Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Symbols of the racist past still prevalent in the United States

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Syed Ahmed Uzair

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Symbols of the racist past still prevalent in the United States


Global Views 360

Publication Date

August 12, 2020


A person wearing Blackface

A person wearing Blackface | Source:  foundin_a_attic via Flickr | Source: Wikimedia

George Floyd’s recent death while in Police custody has sparked protests across the entire United States. While it did expose the way Black Americans are policed, it also initiated a much deeper conversation about the prevalent racism faced by Black Americans in almost all aspects of modern life.

Many symbols of the racist past still exist across the US, more so in the Southern states. The recent trigger of protests and the BLM movement has initiated a discussion about these symbols once again. While some argue that it is important to preserve these symbols owing to the American culture, the majority of the people seem to be agreeing that these are symbols of oppression and injustice.

Thomas D. Rice is pictured while performing his blackface role — Jim Crow | Source: Edward Williams Clay via Wikimedia

In the mid to late 19th century, white actors quite commonly employed the use of black grease paint to depict slaves and free blacks on stage. The technique commonly known as blackface was more than just facial makeup. Rather, it was used as a symbol for mocking the African-Americans as inferiors in every aspect of life.

Blackface seemed to have disappeared in the 1960s thanks to the Civil Rights Movement. It however reappeared in the 1980s on college campuses in the wake of steps taken to bring more African Americans to campus. An old yearbook picture from Langley School resurfaced recently revealing the then-principal and vice-principal dressed as whiteface and blackface for Halloween. The current leadership of the school have issued apologies stating that the incident should not have happened.

Despite a racist history surrounding blackface, a recent survey by Pew Research Centre revealed that nearly one-third of Americans surveyed did not find anything offensive in blackface being used at Halloween.

Newspaper ad for Aunt Jemima Buckwheat pancake mix, 1923 | Source: Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress

Aunt Jemima, a 130-year-old syrup and pancake mix brand owned by Quaker Oats depicts a black woman named Aunt Jemima who was originally dressed as a minstrel character. The company has earlier made tweaks to the picture of the black woman in response to the criticism it received for propagating a racial stereotype. In June 2020, Quaker Oats announced that the brand would be rejuvenated to feature a new name and image.

Image of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States | Source: Wikimedia

Andrew Jackson, the seventh US president and his family employed hundreds of enslaved people in building their wealth. However, to date, Jackson still haunts Black Americans with his presence on the twenty-dollar bills in the wallets of these Americans. The Trump administration’s decision to not replace the bill featuring Jackson with one that would feature abolitionist Harriet Tubman as proposed earlier does not help the nation’s troubled history with Racism.

Similar symbols of the US racist past exist across the entire country, starting from streets named after Confederate officers to congested highways specifically designed to ensure isolation of Black neighborhoods. Football and baseball games in the country still feature the national anthem penned by Francis Scott Key, a person who used his power as district attorney to prosecute Black men.

George Floyd’s death was the perfect trigger for all the anger and frustration against the systematic injustice that has been meted out to Black people. However, it also served well to initiate debates over the omnipresence of these racial symbols across the country that serve as memorials to slavery and white supremacy.

As many as 800 Confederate statues and monuments have been removed ever since the BLM protests erupted in the country. A few of these racial symbols in the US suffered the brunt of BLM protesters who defaced homages and toppled statues of founding fathers who had profited from slavery.

Those against the removal of these symbols argue that these men merely failed in morality due to the socio-political environment they inhabited. Alvita Akiboh, an assistant professor of history at the University of Michigan, however, disagrees with the notion. “Just because slavery was accepted among white elites or even the broader white population at the time does not mean it was accepted by everybody, because everybody includes Black people who were enslaved, indigenous people who were pushed off their lands in order to expand plantation slavery,” said Akiboh.

Others, including US President Donald Trump, have employed the notion of removing these symbols as the equivalent of “ripping American history and culture apart”. To this Akiboh voices her opinion saying that the majority of these symbols were erected decades after the civil-war conflict ended. She argues that they are merely “a reminder for Black and brown people to remember their place”.

As the BLM protests gain momentum and support globally the scrutiny of the racist symbols in the US shall increase manifold. With the government not willing to push for major reforms and removal of these racist symbols and an adamant public demanding an end to the systematic discrimination based on race, the road ahead for the recial relation in the US is a difficult and complicated one.

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July 19, 2021 12:00 PM

The Blasphemy Law of Pakistan and its Implications

In Pakistan, Blasphemy results in a capital punishment in majority of cases. It is perhaps considered a crime worse than terrorism. A crucial case in point is the fact that the Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Court gave around 15 years jail term to two close aides of Hafiz Saeed—chief of the terrorist organization—Lashkar-e-Taiba—and mastermind behind 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks—where at least 150 innocent people lost their lives.

Similarly, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi—Lashkar-e-Taiba’s operation commander and another important figure involved in the 2008 Mumbai attack—was sentenced to 15 years in jail period. Not to mention—this happened amidst the international pressure on Pakistan for letting terrorists to function and roam freely within their country.

While something as violent as terrorism is dealt with lenient punishments, there are draconian laws for blasphemy in the country. Moreover, one can be accused of committing blasphemy—doesn’t matter if they did it or not—and might not even face a fair trial.

This article discusses what are the blasphemy laws and what are their implications while looking at some specific cases.

What are Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws?

What's called Blasphemy law today has its origins in the colonial era. The “offences relating to religion” were introduced by British in 1860, and were later expanded in 1927. These were sections 295 and 295-A from the Indian Penal Code. The laws were made to avoid religious disturbances, insult religious beliefs, or intentionally destroy or desecrate a place or an object of worship. Under the 295 and 295-A, the convicted were to be given a jail term from one year to ten years—with or without a fine.

Pakistan ended up inheriting these laws after the partition of India in 1947.

The laws were amended in 1982 and another clause was added which prescribed life imprisonment for desecration of the Quran intentionally. Another clause was added in 1986 to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad through imprisonment for life or death. These clauses, were added under General Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime, in an order to make the laws more “pro-Islam.”

Since then, this law has often been used to persecute people from minority communities—such as the Ahmadiyas, Shias, Christians, and Hindus—they have been accused of blasphemy without much evidence.

Infamous cases and implications of blasphemy in Pakistan

One of the famous cases was of Asia Bibi, which grabbed international attention as well. Asia Noreen—known as Asia Bibi—was a Pakistani Christan and a farm laborer in Punjab province. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, was a brick laborer. A dispute with her Muslim neighbours turned into an accusation of blasphemy—leading to her arrest and imprisoned. There were a lot of protests in Pakistan, demanding death penalty for Asia Bibi.

Two politicians—Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti—who supported and tried to help Asia Bibi, were murdered. Taseer was shot by his own bodyguard named Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri in broad daylight. Qadri was tried and sentenced to death. He was executed in 2016. Mumtaz Qadri became a hero for millions and hardliners praised him as a martyr. He is regarded as a saint and a mausoleum has been built over his grave in his village near Islamabad, where even devotees come to offer prayers.

Asia Bibi was first sentenced to death by a trial court in 2010, however was later acquitted by the Supreme Court in a historic judgement of 2018. In 2019, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that she was free to leave Pakistan and was given asylum in Canada where she moved along with her family.

Although after a long struggle, Asia Bibi still got justice and was able to start a new life—unfortunately many others didn’t. Many met with Mob Justice.

In 2017, a journalism student at a Pakistani University was lynched to death by fellow students in Mardan—in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The student—Mashal Khan—was a Shia Muslim and was falsely accused of blasphemy. The mob was enraged by a rumour according to which he had promoted the Ahmadi faith on Facebook. In a similar instance, a man named Tahrir Ahmad Naseem was killed by vigilantes in July last year for blasphemy. He was a former Ahmadi, and was in Peshawar Central Jail since 2018 for claiming to be a prophet. He was shot dead inside the courtroom during trial in the Peshawar Judicial Complex.

Furthermore, in a case similar to that of Asia Bibi, a Christian couple—Shahzad and Shama Maseeh—were accused of blasphemy as well. They were then beaten and burned alive by a mob in 2014. Shama was four months pregnant. The mob, which also included a local cleric, believed that the couple had burned some pages of the Quran along with some rubbish, although the couple’s family still denies this. Five people including the cleric were sentenced to death, while the eight others were given two years imprisonment.

Last year, former Foreign and Defense Minister Khawaja Asif as well was accused of blasphemy for merely stating that “all religions are equal.”

Why is this happening?

According to data by Pakistan’s Centre for Social Justice, there have been 1549 known cases of serious blasphemy in the years 1987-2017, out of which 720 were Muslims, 516 Ahmadis, 238 Christians, 31 Hindus, and the rest 44 are unknown. 75 out of the total cases ended in the person being murdered before their trial.

There are 13 countries in the world which punish blasphemy by death penalty and Pakistan happens to be one of them. But unlike countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where they are executed judicially—as mentioned earlier—accused in Pakistan are often killed in mob violence or assassination. While Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to top in terms of the highest number of executions, most of them for sacrilege or crimes against Islam, Pakistan’s total ‘judiciary’ killings stand at zero.

The problem of this mob mentality in Pakistan, especially when it comes to religion, is actually deeply rooted in its constitution. The country’s aspiration to become a democracy as well as an Islamic state is in itself contradictory. The people want the right to freedom and expression and the hanging of a person committing blasphemy at the same time. The constitution denies criticism of Islam while claiming to allow freedom of speech and religion. The elevation of one religion over others in itself is principally undemocratic.

Another interesting point is the fact that the people supporting these ideas haven’t been aware of how things can backfire. Muhammad Din Taseer—father of Salman Taseer—supported Ilam Din, who murdered a Hindu publisher over blasphemy in 1929. An ancestor’s support for radicalism ended up in his own offspring being assassinated in the name of blasphemy.

Mental illness and blasphemy

In Pakistan, often some mentally ill people are punished to death by mobs for unknowingly ‘committing’ blasphemy. In 2012, a man widely reported by the media and police as ‘mentally unstable’ was arrested for blasphemy in Bahawalpur district, Punjab province. A mob gathered outside the police station, dragged him outside, and burned him to death. There have also been cases of misuse where such vulnerable individuals were subjected to sexual abuse and later accused of blasphemy by the abusers to cover up their crimes.

Such abuses towards mentally unsound people would have been a criminal case and the abusers would have been punished—unless they use the blasphemy law—as the mentally unstable victim cannot defend themselves.

Role of Anti-Terrorism courts

Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism courts were set up to ensure quick justice in cases such as terrorism, sectarian violence, targeted political killings, hijacking, kidnapping, extortion and even arms trafficking. Earlier gang rape was also included in it—but removed later.

They are also key to controlling mob attacks on blasphemy accused as such trials are held here.

Yet, these courts have been facing several problems due to lack of basic resources and understaffing. The posts of judges often remain vacant for months, and the state prosecutors complain of poor working conditions—with no offices, stationery, clerical staff or legal resources. These problems may have risen due to the fact that there are not sufficient funds allotted for the ATC infrastructure, one of the major challenges in Pakistan’s legal system. Due to this, these courts are not able to fulfill their primary objective—to provide ‘quick’ justice.

Moreover, these courts lack independence and are vulnerable to political influence—the judges are held accountable to the executive. Sometimes the witnesses often refuse to testify against the accused, as they fear assassination by terrorist groups the accused belongs to. The judges, state prosecutors and others also have personal security concerns which also lead to delays in trials.

Also, these courts deny terrorism suspects the right to equality before the law. They are not even tried in a public place with full defense and are not presumed innocent. Peshawar High Court advocate Ghulam Nabi even challenged the Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Ordinance 2009 under Article 199 of the constitution in December 2009, saying that it violated basic human rights.

The blasphemy laws of Pakistan need to be repealed in today's Global civic society. People are fighting for equality everywhere around the globe. And now it is up to Pakistan to choose—whether to become a democracy or continue with a pseudo-democratic authoritarian regime which is based on extremist interpretation of religion.

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