Before We Can Change Laws, We Must Change Minds

There has been a lot of discussion about the Asia Bibi case lately, and while it’s been encouraging to see the number of prominent thinkers who are willing to publicly call for the repeal of the blasphemy laws, it’s also somewhat depressing because I can’t help but think that in a few weeks the entire issue will have blown over and nothing will have changed.

I was given something of a reality call, though, when I saw that Ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani posted on Twitter,

For those asking why blasphemy law is not being repealed, simple answer is there aren’t enough votes for that in parliament

This is an important point to consider. No matter how much I or anyone else might be completely shocked that Zia’s blasphemy laws remain on the books, we do live in a democracy and changing the laws requires popular support for a change. Even if an MNA himself or herself believes that the law should be overturned, their job is to represent the people in their district. And if the people in their district support the blasphemy laws, well, what lawmaker will go against their will?

Nadir Hassan’s article for The Dawn Blog, Intolerance of the other, expands on this point.

At a time when the main criticism of the courts has been its embrace of judicial activism, we will end up sounding incoherent when faced with a case where the accusation of blasphemy, as defined by our laws, is credible. After all, if we expect judges to adhere strictly to the letter of the law, how can we criticise them for handing out severe punishments in such cases? By all means we should plead for Aasia Bibi’s release, but let’s not lose sight of the bigger battle: the repeal of all laws that discriminate on the basis of religion.

The true enemy in this fight is not the judiciary. Rather, an overwhelming majority of the population needs to be convinced that blasphemy laws are cruel and anachronistic. Britain, after all, had a blasphemy law – which made it a crime to speak against the Church of England – on the books until 2008, but the last time it was used was in 1922. When society understands that putting someone to death for their opinions and beliefs is fundamentally illiberal, the battle has already been won. In Pakistan, we haven’t even begun to approach that level of enlightenment. Keep in mind that no one has been legally executed under the blasphemy laws in this country as the higher courts, particularly the Federal Shariat Court, have overturned all such death sentences. The real threat to the lives of those accused of blasphemy comes from enraged mobs, with the police playing the role of uninterested bystanders and the judgments of lower courts fuelling the anger.

Until these mobs, and those who silently support them, are silenced through force of argument, even the repeal of blasphemy laws will bring only marginal safety to minorities.

Before we can change the laws, we must change minds. The problem is not whether militants will increase attacks – they are already attacking! The problem is that in a democracy, there must be popular support for change. So do not ask what your MNA is doing to repeal the blasphemy law, ask yourself what you are doing to change the thinking of your neighbors who still support it!


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