Beam in the Eye

Disco Mullah Blasphemy Row Highlights Pakistan’s Hypocrisy

When Christians and Hindus are accused of insulting Islam in Pakistan, the punishment is harsh. When a popular Sunni televangelist does it, to forgive is divine.

12.21.14 11:45 AM ET

Twenty-five years ago, Pakistani pop star Junaid Jamshed took to the airwaves, singing his love for his country with the declaration that Pakistan was his heart, Pakistan was his life.

Since then, Jamshed, like much of the country he once honored in song, has gone through a religious revival. As a vocal televangelist for the conservative religious group, Tableeghi Jamaat, Pakistan’s “disco mullah,” as he came to be known, used his once boy-band heartthrob status to garner a new following, preaching strict and often misogynistic interpretations of Islam. That very misogyny landed him in hot water after a video of Jamshed ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad’s wife Aisha went viral on the Internet, resulting in blasphemy charges being filed against the popular preacher earlier this month.

In a country, where blasphemy allegations have become commonplace, Jamshed’s case is significant. Long before bearded men swearing allegiance to the Taliban carried guns and bombs to terrorize society, Pakistan has used religion as the institutional weapon of choice to oppress minorities and political opponents by providing the clergy with inordinate power. The controversial blasphemy laws have ensnared hundreds of citizens, yet condemnation from the masses remains muted because the accused are often from marginalized groups. Jamshed’s case, however, turns that scenario on its head given his close ties to the very mullahs that have stood behind criminalization of perceived blasphemy.

“Jamshed's case highlights that the blasphemy law as a weapon of oppression can be indiscriminate and come back to hurt those who have previously been advocates for and proponents of these laws,” said Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch in Pakistan.

It also highlights Pakistan’s contradictory and puzzling stance on religion in general. On one hand, Pakistan has struggled with curbing growing radical extremism as exhibited by Tuesday’s horrific attack on children at a school in Peshawar. On the other hand, the country has draped itself in Islamic nationalism—specifically Sunni Islam—as a means of cultural identity. To be Pakistani, in essence, means to be a Sunni Muslim. Anything that challenges Islam challenges the country’s very identity.

“The concepts of jihad and Islamic nationalism are very much part of public educational instruments from school textbooks to media to research that goes on in Pakistan,” said Raza Rumi, editor of The Friday Times and senior fellow at The United States Institute of Peace. “You have generations of people that are willing to accept the Islamic nationalist identity so any perceived attack on Islam is also considered unpatriotic. Blasphemy has become an instrument of power.”

While the draconian blasphemy laws have their roots in British colonial rule, the laws were amended and strengthened under the country’s former military dictator Zia ul-Haq, who sought to gain support from Pakistan’s clerics as a means of strengthening his own power. Since 1987, there have been roughly 1,300 cases filed under the blasphemy laws, according to varied reports.

According to a report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), there are currently 17 Pakistanis on death row and 19 individuals serving life sentences for violating the blasphemy law. But many cases do not even make it to trial. In Pakistan, angry mobs and vigilante justice often mete out punishment against accused blasphemers and their perceived supporters with little action taken by the government to punish the offenders, Ijaz said. Earlier this year, a Christian couple was burned to death by a mob after a village mullah declared the couple was guilty of desecrating the Quran. The wife was reportedly pregnant at the time.

And in 2011, Punjab governor Salman Taseer was shot 27 times in the back by a police bodyguard after he called for reforms of the blasphemy law and defended Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet. At least 60 individuals have been killed since 1990 outside of the Pakistani justice system, according to the Islamabad-based Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS).

The USCIRF said the law is particularly problematic because it does not require proof of intent or even any evidence once an allegation has been made. Asia Bibi’s four accusers, for instance, never revealed what exactly she said claiming they would be guilty of blasphemy if they repeat it. There are also no clear guidelines on what constitutes a violation, leaving it wide open for interpretation. In March, a group of lawyers were arrested and charged with blasphemy for insulting a police inspector by name, given that he had the same name as one of the companions of the Prophet.

And the law can easily be used as a political tool to punish any disrespect of the state. Actress Veena Malik—who fled to the United Arab Emirates—was sentenced to 26 years in absentia for acting in a televised mock wedding that featured a scene loosely based on the marriage of the Prophet’s daughter. Her crime, however, may have had more to do with a photo shoot for the men’s magazine FHM, which featured a nude Malik sporting a tattoo of the initials ISI, which stands for Pakistan’s spy agency Inter Services Intelligence.

“While hardliners are vocal about blasphemy, other Pakistanis may feel bad on some level but they are still kind of accepting of the way it is,” said Rumi, adding that many Pakistanis supported Taseer’s killer because the Punjab governor came out in defense of someone who insulted the Prophet. In Malik’s case, he said, “blaspheming against the ISI is akin in Pakistan to blaspheming against the Prophet as Islam and nationalism converge.”

In any case, Pakistan as a nation has been unforgiving of any slights against Islam. That’s why Jamshed’s case is particularly illuminating in its hypocrisy when it comes to the religious conservatives’ views on blasphemy.

In his now infamous video, Jamshed is seen delivering a sermon to his followers in which he preached, “women were made from the ribs so they will always remain crooked,” and cannot be straightened out. To illustrate his point, he relayed a story of the Prophet’s wife feigning a headache to get attention from her husband as an example of the fallibility of women’s innate nature. The subsequent firestorm in criticism resulted in the Tableeghi Jamaat distancing themselves from his comments and Jamshed issuing a tear-filled apology, begging for forgiveness with clasped hands as “only prophets do not make mistakes but everyone else has made mistakes.”

Official charges have been filed against Jamshed by the leader of the religious political party Sunni Tehreek and Jamshed has now fled to the United Kingdom—ironic given his previous anti-Western stance. But his apology has largely been accepted by the religious community in Pakistan and observers doubt the case will be pursued with any real zeal going forward.

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“The fact that he has been forgiven itself shows the hypocrisy of the proponents of this law. They are not in a forgiving mood when it comes to the weak and marginalized who are often accused falsely,” said Yasser Latif Hamdani, a Pakistan-based lawyer and author of “Jinnah: Myth and Reality.”

Hamdani said the international community could apply pressure on Pakistan to alter its blasphemy laws and their application with an “economic carrot and stick” policy, but he is not optimistic that the laws will serve everyone equally.

“It seems that the different standard is (based on) the length of the beard and outwardly display of piety,” Hamdani said.