A prominent Muslim cleric has defended Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws, insisting that they actually have saved the lives of “thousands” of people from public lynching.
Tahir Mahmood Ashrafi, known as a “liberal” and open-minded maulvi (cleric) in his native Pakistan, said this week that blasphemy laws, which severely punish conversion from Islam or insults against the prophet Mohammad or the Qur’an, protect citizens from vigilante justice by turning them over to public officials.
“Because of the blasphemy laws, thousands of people have been saved,” Ashrafi said. “If the law weren’t there, I tell you, it’s possible that if I speak blasphemy you’ll kill me, or if you do it I’ll kill you.”
As reported by the Catholic online news outlet Crux, Ashrafi made reference to the 2012 case of a Christian girl named Rishma Masih, who suffers from a mental disability and was arrested under the blasphemy laws after complaints that she had burned pages from the Qur’an.
According to the law, the 14-year-old could have been sentenced to execution, but upon review of the case and considering her condition, the girl was released.
“With the law, there can be negotiations,” Ashrafi said. “She was released because of the blasphemy law.”
Mr. Ashrafi made these declarations during a recent visit to the United Arab Emirates where he took part in a major International Interfaith Meeting on ‘Human Fraternity,’ together with Pope Francis and a number of other clerics and prelates.
“I think the UAE has achieved a great victory,” Ashrafi said in sizing up the results of the meeting, “because today a message is going from the UAE to the whole world that we are Muslims, Christians, Jews and other religious people, united for brotherhood of human beings against those using the name of religion for his personal cause and personal needs.”
Not everyone takes such a sanguine view of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, however.
In Pakistan’s most notorious case, that of the Christian woman Asia Bibi, authorities imprisoned an innocent woman, holding her on death row for nearly a decade because of trumped-up charges by jealous coworkers that she had insulted the Prophet.
Although one could theoretically argue that she was safer in jail than on the streets, this can hardly be put forward as a model of enlightened jurisprudence.
As egregious as this case was, it was far from unique.
Less than two months ago, a Pakistani court sentenced two Christians in Punjab to death for the crime of blasphemy, following their arrest in 2015.
Two brothers, Qaisar and Amoon Ayub, were accused in 2011 of posting material offensive to Islam on their website, and subsequently sent to the Jhelum prison in Lahore in 2015.
There, a judge heard the case on December 13 and declared the brothers guilty, sentencing them to death. The men are both married and Qaisar is the father of three children.
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