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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. Mbele Simba Mambasi

    I use Quran as a support for the cup into which I pour the blood of the chicken I use during my Voodoo rituals. I am the Obiah man...

    August 26, 2012 at 6:39 am |
    • Ronald Regonzo

      Did you say you were an Obama man? Romney/ Ryan 2012

      August 26, 2012 at 6:59 am |
  2. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things,

    August 26, 2012 at 6:21 am |
    • redzoa

      Funny...I've been praying for quite some time that you'd stop with these nugatory posts...

      August 26, 2012 at 6:35 am |
    • just sayin

      There are 7 billion people on the planet that need to know atheism is useless and God is available. It is not all about you. God bless

      August 26, 2012 at 6:39 am |
    • Mbele Simba Mambasi

      If you do not practice Voodoo, you will meet the Obiah Man soon...

      August 26, 2012 at 6:40 am |
    • Ronald Regonzo

      Who is the obama man? Romney / Ryan 2012

      August 26, 2012 at 6:59 am |
    • redzoa

      @just sayin – Thank you for that perfectly combined encapsulation of self-righteousness and palpable fear of one's own mortality that is so prevalent among believers. Surely you're a Poe? Nevertheless, may Santa bring you presents, the Easter Bunny bring you chocolate eggs, Zeus hurl lightening upon thine enemies, Ra shine upon your crops, Ishtar keep you engorged, etc, etc,...

      August 26, 2012 at 7:18 am |
  3. Canadian Jim

    I use a copy of the Quran to wipe my backside after I dump.

    August 26, 2012 at 5:34 am |
    • Edwin

      Jim: you sound pretty darn smug. I imagine you enjoy purposely insulting other people - most of whom have never done you any wrong and never will. It takes a truly special kind of person to willingly be that rude to strangers, just because you don't like their religion. That sort of intolerance and bigotry is, well, sickening, but it is also impressive that you feel so good about your character flaws that you brag about them.

      August 26, 2012 at 5:43 am |
    • truthordare7

      just make sure Mohammed doesn't lick your tush. I hear he goes both ways.

      August 26, 2012 at 5:47 am |
    • Mbele Simba Mambasi

      Edwin: perhaps we get together, dance around fire and sing Kumbaya. You shame Voodoo

      August 26, 2012 at 6:42 am |
  4. Pharos

    I'm interested to see that you are trying to blame these laws on the British.
    Nice scam.
    The blasphemy laws are called for by the holy writings of Islam. I've half a mind to go get the quotes.
    I'm not going to.
    Suffice it to say, If they laws were not compatible with Islam, they wouldn't be in place.
    Any of you Islamic scholars out there care to deny this? I'm not holding my breath. They know I can pull the scriptures.

    August 26, 2012 at 5:00 am |
    • Edwin

      Pharos: you have "half a mind" to support your argument? Is that code for 'I don't really know what I'm saying, so I'll pretend I do'?

      Give us passages and then your argument is proven; otherwise, we know you don't really know what's in the Qu'ran at all - you just like to con people into thinking you do.

      August 26, 2012 at 5:25 am |
  5. willbeacoumtable

    Try not to think to hard about this Their is plenty examples of how true Christains should act for those of you that think the crusades are the same as what the muslims extremists are doing you have to know that not only where they claiming to fight in the lords name but they was also trying to destroy the bible and keep people from reading it and actually killed people who did think about these stories from the bible when they captured Jesus Peter cut off the ear of one of Jesus captors Jesus healed the mans ear and told Peter that it was wrong what he did. Second of all True Christian faith is about love of one another love of God and most importantly they stay out of the world because they know the only hope they have is Gods heavenly kimgdom not man they dont join the army because it is against God to kill another human there is no ifs ands or buts in that no matter how you try to justify it. Think about this it is wrong to do blasphemy in Gods eyes but they are all missing one very very important thing God is the soverign judge he doesnt need man to kill or imprison people for it cause he judges the hearts they dont use these laws because of God they use it for their own ends. Honestly if they knew who God was and immitated him they would be forgiving and understanding. People say not all are the same but have you ever noticed how unhappy most of them see. Remember Jesus' words to his apostles because they knew that true Christianity that they had would be lost after a certain amount of time Paul spoke of a great apostacy thay would mislead many the catholicm was what the true Christian church turned into and it mislead many with its false doctrines of hellfire and life in a spirit form after death the trinity and so on and on many of their doctrines conflict with the bible and not one if their patrons desires to read ecleasties9:5? the book is there read it you may be suprised at how much your church has lied to you so they can get rich did you know the bigger the congregation the more the Dioces recieve this is why many small towns have bo preachers sad what religion has turned into misleading many but rest assured you read your bible and look for those who adhere to it 100% you will have found the restored Christian faith that when Jesus apostles asked him how they would know his true followers he said you will know they by the love they have.

    August 26, 2012 at 4:09 am |
    • Damocles

      @will

      Prime Example of what I said in my post below. You state that every other church except yours lies to their followers.

      Your post summed up all your beliefs in the first four words.

      August 26, 2012 at 4:32 am |
    • Pharos

      How naive.
      Radical Islam will cut you to pieces and mail those parts to your relatives.
      What did Jesus say just before he left? He told us to take our swords because he wouldn't be here to protect us.
      You need to read the whole bible. ALL of it. Then you can tell us what you think of genocide, for instance. Explain the huge mistakes! Explain why scholars thing the first four books were written by four different authors. I could go on...

      August 26, 2012 at 4:55 am |
    • Edwin

      The code of conduct for christians bears little resemblance to what most American christians do in daily life. For example, christians judge others all the time; they say hateful things and remember when someone else wrongs them - forget the idea of turning the other cheek! And when it comes to helping the poor, well let's just say christians as a whole don't really like that notion.

      I'm not an expert on the Qu'ran, but the parts I've read do not call for laws like those in Pakistan. Much of Sharia law came about later, as a way for the leaders to exert political control - these parts have nothing to do with core Islam, just as the ideas of the Spanish Inquisition had nothing to do with the core of Christianity.

      August 26, 2012 at 5:32 am |
    • Mbele Simba Mambasi

      You arrogant hyena. Only Voodoo is right. Salvation through the Obiah Man

      August 26, 2012 at 6:43 am |
    • jay

      i guess jesus didnt care too much for punctuation either....

      August 26, 2012 at 7:23 am |
  6. Youwillbeacoumtable

    Those,who dont believe theremis a great creator will still be held acountable face it science really cant explain why we are here the bible does.

    August 26, 2012 at 3:49 am |
    • redzoa

      Maybe. Maybe not. But you have confused "an explanation" with the "correct explanation." I'm sure that you believe you "know" your preferred explanation is correct (citing some wholly subjective/circular standard), but again, this would be a confusion of "belief" with otherwise empirical "knowledge." Somehow, I doubt you've ever heard of Pascal's Wager, much less, are aware of its confounding nature...

      August 26, 2012 at 4:03 am |
    • willbeacoumtable

      Mans words you take what a,man said over Gods prophecies? See i do not because all man is imperfect and 5 years from now we will be 300 million years old them 5 years from them we ill be 300'000 years old.

      August 26, 2012 at 4:14 am |
    • Damocles

      @will

      You are so correct. Your deity must be perfect because there is never any deviation from what one believer believes vs another believers belief. Of course you will now say something along the lines of 'those other believers are tools of satan and I'm the only believer that has it right'. Which proves how goofy some of you can be.

      August 26, 2012 at 4:28 am |
    • redzoa

      I rest my case...

      August 26, 2012 at 4:29 am |
    • Simran

      @Damocles,
      Now about this Satan creature.... Since they claim God made everything (and that includes everything, no exceptions), God must have made Satan too. Well, this is sounding more and more like a hero-villain movie plot. I can hear the background music of Terminator...

      August 26, 2012 at 6:43 am |
  7. rsmnr

    Jinnah created Pakistan "to save the muslims from the Hindus". Now, who is to save the Pakistanis from themselves?

    August 26, 2012 at 3:39 am |
    • Simran

      Well, Jinnah wasn't exactly saving the Muslims – he just wanted to be in power. And you r absolutely right. Who will save the common man in Pakistan from its own leaders?

      August 26, 2012 at 6:46 am |
  8. McDuck Quackerton

    It's fairly easy to explain... People that believe in the sky fairy are deluded and create stupid "laws" like this. What we need is to get people to understand that there is no heaven or hell, at least in the religious sense. Such childish nonsense this whole god thing.

    August 26, 2012 at 3:23 am |
  9. polartangent

    Wait....Pakistan is a real country?!!

    August 26, 2012 at 3:10 am |
    • Damocles

      Real dangerous, yes.

      August 26, 2012 at 4:33 am |
  10. Everett Wallace

    pakistain DEATH to the qaruuuuuuuun and GOD the HOLYSPIRIT has CRUSED pak y a b-o3672@

    August 26, 2012 at 3:05 am |
    • polartangent

      You're just joking, right? You don't really spell that poorly, I'm sure.

      August 26, 2012 at 3:14 am |
  11. Terry Brookman

    You will be assimilated: The Borg. It is either that or die and they like the hands on approach like cutting off your head. Mohamed is a fake, he borrowed from the Talmud and Christianity and used the sword to convert everyone he came in contact with. The joke is he was run out of Saudi under penalty of death for preaching against the wealthy and ended up in Southern France where a Jesuit monistry took him in for nine years. When he returned to his homeland he had furnacing and arms. He and his brother started a religion called Islam. As a self made profit of Ali he could say anything and get away with it, reading the Koran will prove that to anyone with a IQ above a hundred and ten, a stoner high on opium and his ravings. Pure BS!

    August 26, 2012 at 2:16 am |
    • ogre12

      great analogy! lol

      August 26, 2012 at 2:38 am |
  12. ignorance101

    Complain about a religion being intolerant ---- Say things which put you in that category. VERY ismartttt!

    August 26, 2012 at 2:11 am |
  13. Mike Briggs

    A couple of days ago I read an article on how a 20 man performed an "honor killing" on his wife and Mother-in-Law and that he proud of what he did. Now I read of an 11 year old Christian girl who accidentally burned a few pages of the Qur'an and she's potentially going to get life in prison or executed.

    This is the 21st Century - we live in a world of respect and tolerance of others beliefs. I believe the vast majority of Muslims are wonderful people - however, they need to stand up against these crazy extremists that thrive on hate.

    August 26, 2012 at 2:05 am |
  14. CarolinaKate

    To All Who Have Posted Comments,
    I thoroughly enjoy online debates and discussions. However, I must say that this has been the strangest, most coherent and most incoherent, informative and ignorant, accurate and fallacy-riddled, quoted and misquoted, discussion I have ever encountered. About 50% of you are a little nuts – but within the more-or-less "normal" range – another 25% would probably benefit from medication, and the rest of you are so far "out there" that I can't even follow your (questionable) logic or understand what you're talking about.

    Nonetheless, the last hour or so has been fascinating, bumfuzzling, and brain-bending. Many thanks to all for this unique and exceptional experience, but my now-bent brain and I are going to bed.

    August 26, 2012 at 1:56 am |
  15. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    I'm so sorry I'm a muslim moron and did not realize the glory of all religions other than islam. Now I have seen the truth and reject islam and the prophet (P not BUH)

    August 26, 2012 at 1:51 am |
  16. Dinesh Sharma

    Islam turns people into Morons – not just a few extremists – Note that Its not just a bunch of loony extremists in pakistan who believe this crap. When one of the morons decided to kill the governor of punjab, a decent guy who dared to speak up for the "blasphemers" there was a near riot of lawyers who wanted to defend him. Imagine that, these guys who're supposed to be well-educated, can't wait to defend a cold-blooded murderer. God help the rest of the world against these guys..

    August 26, 2012 at 1:46 am |
    • Simran

      Dinesh,
      If you live in India, please look around – you will find many Muslims just like you, they live like you, speak like you, work like you and care for their fmilies like you. Only they look into the Quran for inspiration, and you into another scripture.
      The issue here is religious intolerance, and that intolerance is present in every religion – please do not tell me it is not there in your own. Whenever religious fanatics have been able to acquire the power to use religion to rule the people, they have most certainly done so.
      Since you speak of Punjab, if Sikhs (and I am one of them) had acquired a separate Khalistan, it would have been another extremist nation by itself. I am so glad for us Sikhs that it didnot happen and we could go on with our lives without religious fanatics dictating to us.

      August 26, 2012 at 6:56 am |
  17. Syed

    There used to live an old lady in the Prophet Muhammad's time...she used to hate the Prophet very much...and throw garbage / trash out in his way to cause him distress. This happened for many months. One day she did not throw trash and the Prophet got concerned and went to her house to see if she was alright. She was sick and bed stricken and he helped her get back to health. Never mentioned anything about what she did. When she finally got back to health she was so impressed by his character that she became a Muslim. Unfortunately we as Muslims have never been able to adopt his manners and follow his footsteps......

    August 26, 2012 at 1:24 am |
    • Dinesh Sharma

      which is why now, people get killed for insulting him. Bravo! Brilliant! NOT

      August 26, 2012 at 1:42 am |
    • Dafr

      Total B.S. This dude spent most of his time not showing mercy but slaughtering people who disagreed with him

      August 26, 2012 at 1:47 am |
    • Just call me Lucifer

      Yeah... any normal human being would go a different route if someone was throwing garbage in front of them. Your Prophet
      Mohammed (peace all over him) did not exist. Now, you wanna mess with me? I will lay your soul to waste. Trust me, I'm the DEVIL!

      August 26, 2012 at 1:57 am |
    • Real Deal

      Just call me Lucifer,

      There is much evidence that Mohammad, an Arabian camel salesman and warlord, existed. What doesn't exist is a shred of evidence for his tales of the supernatural.

      August 26, 2012 at 2:04 am |
    • Just call me Lucifer

      @RealDeal

      No there isn't. No evidence. Nothing proving your prophet ever existed. Just rumor, innuendo and lies, just like all
      gods in all religions.

      August 26, 2012 at 2:16 am |
    • Real Deal

      Just call me Lucifer,

      You sound a little confused. Mohammad was just a guy... the Muslim's god is "Allah" - but you are correct that there is no evidence for any of the gods or other supernatural beings that have been created by man.

      August 26, 2012 at 2:30 am |
    • fritz

      Just as Jesus never flew to heaven on a cloud, your prophet never had heart to heart talks with the angel Gabriel in some damp cave. Nor did he learn to read in a few seconds. I've read both 'holy' books including much of your hadih. Only gullible morons believe such drivel.

      August 26, 2012 at 3:41 am |
  18. truthordare7

    The religion of Satan reigns supreme once again amongst the stupid of the humanity.

    August 26, 2012 at 1:14 am |
    • Dinesh Sharma

      Its hard to imagine a dumber or more degenerate bunch of people

      August 26, 2012 at 1:42 am |
    • Just call me Lucifer

      You talkin' about me? I need to correct you on something. I don't have a religion. I got my own shyte goin' on bro', and I don't need foolish idiots on bended knee asking me for mercy or whatever-the-phuck five times a freakin' day. I leave all that nonsense to the non-existant gods you sheep worship. There is nothing in human history that has been a greater waste of time than worshipping your benevolent and murderous god. Which one? Pick one... they're all the same.

      August 26, 2012 at 2:08 am |
  19. gggg

    If PBUH were to actually condone these laws, I would call him an a$$4ole. But, if he were alive, I believe he'd recognize these laws for what they were/are: a massive pile of crap designed to cement the power of a few over many. The fact that it is in the name of religion is just an extension to another religion things like the inquisition from Catholicism. But, to be honest, I don't live in Pakistan so I am free to believe what I want about PBUH; even if I believe he's a massive turd.

    August 26, 2012 at 12:42 am |
  20. Geoff

    Just as "Christians" during the crusades killed those who they considered in the wrong, so do the extremist Muslims. And all who participate in this behavior are neither Christian nor Islam but rather partners of satan and everything that is evil about man. Muslims who kill in the name of religion are bound to an enternity of damnation in a place infested with pork parts and menstruating women.

    August 26, 2012 at 12:41 am |
    • RW

      Ah, but once again, the VERY SIGNIFICANT difference is not mentioned... violence against kafurs (non-muslims) is ENCODED in ORTHODOX ISLAMIC THEOLOGY, and violence against unbelievers is NOT ENCODED in ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY. ORTHODOX ISLAMIC THEOLOGY is the driving force for this violence, and it is NOT a few 'extremists' who are the driving force for this violence, intimidation, and subjugation.....

      August 26, 2012 at 1:28 am |
    • fritz

      Wow! Menstruating women? Hand feeding me bacon? How many? 72? Or more!??? How many hoops do I have I have to jump through to get sent to a place like that? Do they serve free lard there? If only godless heathens are allowed in I should qualify! ;oD

      August 26, 2012 at 3:54 am |
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About this blog

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.