Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tripping democracy — again?

Daily Times Thursday, December 30, 2010

COMMENT: Tripping democracy — again? —Dr Mohammad Taqi

Benazir Bhutto wrote extensively about reconciliation between the Islamic world and the west. Unfortunately, she did not live to see it materialise. But even before that she had started a rapprochement with Mian Nawaz Sharif and had outlined a roadmap for it too

I write these lines on the evening of December 27, 2010 at exactly the same time when Benazir Bhutto breathed her last, three years ago. Her martyrdom remains one of those immense tragedies where one cannot forget the place where one was or the thoughts that crossed one’s mind upon receiving the tragic news.

I was visiting Lahore to see Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan who was under house arrest at the time, with his residence having been designated a sub-jail. Thanks to his family, I managed to slip past the police to see him for almost an hour-long session in his living room. After seeing Barrister sahib, I was ushered back to his law chambers next to the residence. But that is not really what I wish to reminisce about here. Walking into his office, I heard his family and associates talking about a bomb blast at the PPP’s Liaquat Bagh rally and that perhaps Benazir Bhutto had succumbed. It was the dark, cold, blood-soaked evening of December 27, 2007. And I clearly remember the first thought that passed my mind upon hearing the heartrending news.

It was almost like a flashback and relegating the hectic talk around me to the background, I thought of the first time I saw Benazir Bhutto and the first words I heard from her. It was at her mammoth rally at the Cunningham (Jinnah) Park in Peshawar circa May 1986. Peshawar was her second or third stopover after returning to Pakistan from exile in April that year. The news of her historic welcome at Lahore had already reached far and wide. As a young worker of the Movement for the Restoration for Democracy (MRD), I had decided along with my other colleagues from the Pashtun nationalist and progressive parties that we would attend the PPP rally. None of us was a member of the PPP or its students’ wing but having developed a great working relationship with the PPP under the aegis of the MRD, we came in hordes, and early. The rally was scheduled to start around 2:00 pm or so but we came in at 10:00 am only to find that the park was already packed. But Benazir Bhutto’s procession did not arrive till very late in the evening. But it is not even the size of the procession or the magnitude of the rally that I wish to remember. Benazir Bhutto’s first words from that stage were in Pashto: “Za za, Zia za” (Zia must go). The predominantly Pashtun audience immediately bonded with her and erupted in a chorus of ‘Za za, Zia za, za za, Zia za’, calling upon the military dictator Ziaul Haq to go, to leave, to vanish from the political scene. Hearing the news of her death, this is the political statement I remembered hearing from Benazir Bhutto as if it was yesterday.

But did the ghost of Ziaul Haq’s Islamo-fascism ever leave us? Did that ‘go Zia go’ slogan ever materialise? The stark, unfortunate reality is no, it did not. The birds of the Ziaist feather are flocking together again, nay, political vultures are hovering over the current PPP government. They always do. After those 1986 rallies, Zia was forced to cobble together a king’s party. He created his version of the Muslim League and many, including the current prime minister, hopped on to that anti-Bhutto bandwagon.

As a party, that particular Muslim League was not a winning horse on its own but bringing together the Bhutto-haters from across the political spectrum became the establishment’s favourite trick to either keep the PPP out of power or to dislodge its governments, which it has managed to form despite all odds. No one could have put it better than the senior columnist and friend Kamran Shafi who had told the television anchor Nasim Zehra: “Fauj jamhooriyat ko thibbiyan laga rahi hai” (the army keeps trying to trip democracy over). Nothing sums up the relationship of the Pakistani establishment with the left-of-centre political parties, especially the PPP better.

The establishment’s inherent mistrust of the PPP remains entrenched largely in the latter’s popular roots and, to an extent, in both Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto’s maverick style of leadership. Even when the shadows of political adjustments or reconciliation with the establishment have lurked over the PPP’s coming to power, the former remained deeply suspicious of the PPP leadership and feared their independent streak.

Over the last decade, the establishment has included Mian Nawaz Sharif in the list of the leaders it fears. The reason simply being that with a reasonable mass following, the politicians draw political legitimacy from the consent of those governed and tend to free themselves of the dependence on the establishment. This independence — however small it might be — is unpalatable for the deep state because unlike politicians it has no other way to seek political legitimacy. Even the most brutal martial law regimes ultimately had to seek the fig-leaf of rubber-stamp parliaments, ‘mandates’ from the Supreme Court or doctored referenda. No matter how strong the ruling establishment might be, its desire to rule (directly) is eventually incongruent with the nature of the modern nation state.

This fact is not completely lost on the Pakistani establishment but unable to reconcile to this reality, it continues to attempt every so often to manufacture dissent against the democratically elected dispensations. Its allies — with some variation in names and faces — in such attempts to trip democracy remain the usual parasites like the MQM, JUI, JI, PML-Q and Imran Khan. Fortunately, Mian Nawaz Sharif and his PML are way past such blatant intrigues and over the term of the present set-up have shown political maturity that has kept many adventurists at bay.

Benazir Bhutto wrote extensively about reconciliation between the Islamic world and the west. Unfortunately, she did not live to see it materialise. But even before that she had started a rapprochement with Mian Nawaz Sharif and had outlined a roadmap for it too. On the eve of Benazir Bhutto’s third death anniversary, the beat of the political war-drums is getting louder. Nothing would put a damper on those yearning for snap polls, in-house change, benevolent dictatorship or the ‘Chinese model’, except a robust revival of the PPP-PML-N partnership. Benazir Bhutto knew that Zia’s ghost lurks under the surface of such proposals. She would have wanted the PPP and the PML-N to stick together post-haste or prepare to be tripped over, along with democracy — again.

The writer can be reached at

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Pamir Knot and beyond

Daily Times Thursday, December 23, 2010
COMMENT: The Pamir Knot and beyond —Dr Mohammad Taqi

There is nothing really ideological or fraternal about the Chinese investments in Pakistan, as some Pakistani newspapers would like us to believe. Interestingly, while the Pakistani media has a knack for comparing everything to India, it has really remained mum over premier Jiabao’s visit to Delhi

The relationship between the US and Pakistani intelligence agencies appears to be moving from playing uneasy footsie to a fairly sordid affair. The blowing of the CIA’s Islamabad station chief’s cover, allegedly at the behest of the host country’s spooks, has not gone down well with the US. That this happened on the eve of the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s much-trumpeted visit to Pakistan raises a question if Pakistan is using grandpa Wen to help fend off the ‘big bully’ US.

The Chinese leader’s visit, in turn, came on the heels of the US strategic review of the Afghan war chiding Pakistan and asking it to do more to fight the Islamist terrorists operating from within its borders. This review has not set any benchmarks — at least publicly — to gauge Pakistan’s success in what is being demanded of it. Additionally, President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Robert Gates have reiterated in separate statements their concern about Pakistan’s role in the Afghan war.

Wen Jiabao obviously did not disappoint his hosts, and speaking to the joint session of the Pakistani parliament said what they really wanted to hear: “Pakistan was at the front of the international fight against terrorism and made big sacrifices and important contributions, which were obvious to all. The international community should affirm that and give great support as well as respect the path of development chosen by Pakistan. The fight against terrorism should not focus on specific religions or ethnic groups, but rather on eradicating the root factors breeding terrorism.”

While appearing to be a shot in the arm for the Pakistani regional policy, Mr Jiabao’s speech reinforces what is already known about Sino-Pak relations and the Chinese ambitions in the second decade of the 21st century. The Pakistani policy planners, especially those directly or indirectly associated with its ruling establishment, take a vicarious pride in the strides China has made and tend to believe that in the coming decade it would surpass the US as a global power.

However, the Chinese quest to revive the land-based Silk Route and develop jumping boards to Africa like the Gwadar port, point to its significant handicap in overcoming its geographical limitations. Resource-hungry China might take more than 10 years to develop a navy to be competitive with South Korea and Japan-supported US, even in the Pacific Rim. It is therefore, imperative for China to develop cheap and relatively direct access to resources, especially fossil fuels, from Central Asia, the Persian Gulf and Africa.

There is nothing really ideological or fraternal about the Chinese investments in Pakistan, as some Pakistani newspapers would like us to believe. Interestingly, while the Pakistani media has a knack for comparing everything to India, it has really remained mum over premier Jiabao’s visit to Delhi. A right-wing contemporary in its editorial praising China for its ‘stellar words and deeds’ vis-à-vis Pakistan opted to black-out the fact that just days ago the Chinese leader was quoting from the Upanishads, eulogising Mahatma Gandhi and buoyantly claiming Manmohan Singh’s friendship. With about $ 60 billion in exports, China has become India’s largest trading partner. By 2015, this sum is expected to rise to around a whopping $ 100 billion. The $ 30 billion of Chinese investment in Pakistan over the next five years does not look that massive after all. The point remains that it is the confluence of economic and geo-strategic interests — not words from scriptures or leaders — that dictate the Chinese or any other nation’s interest in Pakistan and for that matter in India.

That China will expand manufacturing exchanges, develop the transport and (nuclear) energy sectors in Pakistan, and even do a currency swap agreement, is not moot. However, what it might not tolerate is very similar to the world demands about countering the terror networks operating in and out of Pakistan. For China to have viable, uninterrupted resource supply routes from Central Asia and through Pakistan, it has to have a western border free of the jihadist menace. To metamorphose from a global moneylender to a global power, China will be confronting the question of how to tackle jihadism sooner than later. It may have saved the skins of the likes of General Hamid Gul — even at the UN level — but doing business in the global economy would entail China actually policing such characters rather than encouraging or protecting them.

The Chinese global interests, therefore, are more congruent with the US, and perhaps even India, than a Pakistani establishment with a jihadist mindset fossilised in the past. Internally, China is extremely sensitive about any socio-political upheavals that could pitch its impoverished central and western provinces against the affluent coastal regions and potentially lead to the unrest prevalent on the eve of Chairman Mao’s revolution. Issues like Tibet and Uighur autonomy are thus taken quite seriously, and dealt with harshly, by the Chinese. Moreover, China’s status as the world’s ATM machine is hugely dependent on its trade with the US and western consumer societies. While it would love to see the Pamir Knot and northern Silk Road revived with economic vigour, China would not be interested in undoing the Gordian knot of Afghanistan with the tip of its sword and neither would it give Pakistan a free hand to do so — a fact not lost on the Pak-Afghan policy planners in the US.

The New York Times (NYT) report that the US military seeks to expand raids inside Pakistan appears to be part of this seemingly endless game of analysing the projection of power, perception of strength or weakness and posturing of the geo-strategic players. Speaking to this writer, a CENTCOM spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Lawhorn cited the International Security Assistant Force statement, which categorically rejects the NYT report and claims everything to be hunky dory between the US and Pakistan: “There is absolutely no truth to reporting in the NYT...Cross-border coordination has and continues to disrupt and dismantle insurgent networks in select areas, with significant operations on both sides of the border removing large numbers of insurgent leaders and fighters.”

The last part of the statement is ambiguous about who exactly is conducting those raids but seems to indicate that for now the US planners have opted to ignore grandpa Wen’s words and innuendo in Pakistan. They seem to be focused more on the great-grandpa Hu Jintao’s Washington, DC visit next month.

The writer can be reached at

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

US Afghan war review

Daily Times Thursday, December 16, 2010

COMMENT: US Afghan war review —Dr Mohammad Taqi

The word victory has never featured in Mr Obama’s speeches in the Afghan context and is unlikely to pop up now. We will hear a lot from him about the build-hold-clear-stabilise-handover process and the long term US ‘commitment’, but there will be hardly any reference to nation-building or even sustained counterinsurgency

US president Barack Obama will announce his annual review of the Afghan war today (December 16, 2010). A successful legal challenge to Mr Obama’s healthcare plan and hectic congressional activity to extend the Bush-era income tax cuts had pushed this review off the US media radar, but the death of the Special Representative Richard Holbrooke has managed to put it back in the news-cycle, at least for the time being. What was expected to be a low key affair will still remain a whimper but more questions are being asked about the shape of the things to come as a larger-than-life member of Mr Obama’s Pak-Afghan team made his exit from the diplomatic and world stage.

The Washington Post has reported that Mr Holbrooke’s last words, spoken to his surgeon, were: “You have got to stop this war in Afghanistan.” Incidentally, Mr Holbrooke’s surgeon happened to be a King Edward Medical College-educated Pakistani. Of course, neither the surgeon nor the common Pakistanis have much to do with the war in Afghanistan but given the Pakistani establishment’s massive involvement in favour of the Taliban, Mr Holbrooke’s last words seem almost surreal.

Mr Holbrooke, however, was not the only one calling for ending the war in Afghanistan. On the eve of the Afghan war review, a 25-member group of experts on Afghanistan, which includes respected names like Ahmed Rashid and Professor Antonio Giustozzi, has published an open letter to Mr Obama, calling on him to authorise a formal negotiation with the Afghan Taliban and seek a political settlement. However, buried in the text of the 1,030-word long plea to talk to the Taliban is the key sentence: “With Pakistan’s active support for the Taliban, it is not realistic to bet on a military solution.”

Mr Obama is very likely to claim progress in his statement (no speech is expected) and declare that the strategy he announced a year ago at the West Point Military Academy is working. However, he has very little to show in terms of tangible progress, especially in dealing with the continuous Pakistani intervention in Afghanistan. He may reiterate what he had told the US troops on his recent visit to Afghanistan: “We said we were going to break the Taliban’s momentum. That’s what you’re doing.” The idea being that the use of military force to change the political landscape of Afghanistan will continue as planned. The only addition anticipated is a prominent mention of the year 2014 as the withdrawal date for the NATO troops and security handover to the Afghan national forces. But the start of the troops’ drawdown in July 2011 will still remain as one of the objectives, albeit more as a rest stop rather than a milestone.

However, it is erroneous to make a claim about breaking the Taliban momentum during the winter months, which is literally the ‘down time’ of the war. During the anti-Soviet war of the 1980s one could tell by the drop in price of a Kalashnikov in Peshawar that the winter lull in fighting was about to start. But then again nobody claimed Mr Obama to be an expert on Afghanistan.

In fact Mr Holbrooke, along with his boss Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates, had vociferously criticised the president when the latter was putting together his Afghan strategy, commenting: “It cannot work.” However, all of them and General David Petraeus did sign on to Mr Obama’s flawed plan. At the time I had noted in an article ‘The Alsatia of FATA’ written for the Aryana Institute that “the American and NATO planners need a paradigm shift in their approach to handling the mess in FATA. Without setting up metrics for specifically measuring the Pakistan Army’s efforts in dismantling its jihadist assets, the US will be setting itself up for failure.”

The White House is saying that Mr Obama will talk about the al Qaeda’s senior leadership, Afghanistan and Pakistan and, more specifically, about increasing cooperation with the Pakistani government. How Mr Obama fleshes up this last agenda item is what would determine the future shape of things in Afghanistan — and Pakistan. I agree with Ahmed Rashid and Professor Giustozzi et al that with Pakistan’s active support for the Taliban, a military solution is not possible. However, I maintain that without the US confronting the Pakistani establishment on its continued support for the Taliban, a political solution to the Afghan imbroglio will remain elusive as well. Mr Holbrooke had told Bob Woodward that he saw a 1 in 10 chance of a good outcome in Afghanistan. I would say that it is a safe bet to make it a 1 in 1,000 chance.

The word victory has never featured in Mr Obama’s speeches in the Afghan context and is unlikely to pop up now. We will hear a lot from him about the build-hold-clear-stabilise-handover process and the long term US ‘commitment’, but there will be hardly any reference to nation-building or even sustained counterinsurgency. At the risk of eating crow tomorrow, I submit that there would not be any reference, even in fine print, to setting up any benchmarks for measuring the Pakistani establishment’s cooperation in helping evolve a political solution to the Afghan morass.

With Mr Holbrooke’s demise, General Petraeus will be lugging many aspects of coordination with the civilians in both Afghanistan and Pakistan in the short term. He, along with Robert Gates, has a much more realistic view of the ground realities than their commander-in-chief. In fact, the Lisbon agreement on the 2014 withdrawal timetable was very much a result of their efforts. They are also cognisant of the fact that while al Qaeda has been neutralised in Afghanistan for now, even a semblance of a jihadist victory will effectively revive the Islamists’ fortunes not only there but in Pakistan as well. In fact a US debacle in Afghanistan will give the turban, jeans or khaki-clad Pakistani jihadists a morale boost that will dwarf the post-Soviet withdrawal euphoria.

Like the 25 experts on Afghanistan, Mr Obama’s Afghan war review is likely to miss the potential logarithmic growth of jihadism in Pakistan that a negotiated settlement with the Taliban will entail. This will leave Pakistan’s moderate voices and the centre-left political forces out in the cold. While Petraeus et al will provide a cushion of time to the Pakistani political forces, counting on the US would be a mistake that the latter will regret at their peril. What they need is a Pak-Afghan policy review of their own.

The writer can be reached at

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Times of universal deceit

Daily Times Thursday,
December 09, 2010

COMMENT: Times of universal deceit —Dr Mohammad Taqi

The US government has now ordered all its employees to stay away from the WikiLeaks website even on their home computers and not read what the government still considers classified information. Big Brother keeps digging itself deeper into a hole

“Thoughtcrime is death. Thoughtcrime does not entail death. Thoughtcrime IS death” —Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984.

Last week’s WikiLeaks had a distinct Orwellian aura to it. One could almost hear the 1984 theme music playing with O’Brien asking, “What are your feelings about Big Brother?” “I hate him,” replied Winston Smith. And then, of course, the all too familiar retort from O’Brien, “You must love him. It is not enough to obey him. You must love him.”

But, apparently, thoughtcrime has been committed. Some, who did not love Big Brother, decided to disobey him too. The 250,000 secret diplomatic cables started becoming public, one bagful at a time. Big Brother, of course, is writhing in agony because the commoners did not heed its warnings invoking sacrosanct national security or the presumed disruption of the world order. However, the agony is not just of defeat but is also compounded by the fact that “one man with a laptop” and a private, first-class sergeant carry far more credibility with the public around the globe than the super or quasi-superpowers and their clients. Prometheus has stolen the fire from Zeus and has handed it over to the mortals.

The humpty dumpty of the official truths that these diplomats and the governments that they worked for and with had so painstakingly created has taken a great fall. The common citizens feel vindicated, as they had known all along that the gospel of official truth is nothing more than a mirage they were supposed to believe blindly. All the king’s men and women have now set out to put their humpty dumpty back together again — through whatever means it might take.

What is still lost on the government functionaries around the world, and especially US officials, is that this trust deficit between them and the public did not develop overnight. Whether it was lying about the Hiroshima bombing, overthrowing Iran’s Dr Mossadegh, the slaughter of thousands of Chileans including Dr Allende, creating the Afghan mujahideen monster, the Iran-Contra scandal, lies about WMDs and stage-managing the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue, the list of the skulduggeries perpetrated on the world is endless. Decades of disinformation, half-truths and lies have contributed to a credibility gap between the words and actions of governments, especially the US government, which is now wider than the Grand Canyon.

What also remains lost on the US government and those abetting its campaign against the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, is that going after him on grounds as flimsy as broken condoms (the charge against Assange being that he allegedly proceeded with sex, despite protests from his previously consensual partners, after protection broke down), is eroding whatever little credibility they might have left.

From the outset it became clear to most observers that the US literally has no case against Mr Assange and would very likely resort to pressing Sweden to pursue the alleged sexual harassment charges against him. Last week, the Voice of America’s Pashto service Deewa Radio conducted a special on WikiLeaks and whether they constituted espionage or journalism. Special Representative Richard Holbrooke recorded this ‘exclusive’ observation for the telecast: “The WikiLeaks is very unfortunate. This is an appalling breach of security by whoever did it — we think we know who it is — but whoever did it violated his oath of office to the US and committed an act for which he will be charged to the full extent of the law.”

The host then asked me and other participants to comment on Holbrooke’s remark. My take was, and remains, that the US does not stand a chance in hell to prosecute Assange under the present US and international laws and that Richard ‘the bulldozer’ Holbrooke was alluding to pulverising sergeant Bradley Manning — the little guy who allegedly disobeyed Big Brother.

How much more Orwellian can it get? Apparently it can. The US government has now ordered all its employees to stay away from the WikiLeaks website even on their home computers and not read what the government still considers classified information. Big Brother keeps digging itself deeper into a hole.

At the time of this writing, Julian Assange is being remanded in British police custody, after being denied bail in the Swedish case referred to above. Republican Mike Huckabee wants Assange assassinated, a few others want the use of military force against him, and Sarah Palin wants him “hunted down like Osama bin Laden”. What these right-wing hacks keep forgetting is that, despite being subjected to decades of controlled media and manufactured truths, the world at large retains a voracious appetite for the unvarnished truth. Call it left-wing, name it anarchism or brand it treasonous, upwards of four million new-user hits on the British daily The Guardian’s website on day one of the cables’ release show that the people do not swallow the official truth. Even if nonsense is shoved down their throats, they puke it up the first chance they get.

When The New York Times had confidently reported ‘No Radioactivity in Hiroshima’ and all journalists had been ushered to see the Japanese kneel before General McArthur, Wilfred Burchett was reporting — through cable — in his landmark story for London’s Daily Express ‘The Atomic Plague’ that more than just a bomb blast had caused the deaths at Hiroshima. The US censor came down hard on Burchett and vilified him and any paper that reproduced the report. We now know that it was the first report that documented the radiation fallout and the nuclear holocaust.

Henry Kissinger used to say that states could not be held to the same moral standards as ordinary citizens. Many officials around the world apparently continue to subscribe to his thought that not only are they above any moral standards, they also have a privilege to stomp on them secretly and deny such dealings publicly. But the common man clearly subscribes to Claud Cockburn’s proviso of “do not believe anything until it is officially denied”.

George Orwell had observed: “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” While Assange may not be a revolutionary himself, he has revolutionised the way tech-media has forced the traditional media to take note of information that may otherwise have ended up being much like The New York Times reporting of the Hiroshima bombing. Thoughtcrime remains the perfect antidote to universal deceit.

The writer can be reached at

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Blasphemy laws: what does the Quran say?

Daily Times
Thursday December 2,2010

COMMENT: Blasphemy laws: what does the Quran say? —Dr Mohammad Taqi
It is a travesty of justice that a verse dealing with war, sedition and rebellion is invoked to punish what may not even qualify as theocratic or religious dissent. In fact, Article 295 is not just a travesty of justice, it is an iftira (slander) against the Almighty and Prophet (PBUH) as it attributes to them what they never mandated
حق جلوہ گر ز طرز  بیان محمد ہست
آرے کلام حق بہ زبان محمد ہست 
غالب ثناۓ خواجہ بہ یزداں گزاشتیم 
کاں ذات پاک مرتبہ دان محمد ہست 
( غالب )

“The Truth expresses its grace through Mohammad’s [PBUH] expression,

Indeed the Truth speaks through Mohammad’s [PBUH] word,

Ghalib, therefore, I leave Mohammad’s [PBUH] praise to God,

Almighty alone can understand the exalted status of Mohammad [PBUH].”

While the Lahore High Court (LHC) is restraining the president from pardoning Aasia Bibi in a blasphemy case and a federal minister has vowed to not allow any change in the blasphemy laws, why do I quote Ghalib’s praise for the Holy Prophet Mohammad (PBUH)? For starters, Ghalib remains one of the foremost secularists that the Indian subcontinent has ever produced and this na’at (hymn) — perhaps amongst the finest written in any language — goes to show that it is perfectly alright for the secularists to occasionally talk about matters of faith, including their own faith. In fact, it is imperative to do so when a fog of confusion is deliberately created around faith by bigots of all shades.

Moreover, the Holy Quran and Sunnah, ostensibly, form the premise of Article 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and, without revisiting what they actually say about blasphemy, the only challenge that might be successful against this law would be to have its procedural aspects modified. The Quran and Sunnah indeed are the two material sources of the shariah law, but were eventually supplemented by a corpus of interpretation largely agreed upon by a majority of Muslim scholars (ijma) and deductive analogy (qiyas) to form the basis of Islamic jurisprudence.

In the first quoted verse, Ghalib is referring to the Holy Quran, which states: “That this (Quran) is indeed the speech of an illustrious messenger” (69:40) Ghalib’s last verse, of course, is the crux of a Sufi’s faith and, once again, alludes to the passages in the Quran where the Almighty showers praise on Mohammad (PBUH). I would point to one such verse: “Verily! We have seen the turning of your (Mohammad’s) face towards the heaven. Surely, We shall turn you to a Qiblah (prayer direction) that shall please you, so turn your face in the direction of Al-Masjid-al-Haram” (2:144). This is a unique verse; while the Quran and other holy books speak to what humans, including the prophets, must do to earn the pleasure (raza) of the Almighty, here Allah is doing something purely to earn the pleasure or raza of His Prophet (PBUH).

So is it possible then, that the Almighty, who has thus exalted the status of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), left us without any guidance on how to deal with speech or actions that attempt to disparage him? Could the Quran be silent on a matter of such grave importance? Have we been left to rely on the ijma and qiyas of the clerics who came some two centuries after the Prophet (PBUH)? Indeed not, but that is something that the ones after a poor woman’s scalp would have us believe. Let us consider Surah Al-Ahzab, verse 57:

“Lo! those who malign Allah and His messenger, Allah hath cursed them in the world and the Hereafter, and hath prepared for them the doom of the disdained.”

The Quran also mentions the most important case of blasphemy ever committed against Mohammad (PBUH). The Quran says in Surah Al-Massad:

“The power of Abu Lahab will perish, and he will perish. His wealth and gains will not exempt him. He will be plunged in flaming fire. And his wife, the wood-carrier, will have upon her neck a halter of palm-fibre.”

The common theme between the verses noted above is that, while the highest condemnation has been heaped on anyone reviling or attempting to revile the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and eternal damnation promised for the perpetrator, neither a direct order (amr) has been given to impart a punishment nor a set punishment prescribed — not even for Abu Lahab!

Let us also consider the Arabic terms used to describe blasphemy against God and the Prophet (PBUH). The Arabic words sabba (abuse, insult) and shatm (vilification) denote blasphemy and have been adopted in Persian and Urdu as well. It must be stated that the word shatm does not occur in the Quran at all while a derivative of sabba is used only in one verse and that too to proscribe the Muslims from hurling sabba on other people’s gods and deities (Chapter 6:108).

So where then are punishments like death or chopping limbs for blasphemy coming from? Usually, anecdotal reports are cited from the Hadith where the Prophet (PBUH) allegedly condoned the death or punishing of a blasphemer. However, for each such incident — usually reported on weak authority — there are two others where the Prophet (PBUH) tolerated and indeed pardoned insults against him. Not a single incident can be cited from the Sirah traditions where charges of blasphemy were filed, a trial held and the punishment meted out. Almost all proponents of severe or capital punishment for blasphemy, therefore, quote verse 33 of Surah Al-Maidah, in support of their argument:

“The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter.”

It is a travesty of justice that a verse dealing with war, sedition and rebellion is invoked to punish what may not even qualify as theocratic or religious dissent. In fact, Article 295 is not just a travesty of justice, it is an iftira (slander) against the Almighty and Prophet (PBUH) as it attributes to them what they never mandated. The presidential pardon is most commendable in the current case and procedural changes to the blasphemy laws would be welcome.

However, Article 295 is repugnant to the Quran and Sunnah and, as long as it remains on the books, it will be a direct negation of the verse “Wama arsalnaka illa Rehmatan-lil-alameen” (We sent thee not, but as a Mercy for all creatures — 21:107). By not prescribing harsh penalties, the Almighty prevented this exalted status of Mohammad (PBUH) from being undermined; Ghalib was spot-on.

The writer can be reached at