The purpose of this article is to highlight the impact of the religious laws in Pakistan, as they are being currently interpreted and implemented without going into the finer nuances of either the law or the religion. These laws come into limelight from time to time for brief periods only when a famous person is involved or if there are political implications. Once the issue disappears from the front pages of the news media, the whole thing is forgotten. But the fact is that these laws affect ordinary citizens on a daily basis. I want to make the point that these laws, implemented without using common sense or taking the present day realities and the changing nature and circumstances of the crime, have become vehicles for promoting injustice, threats to the peace and harmony of the society, tools for political expediency, and suppression of critical thinking.

On promoting injustice: Qisas and Diyat laws are a prime example of this, being used to the detriment of the weaker members of the society that is women and the poor.

Let’s first take the issue of women. Honour killings, disfigurement and mutilation of women by cutting of their body parts or throwing acid on them because someone’s “honour” is threatened are common occurrences. Under the above mentioned law, it is the wali of the victim, who is authorised to negotiate the terms of punishment with the murderer. He (since it is almost always a male) has the right to forgive the murderer and accept monetary compensation. But the irony is that in most cases, the wali himself (or those closely related to him) is the murderer, being the husband, the father or the brother etc. Now does it make sense to have the murderer dictate the terms of his punishment? It is like investing the powers of the judge, the jury and the executioner in the same person who is also the offender, giving him the right to make all the decisions. Is that the spirit of the Islamic law?

In the case of disfigurement and mutilation, the victim herself (since most of the time it a woman) should have the right to negotiate and agree to the terms of punishment. One would like to ask a rhetorical question: Has there ever been a court decision where a woman was authorised to throw acid on the face of the offender or cut off his nose as a punishment? Such a decision, if ever made, would be unacceptable from the standards of human rights. That might be the most appropriate punishment from the victim’s point of view.

In fact, an even more sinister aspect of this whole situation is that men, family or tribe have been granted the right to impose their will on women in the name of honour. This is the basis of honour crimes. That is why, killing of a woman is justified because “she deserved it”, since she broke the so-called moral and ethical code of the society. This assumption, this mindset, this atrocious behaviour in the name of tradition, culture and religion is a horrifying aspect of “our values and norms” that we never tire of flaunting and praising because these values make us better than those ‘immoral’ Westerners. Really? There is a need to challenge this. What is honour and who defines it? Why do women have to give up their decision making powers, happiness, dignity, and freedom to save the so-called honour of men, family, tribe, etc., etc.? It has become honourable to kill and maim women and dishonourable to respect them, their bodies and their humanity. If this is not a skewed logic, what else is? And if this is not denigration of women, what else is? And we never tire of telling the world how Islam has elevated the status of women and how she has been protected!

Now let’s see how this law affects the poor. If the victim is poor and the offender rich, he/she not only has the financial wherewithal, but in Pakistan also has the added political, social and legal clout to coerce the victim’s wali into accepting the monetary compensation, instead of paying with his/her life for the perpetrated crime. But what if the victim is rich and the offender is poor? Do I have to explain what will happen? The law, as applied, fails to protect the poor. Can there be any more atrocious consequences of a law? Can there be a law that is more discriminatory against the poor? If this is not a distortion of justice to the utmost, then what else is? And if all of the above is not promoting injustice, what else is?

On threat to peace and harmony: Whenever a law is passed in the name of religion, it becomes nearly impossible to change or modify it, even if subsequently it becomes apparent that it is being misused, has become a contrivance for aggression and is actually causing harm to the society by disturbing peace and tranquillity. Even when the accused is not convicted by the court, he or she faces a constant threat to his or her life. At times, people feel free to punish the alleged offender without due course of the law. The person is presumed guilty unless proven innocent, rather than the other way around. Even minor and unintentional actions are interpreted in the harshest way possible thus leaving very little room for justice to be carried out fairly and impartially. Unfortunately this, like all other religious issues, has become a political tool to be used to inflame people’s emotions (which are, regrettably, highly inflammable). It has come to the point where even an utterance of unintended phrase, any discussion about the problems surrounding this issue, or any mention of further probing this legitimacy and authenticity of the law can cost one his or her life. If this is not disturbing peace and tranquillity of the society, what else is?

As James Baldwin, a black American novelist and play writer and a leading voice in the civil rights movement, said: “If one really wishes to know how the justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected - those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most - and listens to their testimony.” So, the flag bearers of the religion, the rulers and the politicians, go and listen to the women, the religious minorities, and the poor and find out if justice is being administered in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan!

On use for political expediency: Since religious laws are amenable to different interpretations, they have a tendency to become tools in the hands of dictators, other autocrats and selfish political motives. Wasn’t the Qisas and Diyat Ordinance of 1990 signed by General Zia for political expediency? Didn’t various political entities, i.e. the government, the religious parties, and the army, use and justify these laws to their own advantage during the Raymond Davis fiasco? Aren’t there enough historical examples and cases where religion, when wrongly interpreted, was used to support the decisions of the ruler, rather than guiding it? Why do we refuse to learn from them? There always have been and always will be scholars who are willing to comply with the demands of the authority. The alliance of religion with the power will drown any dissenting voice. It has been so in all religions and Islam is no different.

On suppression of free thought: The last point I would like to make is that the danger lies not only in the specific laws, but also the fact that when the word religion is attached to any law, rule or issue it immediately becomes off limits to any further discussion or debate among the very people whose lives will be affected by it. The doors of reason are closed. Questioning is not allowed. Any debate becomes a prisoner to rigid and fixed parameters set by the self-proclaimed scholars, many of whom have vested interests and people are forced to suspend their intellectual faculties. And gradually, it becomes their second nature to accept whatever edicts they are asked to follow.

Plato said: “Justice in the life and conduct of the State is possible only as first it resides in the hearts and souls of the citizens.” But when the hearts and souls of the citizens have given up the quest for justice because an intellectual decay has set in due to suppression of free thought, is there still hope?

The writer is physician based in the USA.

Email: shahnazk@gmail.com