system has become flawed.
He pointed to a section of the blasphemy law, noting that it in fact has been formed from misquotations. The law claimed that all jurists agreed that the death penalty was a necessary consequence of blasphemy in Pakistan. However, the written law eliminated an important clause, which stated that there were scholars who did not agree that the death penalty had to be the punishment for blasphemy.
Mazhar explained that though the authority figures giving the fatwa, or official declaration, regarding the blasphemy laws are delivering corrupted interpretation, their larger audience overwhelmingly believes them. He noted that it is dangerous for the Pakistani population, particularly Pakistani youth, to have this sense of the punishment for blasphemy.
“They misquote, they misattribute at every possible moment,” Mazhar said, referencing Pakistani jurists.
Mazhar called for an ethical and principled reading of legal tradition, not a literalist reading.
“We need to reimagine not just law but theology and what it means to love the prophet of Mercy, peace be upon him,” Mazhar said.
He explained that his goal is eventually to go to the Supreme Court of Pakistan and challenge the blasphemy laws.
He ended by theorizing that if blasphemy is being defined, then it is likely that the falsifying of truth in the name of Islam and specifically in the name of the Prophet Muhammad itself could be considered a form of blasphemy.
“Is it not this lying in the name of the Prophet that is the single biggest blasphemy one can do?” Mazhur concluded.
The lecture, titled "Blasphemy! The Untold Story of Pakistan’s Law," took place 4:30 p.m. in Robertson Hall.