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Human Rights

No end in sight to Pakistan's blasphemy laws

Pakistani activists say they have lost hope in the government to reform the Islamic country's controversial laws in the wake of an attack on a girls' school over alleged blasphemy.

A mob of more than 200 people set fire to a girls' school in the Pakistani city of Lahore on Wednesday on accusations that one of the teachers of the school distributed "blasphemous" material to her sixth grade students.

Pakistani police are trying to trace the teacher of the Farooqi High School who has apparently gone into hiding.

Police officer Azam Manhais told the media that the 76-year-old Asim Farooqi, owner of the school, had been arrested on blasphemy charges.

Pakistani demonstrators tear the photo of the school owner during a protest
(Photo: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

The police have filed a report against the owner of the school as well

At least one person was injured during the clash between the protesters and the police around the school. Pakistani authorities say they have filed a police report against “unknown assailants” for attacking the school.

According to the local media, the protesters mostly belonged to religious parties and Islamist groups, including the outlawed Jamaat-ud-Dawa. The Pakistani police, however, did not confirm this.

According to the initial reports, Arfa Iftikhar, one of the teachers of the girls' school, had given an assignment to her sixth grade students about an essay on the Koran - the holy book of Islam - which allegedly carried derogatory remarks about the religion's prophet.

"Our school management and the owners have no link whatsoever with this dirty act," said an advertisementin Urdu, which the school management took out in two leading newspapers on Friday. "We appeal to the government and the police to take legal action against this teacher and investigate her real motive."

Controversial legislation

Blasphemy, or the insult of Prophet Mohammad, is a sensitive topic in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where 97 percent of its 180 million people are Muslims. Rights activist demand the reforms of the controversial blasphemy laws, which were introduced by the Islamic military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.

Activists say the laws have little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas.

Pakistani Christians protest against the arrest of Rimsha Masih
(Photo: EPA/NADEEM KHAWER)

Rimsha Masih is one of the many Christians in Pakistan who face religious discrimination

The controversial laws came under stark criticism in August when Rimsha Masih, a teenage Christian Pakistani girl, was accused of blasphemy and spent several weeks in jail. Masih, who lived in the Mehrabadi town near capital Islamabad, was accused of burning pages containing verses of the Koran. The police later found out that the cleric Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti from Masih's town had planted the pages.

The number of blasphemy cases in Pakistan has increased manifold in recent years. Pakistan's liberal sections are alarmed by the growing influence of right-wing Islamists in their country and blame the authorities for patronizing them. Rights organizations also point to the legal discrimination against minorities in Pakistan, which, in their opinion, is one the major causes of the maltreatment of Pakistani minority groups.

“The anti-blasphemy laws should be abolished because they have nothing to do with Islam," Mohsin Sayeed, a Karachi-based journalist, told DW. "We have been demanding their repeal for a long time. This demand has sparked a fierce reaction from religious extremists."

Personal scores

Pakistani demonstrators shout slogans near the Farooqi High School in Lahore
(Photo: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

Pakistani rights groups are alarmed by the growing influence of religious extremists

Hussain Naqi, a veteran human rights activist and official of Pakistan's independent Human Rights Commission (HRCP) in Lahore, told DW that blasphemy laws were mostly used against the majority Muslims.

"The so-called blasphemy cases are mostly about personal issues," Naqi said. "In Pakistan, it is very easy for people who want to settle scores with their enemies to accuse them of blasphemy. They know that there are immediate arrests in blasphemy cases, and sometimes people are killed on the spot."

Naqi criticized the provincial authorities for not taking precautionary measures to protect the school. "The authorities knew that there could be a backlash after the reports about the alleged blasphemy case came out on Wednesday, but they did not take any steps in advance to deal with it."

He added that it was the responsibility of the state authorities to make sure that the principal of the school was treated well because a person was innocent until proven guilty.

The dilemma

President Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) government has recently come under sharp criticism from the country's rights organizations and the West for refusing to reform the blasphemy laws despite the assassinations of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian cabinet minister, and Salman Taseer, the former governor of the Punjab province. The two politicians were brutally murdered by Islamists in 2011 because they had dared to speak out against the controversial laws.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari

The UN has repeatedly slammed Zardari government's human rights record

Naqi said that he did not expect the incumbent PPP government to reform or repeal the laws. "The PPP is an opportunistic party. People vote them into power because they do not like the religious parties, but instead of confronting the Islamists, the PPP bows down to them," Naqi commented, adding that most people in Pakistan did not approve of religious extremism.

But Karachi-based journalist Mohsin Sayeed believed that what used to be a small section of society had now become mainstream.

"The days are gone when we said it was a small group of religious extremists, xenophobes, hatemongers and bigots who commit such crimes. Now the venom has spread to the whole of Pakistani society," said Sayeed, adding that those who condemned such "barbaric crimes" were now a minority in Pakistan.

Farooq Sulehria, a London-based activist and journalist, told DW that although “it is difficult to empirically assert," there was no doubt that there was more intolerance in Pakistani society than before.

“Most Muslim countries do not have blasphemy laws,” Naqi said, adding sarcastically that it seemed that only Pakistan had blasphemers and Pakistan was the only country in the entire Muslim world which seemed to be worried about it.

DW.DE