The word blasphemy derives from the Greek words “blas” which means wrong and “phemi” which means to speak (Perret, 1987). Thus, it essentially means to utter something wrong, and in the Greek context it meant to utter great insults against the gods or against someone they had sent. This idea of incorrect speech against the sacred was further strengthened at the onset of the religions of the book when in the Old Testament the term was used to mean speech against the respect for Jehovah as the leader of the Jews.

From there on, the word was mostly only used to define sacrilegious matters. As a law in itself, blasphemy can be traced back to 13th century France. This law was further made harsher by the French monarch Louis IX after he came back from the Seventh Crusade against the Muslims. The punishment was prescribed as mutilation of the lips and tongue (Paracha, 2018). Similar laws seemed to emerge in other parts of Europe through the 16th and 17th centuries with punishments mainly consisting of flogging and whipping the accused. It is essential to note that no such laws or practices existed in the Muslim world at the time.

The law also has its roots in British Common Law around the 17th century with punishments ranging from hanging and burning. These were gradually reduced to lengthy prison sentences and by 1949 a senior British judge declared these laws unnecessary and backward (Paracha, 2018). Unfortunately, British imperialists had already introduced these laws to their colonies in South Asia. They did so mainly to keep a check on the “vicious theological polemics” among the regions Hindus and Muslims (Paracha, 2018). When these colonies achieved independence, they adopted these laws as they

were, adjusting them slightly to their personal contexts. Tracing the history of Islamic regimes from the 7th century onwards, it seems uncharacteristic to not find a single recorded ruling against blasphemy in Muslim majority areas up till the 20th century. Over the centuries, many theologians have argued the place of blasphemy laws in Islam and it is highly contested owing to the fact that the Quran, even though it frowns upon the act, does not specify a punishment if such an incident does occur (Paracha, 2018).

This is why even recently while debating the continuation of blasphemy laws, Pakistani courts had to cite “certain musings of some ancient Islamic scholars” since the Quran specifies no punishment as such (Paracha, 2018). For the acquittal of accused persons such as Aasia bibi, on the other hand, several verses from the Quran were cited. The blasphemy laws in Pakistan received their current shape and

form during Zia ul Haq’s military regime from 1977 to 1988. As soon as Zia came to power he emphasised the importance of inculcating Islam into every aspect of the state as well as the personal matters of each citizen. His entire political rhetoric was based on religious backing. The scale of his Islamisation ideas and policies has been unprecedented in the country’s history.

Over the years, there has been an increasing consensus that “Zia’s appeal to religion was a popular legitimacy-gaining ploy” (Siddique & Hayat, 2008). His political team had realised very early on the vast prospects of using Islamic rhetoric as a political resource. This has translated into politics of independent Pakistan from the discourse of partition, many would argue.

These laws came about in junction with the empowerment of courts to label any law un-Islamic as well as reduction of court powers in the realm of civil liberties (Siddique & Hayat, 2008). The Council of Islamic Ideology was established around the same time and the controversial Hudood laws also came into existence. Thus, it is apparent that the blasphemy laws were part of a wider pattern of subjugation of the legal system as a whole. They were not formed through due democratic process but were created at the whims of a military dictator.

The implications of the blasphemy law are tremendous. The blasphemy law not only affects the accused on an individual level, but also affects entire communities where the said blasphemer lives (Misuse of Blasphemy Law, 2012). One allegation can create multiple problems for the people from the same community such as being labelled accomplices, more likely to indulge in blasphemous rhetoric and coming under fire for being related to the said perpetrator.

The law is also used by individuals with a personal vendetta since it requires little evidence from the accusers. It is also not uncommon for people to take justice into their own hands and punish the accused through personal means instead of proper judicial process. Aasia bibi’s high profile case is a perfect example of the misuse of this law. A simple argument between a few co-workers turned into a

blasphemy allegation against the Christian woman involved which cost her eight years of her life. After suffering in jails and appealing in one court after the next, she finally received justice when the Supreme Court ruled in her favour. But the question is whether we can even call this justice since a family lost eight years in suffering which they will never get back. The ruling of the court also led to countrywide protests and declarations for her hanging, so the country does have a long way to go.

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