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October 1st, 2012
04:30 PM ET

Explainer: Pakistan's blasphemy laws

By Reza Sayah, CNN

Islamabad, Pakistan (CNN) - It has been more than a month since a teenage Christian girl was charged in Pakistan under the country's blasphemy laws . Her accusers say she burned pages from the Quran, Islam's holy book. Amid twists in her case, including changed statements by witnesses, she is facing life in prison.

On Monday, CNN reported that three witnesses whose testimony could absolve the 14-year-old Rimsha Masih have changed their statements, a potential setback for her. She has denied the charges.

The case has drawn the country's complex laws about blasphemy into the spotlight. Here is a primer on those laws.

What are the major stipulations of Pakistan's blasphemy laws, and what exactly do they prohibit?

Pakistan’s blasphemy law makes it a crime to destroy or damage the Quran or to insult the Prophet Mohammed.

The following are two sections of the law as they appear in Pakistan’s penal code:

Whoever will fully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Quran or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable for imprisonment for life.

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 Mohammed (PBUH) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.

When were Pakistan's blasphemy laws adopted? What fueled them?

 According to the public policy think tank Jinnah Institute, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws originated in British colonial laws drafted in 1860 to protect religious beliefs and customs.

In the 1980s, under the rule of hardline Islamist and military dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the laws were amended to include life imprisonment and the death penalty.

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Zia-ul-Haq accused previous governments of leading the country away from the principles of Islam and openly stated his mission to return Pakistan to a conservative Islamist state. Zia-ul-Haq’s reign is widely viewed as the “Islamization” of Pakistan.

Critics say that soon after the blasphemy law was amended under Zia-ul-Haq, many accusers began misusing the law and exploiting Pakistan’s ineffective justice system to settle personal scores and persecute minorities.

The Jinnah Institute says nine cases of blasphemy were reported in Pakistan between 1929 and 1982. Over the past 15 years, the number of cases has reached into the thousands.

What are the big Pakistani blasphemy cases in recent years that got international attention? How were they resolved?

In November 2010, Christian laborer Asia Bibi was sentenced to death after a fellow worker accused her of insulting Islam. The sentence is under appeal, and Bibi is still in jail.

Months after Bibi’s death sentence, provincial Gov. Salman Taseer and Federal Minister Shahbaz Bhatti – both moderate Pakistani politicians – were assassinated after public calls to amend the blasphemy laws.

In May 2010, militants attacked two mosques and killed more than 90 worshipers of the Ahmadi sect, minority Muslims often viewed as heretics and blasphemers by hardline Sunnis in Pakistan.

Why have some hardline Islamist groups in Pakistan rejected the call to change the blasphemy law and gone as far as praising the assassination of politicians who pushed for change?

Aasim Sajjad, a political analyst and professor of history at Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam Univeristy, blames a succession of governments, leaders and institutions that have directly or indirectly either promoted or tolerated a hardline Islamist mindset.

“There are very well-entrenched structures of power that exist in this society,” Sajjad said. “Some of them have to do with how this state and its institutions are set up. Those deeply established structures are part of the answer why this continues to happen.

“What one needs to emphasize is how since its inception, the state has depicted itself as citadel of a particular kind of religious ideology. And what’s well-established is the direction of the state towards a self-proclaimed Islamic state during the late '70s and '80s. I think that was a fundamental turning point," he said.

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“Today, there is a wide cross-section of society that tolerates this, and I think there’s also an environment of fear where they feel that if they do stand up against it, they will be targeted. The primary sentiment is one of ‘keep your head down and don’t get yourself involved, because if you do, then you’re going to be set up to be jailed or killed,' " the professor said.

Is there any chance of meaningful debate or change when it comes to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws?

“I think it’s going to take a visionary political leadership which is willing to be courageous and take a stand to generate popular support,” Sajjad said.

“But my sense is that the mainstream political forces in this country have the same approach as most everyday Pakistanis, which is just put your head down and don’t take up these issues. Until a popular constituency develops, political will won’t be generated. Until a political will is generated, a popular constituency may not be developed.

“It’s like what came first, the chicken or the egg?”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Islam • Islamic law • Pakistan • Quran

soundoff (1,048 Responses)
  1. Mopery

    It is a well known fact that the supposed prophet Mohammed was fathered by a goat. He kept many men as husbands, and was servile to them, as a dog in heat is to an alpha male. Mohammed's beard was so drenched with man-seed that he couldn't turn his head without spraying it on bystanders. He ordered men to wear beards because he like the way they felt against his thighs.

    August 26, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  2. NWOBAMA

    we should bomb them USA style and show them how much better we are.

    August 26, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  3. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    On the contrary in my former homeland INDIA, SPINELESS HINDUS (Myself Included!) allow a Muslim painter paint Indian gods in coitus positions with animals, while this guy does not even have the guts to paint any Muslim figure, not even a smiling face forget about painting his prophet!

    And, this guy M.F.Hussain is pampered as a world renowned painter (INDIA’s PICASSO) by shameless Hindus incl. Shashi Tharoor, Ishaan Taroor (both disciples of our own Islamic apologist, PLAGIARIST Mr. Fareed Zakaria) with his works selling for millions of $s a piece.

    Just do a GOOGLE SEARCH

    “M F Husain paintings of Indian gods in coitus”

    August 26, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      I'm not sure you could call M.F.Husain a Muslim. If so, Muslims would probably be more offended than you are at a Muslim painting Hindu deities.

      August 26, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • Simran

      Have you visited the caves of Ajanta and Ellora Amit? Gods and dieties in coitus, shamelessly displayed in more than life-sized sculptures. But I think, we call it art, and it is not something to feel shame about. Now, they were not made my M F Hussain, were they???
      Hussain was an artist, a world renowned one, and that is it. He was an Indian and made us proud.

      August 26, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • Simran

      Now let's also go a little further to Khajuraho caves.

      August 26, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • Simran

      Google these and see how Hindu gods have been potrayed in their own temple caves now.

      August 26, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • Simran

      I did some reading on the topic u raised.
      Here is what has been said about the work of Hussain by some critics:

      MF Husain was doing what every other artisan in India did for centuries – conform to the practices already in vogue, and not deviate from those practices by a lot. It is a common practice that an artisan who works on Hindu temples sculpts Hindu goddesses in nude and then goes to work on a mosque to etch Arabic texts onto the walls. That practice happened for centuries in India, where the local artisans were both Hindus and Muslims working on both temples and mosques.

      Traditionally, most Hindu female icons were portrayed in nu.de for all our history, including the modern times. Saraswati, Lakshmi, Parvati were all portrayed in nu.de with big bre.asts, narrow waists, and prominent nip.ples. Even the contemporary artists have sculpted Saraswati in nu.de. M F Husain differed from the other artists who sculpted our Hindu temples in the sense that he was actually being very conservative. He did not portray Hindu goddesses in the same voluptuousness as other artists. He made his nu.de goddesses less er.otic than those found in most Hindu temples and museums. His nu.de Sita or nu.de Saraswati does not evoke ero.ticism but rather sadness.

      Now as goes your issue with why he didnot paint Muslim figures, now how many mosques have a tradition of prophets etc being painted? They don't, and so he didn't either.

      August 26, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • HIndu

      Simran, This is why half knowledge is so dangerous. Have you even been to Khujaraho. The paintings are not of Gods, they of apsaras. Yes there is a difference. It is not even that Hussien drew Gods, what he did was draw with intent to humiliate. Sita and Hanuman sitting naked with Hanuman's tail in her mouth for one?. That is a big difference from drawing Sita and Rama naked together. It speaks something that not even muslims in India dared support Hussein. Because they knew that once they opened that floodgate, they who have so many taboos would be deep sh1t.

      August 26, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • sendai

      You've come to the right place Hindu. Renounce and forget all those gods. Muslims should do likewise with their god. There will be less to fight over Gods became unnecessary when people began to understand their world through discovery and rational thought. That started a long time ago.

      August 26, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • Simran

      Hindu,
      I apologize if I offend you in any way. But eroticism is a part of Hindu scriptures.

      "[Ravana:] 'Who are you, golden woman dressed in garments of yellow
      silk, wearing a lovely lotus garland, and like a lotus pond yourself?
      Are you the goddess Modesty or Fame? Are you Sri or lovely Laksmi or
      perhaps an apsaras, lovely lady? Could you be Prosperity, shapely woman,
      or easygoing Pleasure? … Your h.ips are full and broad, your thi.ghs
      smooth as an elephant's trunk. And these, your delightful brea.sts, how
      round they are, so firm and gently heaving; how full and lovely, smooth
      as two palm fruits, with their nip.ples standing stiff and the rarest
      gems to adorn them.' " - Ramayana 3:44:15-19.

      Now the point is how do you know he wanted to insult Hindus? The whole propaganda against Hussain was started by who – Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal, 2 Hindu extremist groups. The paintings in question had been made by him in 1970s and they didnot become an issue until 1996 until they were printed in Vichar Mamansa.

      August 26, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • Simran

      Hindu,
      Regarding the Sita Hanuman painting, I can only find one where Sita is sitting on Hanuman's tail as he burns the Lanka. And no, nothing se.xual or even remotely offensive.
      Just an artists expression.

      August 26, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • Amit-Atlanta-USA

      Simran:

      Firstly no one knows for sure why such art was eteched out in the temples. Even most Hindus are perplexed on that, as also the experts. So, Hindus have disregarded that art done 1000's of years ago. You don't find those on any new temples built in the past several hundred years.

      Having said that, as our friend "Hindu rightly put it M.F.Husain's so-called art was more to insult & taunt the Hindus than anything else. IF ONLY HE HAD THE GUTS TO DO THAT WITH IMPORTANT CHARCTERS FROM HIS OWN MUSLIM FAITH, HINDUS WOULD HAVE ACCEPTED HIS EVEN HANDEDNESS.

      It was some kind of solace that SPINELESS INDIA FINALLY had the ba??s to deny him entry and carry on with his tirade on his own soil.

      May be India did that to protect him.....rather than punish him!

      August 26, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Simran

      Amit,
      Are there any Muslims Gods being potrayed in images – I think that is the basic belief of their faith. God has no form.
      Hussain did not paint the Hindu scholars, he painted Hindu dieties. I am not surprised that he didnot paint Muslim prophets. Are you wanting an artist to say "Okay since i painted Hindu dieties nu.de, now let me even the score and paint some Muslims too!"
      Just like we do not know why the sculptures stand in our caves, we cannot get inside Hussain's mind either – may be he was simply appreciating the hindu dieties. I googled those paintings, and no, I do not feel they were por.nographic.
      Probably se.x wasn't such a taboo back in the times when those caves were built as it is today,and what we see is reflective of that era's cultural trends. I would call it se.xual freedom. When 2 people look at an art, they may have completely different visions.

      August 26, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  4. James

    As a historian that has studied seventeenth-century European witchcraft accusations, trials and "resolutions" I find this blasphemy case highly similar in that nobody actually seems to have "seen" anything but rather this is a case of the local politics of inclusion/exclusion playing itself out once again. Old wine, different old bottle.

    August 26, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  5. Alan

    Isn't this the 11-year old girl with Down Syndrome? A little common sense is in order by all those offended by the burning.

    August 26, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  6. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    “Today, there is a wide cross-section of society that tolerates this”........that explains the whole thing.

    Pakistan and (also Indian Muslims led by PLAGIARIST, Islamic apologist CNN's Mr. Fareed Zakaria) bitterly complain in every forum on the discrimination against Muslims in America, India, Europe the world over wherever Muslims are in a minority. Where they are in majority everyone knows what the story is.........just ask their fast vanishing minorities.

    August 26, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  7. Wastrel

    Islam must refoirm or be destroyed.

    August 26, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  8. Rock Maker

    Pakis are stupid ignorant filth of the world

    August 26, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  9. Croco3

    We like to classify this one under: "Religious Oppression", but I wonder how different it is from: the witch hunts of the old days, Jim Crow Laws, McCarthyism, or our Post-9/11 circus from hell, where it became easy to beat, burn and bury just about anyone whose demeanour or way of thinking we didn't like!
    And it's not just Pakistan or the USA, or Good old Europe; we had South Africa, currently Rwanda (in regards to the discussion of the 1994 genocide), etc This has been done over and over again by those with power, and wether they meant to terrorize certain groups of people or just have some fun at their expense, it remains to be determined!
    The practice may disappear when the state/system comes down, but it emerges elsewhere, with a different face!
    Today is Pakistan, tomorrow????

    August 26, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • Mbele Simba Mambasi

      No oppression, man. Indoctrination. Find the way to salvation through Voodoo and ganja. Kuku ni kukubwa

      August 26, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • Simran

      Tomorrow it might be India, or wait it is already India today.

      It will only improve when people get the sense to make a clear separation between religion and government. But to the contrary, we only seem to be moving in a backward direction right now. Wonder how long before we witness another era of Religious crusades.

      August 26, 2012 at 8:35 am |
    • agathokles

      Not sure of your point. Just because we once had Jim Crow laws, etc., neither excuses those nor does it excuse present-day Pakistani anti-blasphemy laws. You seem to be saying we have no right to criticize because we once did horrible things, too. Why can we not criticize both - our old ways and Pakistan's present ways? And some of the things your point out about the USA (e.g., attacks by xenophobes upon Muslim-looking people, post-911), are not government-sanctioned. Pakistan's anti-blasphemy laws ARE government.

      August 26, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  10. Reality

    AND ONCE AGAIN:–>>>>>> (ONLY FOR THE NEW MEMBERS)->>>>>

    THE SAFE AND EASY SOLUTION: (Analogous steps are available at your request for deprogramming the myths of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Paganism..)

    From the studies of Armstrong, Rushdie, Hirsi Ali, Richardson and Bayhaqi––

    The Five Steps To Deprogram 1400 Years of Islamic Myths:

    ( –The Steps take less than two minutes to finish- simply amazing, two minutes to bring peace and rationality to over one billion lost souls- Priceless!!!)

    Are you ready?

    Using "The 77 Branches of Islamic "faith" a collection compiled by Imam Bayhaqi as a starting point. In it, he explains the essential virtues that reflect true "faith" (iman) through related Qur’anic verses and Prophetic sayings." i.e. a nice summary of the Koran and Islamic beliefs.

    The First Five of the 77 Branches:

    "1. Belief in Allah"

    aka as God, Yahweh, Zeus, Jehovah, Mother Nature, etc. should be added to your self-cleansing neurons.

    "2. To believe that everything other than Allah was non-existent. Thereafter, Allah Most High created these things and subsequently they came into existence."

    Evolution and the Big Bang or the "Gi-b G-nab" (when the universe starts to recycle) are more plausible and the "akas" for Allah should be included if you continue to be a "crea-tionist".

    "3. To believe in the existence of angels."

    A major item for neuron cleansing. Angels/de-vils are the mythical creations of ancient civilizations, e.g. Hitt-ites, to explain/define natural events, contacts with their gods, big birds, sudden winds, protectors during the dark nights, etc. No "pretty/ug-ly wingy thingies" ever visited or talked to Mohammed, Jesus, Mary or Joseph or Joe Smith. Today we would classify angels as f–airies and "tin–ker be-lls". Modern de-vils are classified as the de-mons of the de-mented.

    "4. To believe that all the heavenly books that were sent to the different prophets are true. However, apart from the Quran, all other books are not valid anymore."

    Another major item to delete. There are no books written in the spirit state of Heaven (if there is one) just as there are no angels to write/publish/distribute them. The Koran, OT, NT etc. are simply books written by humans for humans.

    Prophets were invented by ancient scribes typically to keep the un-educated masses in line. Today we call them for-tune tellers.

    Prophecies are also invali-dated by the natural/God/Allah gifts of Free Will and Future.

    "5. To believe that all the prophets are true. However, we are commanded to follow the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings
    be upon him) alone."

    Mohammed spent thirty days "fasting" (the Ramadan legend) in a hot cave before his first contact with Allah aka God etc. via a "pretty wingy thingy". Common sense demands a neuron deletion of #5. #5 is also the major source of Islamic vi-olence i.e. turning Mohammed's "fast, hunger-driven" hallu-cinations into horrible reality for unbelievers.

    Walk these Five Steps and we guarantee a complete recovery from your Islamic ways!!!!

    Unfortunately, there are not many Muslim commentators/readers on this blog so the "two-minute" cure is not getting to those who need it. If you have a Muslim friend, send him a copy and help save the world.

    August 26, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • Mbele Simba Mambasi

      All that was, until Allah met the Obiah man. Then chickin became supreme. Kuku ni kukubwa

      August 26, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • siva

      Easiest way to avoid these laws – Pay bribe to all the policemen and protest against India !!!!

      August 26, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • Mbele Simba Mambasi

      Policeman is poor, Babylon. mambo fisi

      August 26, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • anon

      Magic and the supernatural does not exist. Con men continue to perpetuate this insanity then create religious laws to control the flock. Use your head! Cut the crap out of your lives and just focus on helping one another. We've got enough legal laws to live by as it is.

      August 26, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  11. citizen bob

    That poor child. My heart goes out to her and to her family.

    Things will not change until the Muslim community has the courage to stand up and denounce extremism and its consequences against human rights. This can be said of any religious community that attacks human dignity and freedoms. It's the members of those congregations that allows such barbarism.

    August 26, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • Mbele Simba Mambasi

      This could have easily been avoided if Muslims begin the practice of voodoo. patadecabra selementus!

      August 26, 2012 at 8:10 am |
  12. Mbele Simba Mambasi

    If you do not believe in Voodoo, you shall meet the Obiah Man. Salvation through chickin

    August 26, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  13. buckshot

    Pakistan, muslims ARE a big blasphemy to themselves and to all man kind

    August 26, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  14. jungleboo

    They have effectively garroted themselves in a kind of religious tourniquet. Any struggle will result in suffocation or loss of blood flow to the head, literally as well as figuratively. It is mind bending to see this situation play itself out on the world stage. It's the end result of pretending and preaching that there is an "afterlife" that is much more important than the Here and Now. Not too bright.

    August 26, 2012 at 7:42 am |
    • Mbele Simba Mambasi

      That is precisely what happens to the chickin I use in the Voodo ritual, for I am the Obiah Man

      August 26, 2012 at 8:08 am |
  15. rar

    God does not want killing ad murder, especially on children. mohams are wrong in all of their manmade laws

    August 26, 2012 at 7:26 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      Haven't read the buybull, have you?? Your imaginary friend god kills and orders more killing than any other creature out there!

      August 26, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  16. CD

    Known in the U.S. as an executive order.

    August 26, 2012 at 7:26 am |
  17. jay

    its just a tool to keep the common man under the boot of the mosque...

    August 26, 2012 at 7:19 am |
  18. oldbones24

    There are people in this country that want these type of laws here. God save us from ourselves.

    August 26, 2012 at 7:17 am |
  19. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    August 26, 2012 at 7:00 am |
    • Simon Cohen

      Who's prayers change things? All prayers? By Christians, Muslims and Jews? How about by Hindus and Buddhists? Who is right here?

      August 26, 2012 at 7:08 am |
    • Jesus is Lord

      There is only one God and it is to Him that you pray. All others pray to false gods and idols. Jew, Muslim,Hindu and Buddhist are all lost unless they know Jesus as their Savior.

      August 26, 2012 at 7:12 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      "There is only one God and it is to Him that you pray"

      So out of 10s of thousands of gods and goddesses imagined by men you've narrowed the choice down to one. Just how did you come to this conclusion? And what makes you think you're right? If you guessed wrong then you're in deep doodoo.(well ...not really...they're all bad choices)

      August 26, 2012 at 7:23 am |
    • PaulC

      The world history in the area of religious domination is horrendous.
      The first thing a self-appointed holy man wants to do is control your body, mind, and life.
      He (because they are always male) will not hesitate to torture or kill you to save your soul or gain power.
      God save me from organized religion.

      August 26, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • PaulC

      In case you have missed it, religious has been very toxic to people.
      The most dangerous person in the world is one who claims to talk to and for god.

      August 26, 2012 at 7:33 am |
    • lordshipmayhem

      They actually have studied the impact of prayer on health outcomes. The impact is indistinguishable from sugar pills and injecting the patient with sterile water – placebos.

      When you talk to God, you're religious. When God talks back, you're psychotic.

      August 26, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • Mbele Simba Mambasi

      You are right. Pray to Obiah, sacrifice chickin. Kuku ni kukubwa

      August 26, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • buckshot

      Being an atheist works just fine with me, and I am happy with it as opposed to beliving in some mythical god that is nothing but smoke being blowed up believers backsides.

      August 26, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  20. reality check

    I guess it's not the 21st century everywhere. It sounds like Pakistan is going through the inquisition.

    August 26, 2012 at 6:56 am |
    • Simon Cohen

      Yes, they are about 600 years behind Christianity.

      August 26, 2012 at 7:09 am |
    • PaulC

      Yes, 600 years behind christianity and catching up fast. The muslim are excellent students and will soon surpass their teacher.

      August 26, 2012 at 7:28 am |
    • Mbele Simba Mambasi

      Not 600 years. 1400, or don't you know how to count? mambo fisi

      August 26, 2012 at 8:21 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.