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. Johnna

    Most of the world's ills can be solved easily by enforcing a universal BAN on ALL religions !

    September 6, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  2. Sally

    I think you can use religous teaching for good or bad, unfortunately most use it for control and greed. It is no longer about helping someone or doing the right thing.I think this is where America in headed as well.

    September 4, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  3. Purnendu Pattnaik

    The World would be a better place without Pakistan. Who gave Nukes to Iran and North Korea.. Who hid Osama Bin Laden (he was 800 feet away from Pakistani Military Academy and 22 miles from Pak capital Islamabad).
    Really some action needs to be taken because its ridiculous to send a 11 yr old girl to the gallows.. because she burnt Quran by mistake.

    September 3, 2012 at 2:03 am |
  4. t3chn0ph0b3

    Hey! Republicans! Get the problem with combining church and state now?!? This is the kind of horror you get!

    September 2, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
  5. strangways

    who cares how their blasphemy laws work? so tired of "muslim rage", etc. put a big fence around the region and let them kill each other. Yawn.

    September 2, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
    • Pope

      Yeah we Christians who used to burn witches, we're so different. really we are.

      October 2, 2012 at 5:07 am |
  6. drewcurtis

    ...yeah....thanks CNN....we already know these Islamist Idiots have the most assinine ways of thinking....maybe Americans should hate them?.....I admit it – I do! Maybe Americans should not tolerate such filth in our land – how 'bout that? Pack Mohammeds Baalim a ss up with any Paki's hanging around and DEPORT, I say. – Eff them!!!!!

    September 2, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
  7. BP

    Don't criticize the Pakistanis too much – America is just a few elections away from a " Christian Sharia Act"

    September 2, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
  8. Mack

    I am originally from Pakistan and I know exactly how it works over there. The problem is not the religion or the government. The problem lies with the mullah's and their strict interpretation of the religion. They are so powerful, especially now with the backing of the Taliban that if any Judge or Lawyer or Politician who wants to get rid of this ridiculous law steps in they are usually killed the same month by the Taliban. Pakistan needs to get rid of the mullah menace once and for all!!

    September 2, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • Happy

      Same way here but with the republicans.

      September 2, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
    • PaulC

      A very intelligent suggestion but who in their right mind is going to suggest such a thingin a country of illiterate religious zealots. The leaders who have suggested it were immediately assassinated so I can understand that no one will mention changing the law. It is a very powerful tool and the mullahs use it to retain control and power.
      There is nothing more dangerous than a religious nutjob.

      September 2, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
    • drewcurtis

      ....sorry but the problem IS – precisely – the "religion" that denies the Living God. That's why they (you if you are one of them) are full of hate and filth and always will be...that's why Americans should hate THEM and NOT TOLERATE their disgusting-as-dogfood religion!!!!

      September 2, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
    • moose

      Um, is it me, or does that Pakistan's blasphemy law (which is unislamic on it's own) seems to place Mohammed above God strike anyone who knows anything about Islam (and not your knowledge from Atlas Shrugged, NTEB, Jihad Watch, etc.) to be shirk?

      September 2, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  9. trololwut

    poop is tasty

    September 2, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  10. trololwut

    i like potaoes in my behemoth butt

    September 2, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  11. Sam

    Coming soon to the USA,don't laugh look around and listen!

    September 2, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  12. JD

    And the award for the Most Ignorant Country goes to.......PAKISTAN! Wooooo

    September 2, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  13. Z. Vaid

    only ignorent peole think about burning bible and quran and used them as a source of toilet paper.

    September 2, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Stan

      I will wipe my ass with that book of crap anyday

      September 2, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  14. tcaros

    Quran is good for tearing pages to use as toilet paper.

    September 2, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Z. Vaid

      church people come to my door pass me lot of religous stuff. Should i pass to you because you are ignorant and can't afford the toilet paper too.

      September 2, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  15. JasonSF

    There are laws for blasphemy?

    September 2, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  16. no nothing

    I think the world would be better off without Pakistan. I know India would agree.

    September 2, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • Z. Vaid

      World would be better off if india would split some more. i know pakitan agree.

      September 2, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Dinesh Sharma

      totally agreed zaid. If only all the muslims would move to pakistan, India would be free of a huge problem

      September 4, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
  17. Calbikerman

    The example of Pakistan's religious barbarism is yet another example of why we in the United States have got to keep religion in any form out of the political and educational process..unfortunately both men running for president continually use the phrase , God bless the USA.." whenever they end a speech... newflash: an imaginary guy on a cloud had nothing to do with everything good about this country! Science did it all... from steam power, to electricity, to indoor plumbing, to sanitation, to infectious deseases, to the nuclear age, and to man landing on the moon, and all future advances...I will hold my breath waiting for the day when a politcal candidate say's,, "May science and reason bless The USA!"

    September 2, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • checkup

      the ancient greeks were the first to have plumbing and sanitation.

      September 2, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • Ahmed

      As a Pakistani-American, I totally agree with you. The "pious people" in Pakistan may look superficially different from the "pious people" in the US, but I find them to be no different whether they are "pious christians" or "pious muslims" in their fundamentals: they are both willfully ignorant of the "scientific method" despite the fact that without scientific progress we would all be living in caves today, willfully ignorant of the divisions and murders and mischief caused throughout history in the name of "religious fervor" and which continues to this day.

      September 2, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • Ali

      I think we need avoid the extremism that exists in Pakistan, not declare all religion evil and decide that it is wrong to admit that your religion shapes your everyday life and who you are (like saying "God Bless America"). I agree that historically (and obviously in the present), religion has been used incorrectly, to compel and punish. That is not its original purpose, that is religion in the hands of evil people.

      September 2, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
  18. Veritas

    Sad how these beliefs in made-up deities continue to cause so much harm in the 21st century. All religions are simply nonsense.

    September 2, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • Scholar

      Man created God in his image.

      September 2, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  19. joe

    right out of the 10th century.

    The thought of making it a crime to criticize an ancient book written by ignorant primitives is simply absurd.

    Even if you assume the Koran is the word of your Allah, one would think Allah is quite capable of defending Itself without the help of the upright monkeys.

    September 2, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  20. becool

    As usual, Islam shows that it's a bloody religion and has nothing to add except kiiling people for any resaon. If you don't agree with their Mohammed, you should die. In any Muslim country , you cannot express any thought against Islam let alone to convert from Islam to any other faith otherwise death is your inevitable destiny. Did you get it???

    September 2, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • Scholar

      Of course, the shining moments of Christianity include the Spanish Inquisition and other sterling examples of how Christianity is a peaceful religion.

      A religion is peaceful or not as the current leaders of the religion dictate. The religious leaders are, all of them, interested in increasing their own power over people, to influence others.

      Jesus suggested to people that they each, in private, pray to God instead of shouting about their piety on the street corners. He called the latter hypocrites. That is probably true today also – the powerful leaders of religions are hypocrites, where the individuals praying in private are the true followers of the religion.

      September 2, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
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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.