A comparatively rare enforcement of Article 298-A of the Criminal Code shows that a private “Internet police” looks for blasphemy everywhere.
by Massimo Introvigne
On June 26 in Battagram, in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, a retired Muslim teacher was arrested by the police to the great surprise of himself and his family. A certain Momin Shah had filed a FIR (First Information Report) against him claiming that he and two friends had seen on social media material disrespectful to the companions of Prophet Muhammad posted by the former teacher.
The police acted promptly, although the teacher insisted that he did not post anything disrespectful to Islam, his own religion, and perhaps his profile had been hacked.
This was a comparatively rare example of enforcement of Article 298-A of the Pakistani Criminal Code, reading as follows: “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of any wife (Ummul-Mumudeen), or members of the family (Ahle-bait) of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him), or any of the righteous Caliphs (Khulafa Raashideen) or companions (Sahaaba) of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.”
Article 298-A precedes in the Criminal Code the notorious Article 298-B, which includes a laundry list of discriminatory provisions against the Ahmadi religious minority.
Compared to provisions on blasphemy, which include the death penalty as punishment to those who offend the Prophet, Article 298-A threatens those who do not show enough respect to Muhammad’s wives, relatives, or companions with comparatively mild penalties.
Lawyers, however, warn that judges can always convert an accusation of disrespect into one of blasphemy at trial, with dire consequences for the defendants.
The case also shows that an “Internet police” in Pakistan is continuously looking for evidence of blasphemy or similar offenses on social media. Sometimes, when they cannot find any anti-Islamic postings, activists fabricate them.