Killing in the name of blasphemy

Pakistan’s harsh laws against religious profanity are being abused to settle personal and political scores, leading to an alarming rise in convictions and even murder.

A spontaneous demonstration that started on 27 February in Abbottabad, a large city in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan, has again drawn attention to the strict and contentious blasphemy laws in the country. 

The angry protesters went on the rampage, shutting down markets and bazaars and blocking parts of the Karakoram Highway, also known as the Silk Route, as well as other roads in the city. They demanded the “public hanging” of a prison inmate who had allegedly desecrated a copy of the Qur’an in his cell. 

The inmate, who calls himself Imran Khan, was later transferred to another prison to help defuse the volatile situation. The protesters also sought the immediate suspension of two jail officials, who they said should not have allowed Khan access to the Qur’an as he had desecrated copies twice before this latest incident. 

The police detained at least a dozen protesters, using tear gas and batons against the demonstrators in an effort to control the crowd. The demonstration was finally quelled when the district’s administration held negotiations with the Pakistan Ulema Council and other prominent citizens that led to the formation of a 10-member committee tasked to investigate the incident.

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Blasphemy is a toxic issue in Pakistan, which has an overwhelming Muslim majority with small numbers of Hindus, Christians and Ahmadis. Accusations of blasphemy often give rise to mass demonstrations and endanger the lives of the accused. 

One of the most high-profile cases drawing global attention has been that of Assiyah Noreen, commonly known as Asia Bibi, who was handed the death penalty on charges of blasphemy in 2010 and imprisoned until November 2018 when the Supreme Court acquitted her in a historic verdict. 

A lower court had sentenced Bibi, a Christian labourer, to death by hanging after finding her guilty of blasphemy during an argument with fellow workers over a cup of water. The international prominence of the case forced the Supreme Court’s hand and it acquitted her, stating that Bibi’s accusers “had no regard for justice”. Following her release, Bibi has claimed asylum in France and co-authored a book titled Enfin Libre! (Finally Free). 

Threat of death

At least 20 people convicted of blasphemy remain on death row in Pakistan. They include Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel, a Christian couple, university lecturer Junaid Hafeez, a Muslim, and Christian garment worker Asif Pervaiz. As recently as 8 January, three people were sentenced to death in Islamabad for social media posts deemed blasphemous to the Prophet Muhammad. 

Although no one has been put to death thus far, the threat of violence and murder by non-state actors looms large. Quite frequently, bloodthirsty religious fanatics or radical groups go on killing sprees inside and outside the courtroom, targeting the accused, their families and lawyers, or anyone who may have expressed support for them. 

The latest example is the execution of Tahir Ahmad Naseem, a member of the Ahmadi community standing trial on charges of blasphemy, who was shot six times inside a courtroom in Peshawar in July 2020. 

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Family members of Hafeez, especially his father, have been subjected to threats and ostracised, and his lawyer, Rashid Rehman, who was also the regional coordinator of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, was killed in his office weeks after being threatened inside the court for taking his case. 

And many cases don’t even make it to court. An angry mob killed Mashal Khan, a Muslim student, on the premises of Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan in April 2017 for allegedly making blasphemous remarks. Khan is among more than 75 people who have been murdered in so-called blasphemy killings since 1990. 

Another prominent case occurred in January 2011, when Punjab governor Salman Taseer was assassinated by his personal bodyguard for spearheading a nationwide campaign to reform Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. 

Blunt tool

According to the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a human rights advocacy group, 776 Muslims, 505 Ahmadis, 229 Christians and 30 Hindus were accused of blasphemy under various clauses of the law between 1987 and 2018. 

Reports suggest that accusations of blasphemy have sometimes reached the level of the absurd. For instance, someone with the first name Muhammad accused a person of throwing his identity card in the rubbish. In another case, a person was accused of blasphemy for spelling a name wrong. Another person was accused of blasphemy for designing a place of worship. 

But proving one’s innocence after being accused of blasphemy is difficult, and the social ostracism of the accused further complicates the justice process, which can stretch over many years. 

The Christian couple, Kausar and Emmanuel, have been in prison since 2013. They were found guilty of sending blasphemous texts to a mosque cleric from a phone with a SIM card registered in Kausar’s name, and sentenced to death in April 2014. 

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Amnesty International has stressed that the couple, who have maintained their innocence, have been wrongly jailed for the better part of eight years and called for their immediate and unconditional release. The high court in Lahore was supposed to hold an appeal hearing late in February but it was again postponed, with the judge citing Covid-19 pandemic restrictions. 

Political observers say the blasphemy laws in Pakistan have a history of being used against minorities, especially Christians and Ahmadis, and against individuals perceived as a threat by political parties.

The Human Rights Commision of Pakistan cautioned in September last year that there was a surge in the blasphemy cases filed against sectarian and religious minorities, particularly the Shia community. “Forty such cases have been registered in August 2020 [alone],” the advocacy group said. 

Defining blasphemy 

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are rooted in its colonial past. They were introduced to British-administered India in 1860 to curb violence between Muslims and Hindus, and adopted by Pakistan when it gained independence from Britain in 1947 and broke away from India. 

Over the ensuing decades the blasphemy laws were strengthened, with many clauses added during the tenure of General Muhammad Zia-ul Haq between 1980 and 1986. The laws have been used repeatedly in the recent past against minorities and less privileged groups, skyrocketing to at least 1 300 cases being filed between 2011 and 2015, the highest number ever lodged compared with previous decades. 

As researchers and theologists point out, defining blasphemy has become difficult. Not only is its definition vague and subjective, but the inconsistent prosecution of an alleged offence is problematic when the focus is on words and not actions. As there is no crime scene and very little objective evidence available, these laws have become a noose around the accused that gets pulled by whoever are the dominant forces at the time. 

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In Islamic jurisprudence, there is neither a clear definition of blasphemy nor any explicit prescriptions for punishment, so its application remains a question of debate among different schools of thought. 

David F Forte in Apostasy and Blasphemy in Pakistan says that the law against blasphemy has become a weapon against religious minorities that is “in direct violation of the international laws of human rights protecting religious freedoms, but its utility in political and personal vendettas makes it popular”. He goes on to say that “not only are charges of blasphemy often lodged for personal and political motives, but once brought, the accused is subjected to acts of private violence”. 

Advocating for change

Similarly, researcher Farhan Raouf points out in Modernising Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law as Hate Speech that the presence of these “dogmatic laws” leads to “discrimination” in Pakistan, providing an avenue for settling personal, economic and sectarian differences against opponents by putting them in jail for several years because of false accusations. 

“Blasphemy should not be a separate crime; instead some aspects of blasphemy should be dealt with under a more modern conception of carefully designed hate speech laws,” he says. 

Several rights groups also maintain that accusations of blasphemy continue to endanger lives in the country and are exploited repeatedly by Islamic groups for political gain.

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“The broad, vague and coercive nature of the blasphemy laws violate the rights to freedom of religion and belief and of opinion and expression,” Amnesty International has said in favour of the laws being repealed. 

Considering the sensitivity of the issue, not many politicians have openly criticised the abuse of blasphemy laws. Instead, Prime Minister Imran Khan has blamed the United States-sponsored war on terror for radicalising Pakistani society.

“Blasphemy laws should be reformed in a way that it is not misused. For the killings in the name of blasphemy law has actually happened because of the polarisation, which is either you’re pro-American and anti-Islam or you’re pro-Islam and anti-America in Pakistan,” he said.

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