Why I Criticised Tahir Ashrafi

I have taken a lot of criticism for my last piece about Tahir Ashrafi. I expected the abuse from intolerant fanatics who subscribe to an extremist ideology. What I did not expect was the criticism from respected intellectuals who understand the problems inherent to the blasphemy laws as they exist. After re-reading my original piece, I realised that this should have been expected. In making one point clearly, I failed to address clearly the broader reason why we should not take comfort in the statements of people like Tahir Ashrafi. Please allow me to explain.

The problem I have with guys like Tahir Ashrafi is that they are playing us for fools. The case against Rimsha was so obscene that it threatened to expose the blasphemy laws as they exist for what they are – a tool of intimidation and persecution that serves to perpetuate the power of the right-wing Mullahstocracy.

When Tahir Ashrafi came out in defence of Rimsha, many took this as a sign of progress. I understand how natural it is to respond to a piece like Tahir Ashrafi’s by saying that such words should be encouraged. But, because of his (recent) past, it would be irresponsible to accept Ashrafi’s words without some scepticism. Nadir Hassan explains why:

Let us not delude ourselves into believing that the PUC can be even a temporary ally. Sure, when arguing the case for Rimsha’s release we can use the “even the PUC agrees with us” line as a debating point. But the focus should remain on the injustice of the blasphemy laws themselves, not the abuse of the laws.

Focusing on the way the laws are supposedly misused is being used as a utilitarian tactic to slowly change minds. What this approach ignores is that abuse is inherent to any law that criminalises speech and conduct. As long as we buy into the logic that the majority group deserves to be protected from any offense or criticism, we will continue to see minority groups be repressed for their beliefs. And when cases aren’t as clear-cut as that of Rimsha’s, we will be left speechless because there will be no obvious ‘abuse’ of these laws.

Let us for a moment consider how this whole drama could play out. For Ashrafi and the right-wing Mullahstocracy, the case against Rimsha was a PR disaster. The entire world was focused on the story of a mentally-disabled 11-year-old girl who was being threatened with death for a crime she could not possibly comprehend. The case reignited questions about how the blasphemy laws are used to intimidate, threaten, and persecute people for personal and political ends. In order to protect this tool of power, the Mullahs had to change the subject. So they started talking about how ‘abuse’ of the law should be stopped. This sounds reasonable, but only if it is considered outside the reality of history.

What Ashrafi and the rest of the Mullahstocracy realise is that, in the grander scheme, Rimsha and Imam Khalid Jadoon are mere pawns who can be sacrificed. By letting her go scot free and punishing the Imam, they will have set a precedent that strengthens their weapons against future criticism. After all, if Rimsha is set free and the Imam is punished, does this not prove that the laws are not being abused, and therefore any conviction must be legitimate?

This will be their argument the next time there is an Asia Bibi, or an Ranjah Masih or a Naushad Valiyani. Mohammad Hanif provides a sad and disturbing list of the victims of the Mullahstocracy’s weapon. Where was Tahir Ashrafi when these cases were taking place? He sat silently on the sidelines. The next time this weapon is used, however, he and the rest of the right-wing Mullahs will not have to sit silent. Their defence will be an 11-year-old girl named Rimsha. “See, we saved her from stoning. This proves that our decisions are just. Today we demand death.” Anyone defending the accused will be met with quick retorts of, “If he is innocent, why doesn’t even Tahir Ashrafi defend him?” And the persecution will go on as it has been.

Farahnaz Ispahani explained this, too, in a recent piece for Daily Times:

Mr Ashrafi and his colleagues want this case to be used to end discussion about the need to reform the Blasphemy Laws. They want Rimsha Masih’s case to be investigated and decided under a law that has been so massively abused that it needs fundamental review. But they would rather get mercy for Rimsha without challenging the structure and process that makes oppression of religious minorities possible.

This is why I do not greet these newly found words of Maulana Ashrafi with joy. Not because I resent his previous silence, or his speeches inciting hatred and violence against Pakistanis who do not subscribe to his personal ideology. It is because underneath the honey in his recent words is a razor dripping with the blood of innocents. And that, I cannot ignore.

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!