Members of Islam’s clerical class are not well known for bucking popular consensus especially if it means siding with Pakistan’s microscopic secular minority to repeal its toxic Blasphemy Law. One notable and extraordinary exception is Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, a prominent Sunni scholar who has condemned Salman Taseer’s murder, attacked the Blasphemy Law and declared that Islamic councils are “telling lies to the people”. He has said all this at the cost of endangering the lives of his family although, understandably enough, Ghamidi has fled to Malaysia for his own safety.
“The blasphemy laws have no justification in Islam. These ulema [council of clerics] are just telling lies to the people,” said Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, a reformist scholar and popular television preacher.
“But they have become stronger, because they have street power behind them, and the liberal forces are weak and divided. If it continues like this it could result in the destruction of Pakistan.”
Ghamidi, 59, is the only religious scholar to publicly oppose the blasphemy laws since the assassination of the Punjab governor, Salmaan Taseer, on 4 January. He speaks out at considerable personal risk.
Ghamidi spoke to the Guardian from Malaysia, where he fled with his wife and daughters last year after police foiled a plot to bomb their Lahore home. “It became impossible to live there,” he said.
Their fears were well founded: within months Taliban gunmen assassinated Dr Farooq Khan, a Ghamidi ally also famous for speaking out, at his clinic in the north-western city of Mardan.
The scholar’s troubles highlight the shrinking space for debate in Pakistan, where Taseer’s death has emboldened the religious right, prompting mass street rallies in favour of his killer, Mumtaz Qadri.
Liberal voices have been marginalised; many fear to speak out. Mainstream political parties have crumbled, led by the ruling Pakistan People’s party, which declared it will never amend the blasphemy law.
Sherry Rehman, a PPP parliamentarian who proposed changes to the legislation, was herself charged with blasphemy this week. Since Taseer’s death she has been confined to her Karachi home after numerous death threats, some issued publicly by clerics.
Although other Islamic scholars share Ghamidi’s views on blasphemy, none dared air them so forcefully. “Ghamidi is a voice of reason in a babble of noises seemingly dedicated to irrationality,” said Ayaz Amir, an opposition politician and opinion columnist.
Ghamidi’s voice stands out because he attacks the blasphemy law on religious grounds. While secular critics say it is abused to persecute minorities and settle scores, Ghamidi says it has no foundation in either the Qur’an or the Hadith – the sayings of the prophet Muhammad. “Nothing in Islam supports this law,” he said.
Ghamidi deserted the country’s largest religious political party, Jamaat-e-Islami, to set up his own school of religious teaching. He came to public attention through a series of television shows on major channels. They were cancelled due to opposition from the mullahs, he said. “They told the channels there would be demonstrations if I wasn’t taken off air.”
Three years ago gunmen fired a pistol into the mouth of the editor of Ghamidi’s magazine; last year the police foiled a plot to bomb his home and school. Now the school is closed.
The core problem, Ghamidi said, was the alliance between Pakistan’s “establishment” – code for the military – and Islamist extremists it uses to fight in Kashmir and Afghanistan. “They are closely allied,” he said.
The blasphemy debate has exposed painful rifts in Pakistani society. One Ghamidi follower said his father, a British-educated engineer, called him an infidel for attacking the controversial law. “Our society is tearing itself apart,” he said.
This article from the Guardian also contains this depressing little snippet:
Tariq Dhamial, a lawyer representing Mumtaz Qadri, said more than 800 lawyers had offered to represent the self-confessed killer. “Everyone is behind Qadri. Doctors, teachers, labourers, even police – they believe he did the right thing,” Dhamial said.Dhamial said the police intended to hold Qadri’s trial in jail but the lawyers wanted it heard in open court. The latest hearing is due next Tuesday.
In other words, the likelihood that Ghamidi’s protests will be heeded are less than a snowball’s chance in hell.