It’s good to see Arafat Mazhar‘s efforts to reform blasphemy laws in Pakistan highlighted on a leading news website. I’ve been following his series on the historical, religio-political and juristic dimensions revolving around the issue of blasphemy on the Dawn website.
He’s making a tremendous effort that should be supported especially by those who claim to want to see more justice for the persecuted and discriminated in Pakistan.
Prominent Pakistani activist Sabeen Mahmud, who was assassinated recently, was a supporter of Mazhar’s work, which she described as “fascinating” and “a step in the right direction.”
The recent killing of prominent activist Sabeen Mahmud in Karachi is a chilling reminder of the rapidly shrinking space for open dialogue in Pakistan. So a push for deliberation on the country’s highly contentious blasphemy law may surprise many.
But it is happening.
Arafat Mazhar, a young researcher from the eastern city of Lahore, has launched a campaign to use Islamic legal reasoning to demand an overhaul of the blasphemy law, which can result in a death sentence for those convicted.
Outside the justice system, meanwhile, at least 60 people have been killed in cases related to the blasphemy law since 1990, according to Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies.
Though “angry and hurt” at the news of Mahmud’s assassination, Mazhar told Al Jazeera he feels motivated to continue building a bridge with hard-line conservatives in Pakistan to change the acrimonious law by “bringing them [to] the table rather than antagonising them”.
Before her killing, Mahmud – who also championed for intellectual engagement – said she was “fascinated” by Mazhar’s campaign. “It is an incredible step in the right direction,” she told Al Jazeera several weeks before her assassination.
“It takes generations to change mindsets. But there should at least be a space to reform the law and to have a discussion or debate over it,” she said.
The blasphemy law mandates the death penalty for anyone who defiles the name of the Prophet Muhammad as a divine decree – a concept perpetuated by right-wing hardliners and religious political parties.
“When political forces are the only ones using the religious symbol, it is very easy for them to manipulate the narrative and misguide the masses,” Mazhar said.
His campaign is based on the belief that the inclusion of a divinely ordained and unpardonable death sentence as the only possible punishment for blasphemy in Pakistan’s legal framework is wrong.
Mazhar’s claim is backed by research on the history of Hanafi deliberation on the issue of blasphemy. Hanafi dogma is one of the five major Islamic schools of thought, and is widely followed by Muslims in Pakistan.
Now, by using classical Islamic reasoning to interpret the law, Mazhar is championing for change.