The United Nations Human Development Committee (UNHDC) released its annual report on global human rights this week. Observers were shocked to find an unexpected name at the top of at least one human rights category: the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
The announcement was made possible when the UNHDC made a change to their ranking algorithm, which was amended to take into account “degree of protection for religious feelings” for the first time ever in 2017. In the past, rankings incorporated such factors as childhood education, freedom for women and minorities, and transparency and fair application of legal codes. However, several new criteria were incorporated after it was determined that such rankings reflected a cultural bias towards Western nations.
As expected, factoring in protection for religious sensitivities has resulted in a radical shakeup of the rankings, with the primary benefit accruing to Muslim nations. The tiny island nation of Maldives shot up from #152 to #4. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia rose from #179 all the way to #2. But the biggest beneficiary was Pakistan, which rose from #189 to #1, shocking nearly everyone.
But take a second look and the reason is clear. Since changing their constitution in 1986, no country has offered stronger protections for people’s religious feelings than Pakistan, which states clearly in its legal code:
Whoever, with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person, utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person or makes any gesture in the sight of that person or places any object in the sight of that person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.
Such laws alone would place Pakistan among the most progressive nations in the world when it comes to protecting religious feelings. But what places Pakistan “head and shoulders” above even the most advanced nations in this important human rights category is Section 295, which mandates lifetime imprisonment or death for those who defile the Holy Qur’an, or who make remarks deemed derogatory (directly or indirectly) to the name of Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him!)
Says Dr. Sami Yaqub, of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center at Georgetown University, “These rankings confirm what a lot of people already knew. In most nations, particularly in the West in countries like France, Denmark, the United States and others, there are almost no safeguards to prevent people from expressing any opinion at all about religion, which in turn leads to thousands- perhaps millions- of religious people having their feelings hurt. Incredibly, the number may be even higher, because sadly, most of these incidents go unreported.”
Dr. Walid Khalid, who teaches at Dar al Jahilliyah College in Doha, Qatar (tied for #7 with Mauritania), expressed similar admiration for Pakistan’s progressive track record in this area. “By criminalizing and severely penalizing ‘defilement’ of the Holy Qur’an and the name of the Prophet, (saws), and by allowing for such a broad definition of the term ‘defilement’ such that practically any comment of anything less than the utmost reverence could be construed as grounds for being accused and put on trial, Pakistan has created the condition for human rights to truly flourish.”
Continues Dr. Khalid, “Section 295 of Pakistan’s penal code- which is truly a model for all Islamic countries- does protect the feelings of Muslims, which is very important. But it does more than that. It preserves the honor of Islam. It suppresses criticism and questions from those who are perhaps uneducated about Islam, or who have become misguided and seek to mislead others. This in turn gives Pakistani citizens every opportunity to learn the true message of Islam without being led astray by others.
“Pakistan guarantees its citizens the most fundamental human right of all: the right to learn Islam correctly and practice as a Muslim without hinderance. What could be more important than this?”
Muhammad Khan Sherwani, chairman of the Shariah Council of Pakistan, the body most responsible for protecting the religious feelings of Muslims, sat with us to explain in detail the secret to Pakistan’s impressive track record in this area of human rights. “Preventing people from making derogatory remarks about Islam- and the misguided religions like Christianity also- is very important in Pakistan. It gives protection to the Muslims and effectively criminalizes disagreement with Muslims. And it allows other religions to practice in the open so we can know who they are, as long as they are not too loud and showy about it, which would be offensive to Muslims and thus a criminal offense.”
Yet despite the obvious benefits and protections that Pakistan’s religious protection laws bring to the population, there are those who argue that the laws should be reformed, or, inexplicably, even repealed. Fortunately, discussion about changing the laws has been recognized to be in violation of the laws, as any suggestion to change them is hurtful and offensive to the religious feelings of some Muslims.
Some critics of Pakistan’s religious protection laws raised the issue of whether they work equally well for religious minorities- such as Ahmadiyya (Qadiani), and those who are atheist or agnostic and profess no religion at all. Are Ahmadiyya protected from having their religious feelings hurt?
“Of course,” replied Khan Sherwani. “But it is complicated. Because one must also consider that it is a fundamental belief in Islam that what Qadianis are believing is shirk, and very offensive to Allah swt. Refuting the Qadiani community so that they do not spread their teachings is a fundamental belief of Muslims. It would be very hurtful to the religious feelings of Muslims if the Qadiani community were given too much freedom to practice openly, and if Muslims were persecuted from fulfilling their religious duty of persecuting Qadianis.”
On the subject of atheists and agnostics, Khan Sherwani had an equally insightful response. “First of all, there are no atheists or agnostics in Pakistan. 96% of the population is Muslim and the rest are one of the other recognized religions. But if someone were to somehow become so misguided as to leave all recognized religions, then it is a non issue. Because the Pakistani laws protect religious feelings. If a person has no religion, then he or she would have no feelings.”