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Blasphemy law in Pakistan is a highly sensitive topic, but that did not stop journalist Madeeha Syed from working on a documentary about it.
“That’s blasphemous!” – this is something a number of us use extremely casually. However, for someone in Pakistan, even an allegation of having blasphemed against Islam or the Prophet Mohammed can earn them a jail sentence – or worse.
Pakistan is one of the nations in the world that has the strictest blasphemy laws. The blasphemy law states that any person found guilty of having committed blasphemy will be imprisoned for life or can even be sentenced to death.
Despite the sensitivity associated with this issue, Madeeha Syed, a Pakistani journalist, produced a documentary called Banged Up For Blasphemy that talks about the law and its misuse, besides revealing the stories of the families affected by such accusations.
The documentary follows Marcel Theroux (a British novelist and broadcaster) as he investigates Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and meets people who have fallen prey to them.
In an interview where Madeeha told me about her interest in the topic, she says, “Blasphemy is a topic that is very close to my heart and is an extremely controversial topic in Pakistan. And because of the high stakes, very few journalists are willing to talk about blasphemy or even do projects on them beyond simple reporting of some cases that might have taken place.”
The film follows Marcel Theroux and was directed by Masood Khan, (Director and Film-maker for Channel 4, among others). But it was Madeeha who was given a word of caution to keep herself safe during the filming and the release of the film.
In case things were to go wrong, she was advised to keep her passport and valid visa on her person at all times. “At the time of the release, I wasn’t in Karachi. I was on an assignment in Balochistan and that’s something hardly anyone knew,” she adds.
In a country like Pakistan, being accused of blasphemy is often as good as a death sentence. According to the National Commission for Justice and Peace, between 1987 and 2012, the authorities prosecuted as many as 1170 cases of blasphemy. And in 2013, there were at least 16 people who were on the death row for blasphemy while 20 others were serving a life sentence.
Not only are these people on death row, there have been incidents of mob lynching, and assassinations of the accused. The assassinations include that of a sitting governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer by his own security guard in 2011.
On January 4, 2011, Taseer was at a market in Islamabad when guard Mumtaz Qadri, shot him 28 times, killing him. Qadri surrendered and was arrested. He claimed to have killed Taseer because he supported Asia Bibi.
(Asia Bibi was convicted of blasphemy under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws for having spoken against Prophet Mohammad. She was released in May 2019 based on insufficient evidence and she moved to Canada soon after.)
In November 2014, a married Christian couple was attacked by a mob of around 1200 people. The couple, Sajjab Maseeh and Shama Bibi, who was pregnant at that time – were accused of having burnt verses from the Quran. This was purely based on rumours.
The mob attacked them and broke their legs to prevent them from running. After this, they were set alight and thrown in a kiln where they were burnt alive. The origin of the rumours were subsequently linked to an interpersonal conflict and in this case, it was revenge for unpaid bills.
“In most of the blasphemy cases,” says Madeeha, “the blasphemy may not have occurred at all, or it is very difficult to prove. But when you look beneath the surface of most blasphemy accusations, you find out that the accusers have other personal motives: personal disputes, or they simply want you to clear the land. It is also used as a tool to blackmail people.”
“When I was growing up, we hardly heard of blasphemy cases having occurred. There was maybe a random one or two in many years. But in the past few years, there has been a massive spike and now mob violence and thuggery in the name of religion. We can see how the religious right uses mobs to try and influence government and intimidate the courts. This is very concerning,” she continues.
In a report by Amnesty International, they mentioned several instances of people being accused of blasphemy and the range of circumstances where these people were accused. One such case, they mentioned was that of a 14-year-old Christian girl Rimsha Masih. The case was registered by a Muslim cleric who was Rimsha’s neighbour and claimed to have seen her burning a bag containing pages of the Quran.
However, before the case could go on trial, Rimsha’s lawyers filed a petition before the Chief Justice of the Islamabad High Court. They sought to quash the FIR. The lawyers cited a number of grounds in the petition, including her age, mental state, lack of evidence and eyewitnesses to the incident.
They also used the complainant’s alleged motive to expel the Christian community in the area where Rimsha lived. He had apparently expressed his views during a religious sermon. The Islamabad High Court accept the petition and quashed the case against her for lack of evidence.
Not only the Christian community, the Ahmadiyya community too is vulnerable to the blasphemy laws. The Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan face a number of issues other than the blasphemy laws.
Under the Pakistani laws, the community is not allowed to read the Quran, perform Namaz or even call the Azan. Neither are they allowed to call themselves Muslims. Doing any of the above could ensure that they land in jail. Not just that, they face a number of issues in obtaining something as simple as identification and travel documents.
In April 2013, a case was filed against four men from the Ahmadiyya community under two Sections of the Pakistan Penal Code. Under both these sections, it is illegal for the Ahmadiyya community to propagate their faith openly, distribute material related to their religion, and even to identify themselves as Muslims.
The men were accused of circulating “objectionable material” in Lahore, including the newspaper al-Fazal and the magazine Ansar. Both these are printed, distributed exclusively by and for the people of the Ahmadiyya community. The case went to trial and it recognised that the four men were targeted simply because of their faith. However, they were acquitted more than a year of the case being registered.
“No one is spared, more than 50% of the blasphemy accusations or those in jail currently for blasphemy are Muslims. Members of minority faiths make up a smaller percentage but considering their share in the overall population, they are disproportionately represented in this. They are also the most vulnerable,” Madeeha reveals.
Despite how strict the blasphemy laws in Pakistan are, Madeeha received a lot of positive feedback for her role in the documentary.
Madeeha says, “We had been very careful in the portrayal of all the characters, representing them accurately as possible. We did not even want the ‘bad guys’ to feel like we had taken advantage of them. The only thing they wanted was their message to not be taken out of context. It wasn’t.”
The film received positive feedback from early viewers, but the reality is that, it may not receive wide screening within Pakistan itself. Nor was it widely shared on social media. Madeeha told me that when she asked people the reason behind not sharing it, their responses would be similar. She says they told her that since it’s a film on blasphemy, people didn’t want their families to get into trouble.
“This reaction was new to me. It had never happened before,” she reveals.
As one of the producers of the film, she got a lot of her information from secondary research but tried to track down the people they wanted to interview. She met them in person to pre-interview them before finalising the shoot.
“It was sometimes hard to find victims or their families who were willing to talk- mostly because they were so terrified. They’re completely traumatised- and rightly so,” Madeeha tells me.
However, once Marcel Theroux and Masood Khan arrived for the shooting, things seemed to go quite smoothly. The 22 minute long documentary spans Theroux’s journey as he talks to family members of the accused.
A mini-documentary, it leaves you with goosebumps. And makes you wonder just how easy it is for someone to accuse another person of blasphemy and just how easily a person’s life turns upside down.
The documentary is available on YouTube.
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Reader, writer and currently an Associate Editor at Women's Web, I survive on coffee
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