Faisal mosque dominates the landscape of Islamabad

Nearly a quarter of countries in the world have some kind of blasphemy laws in place. However, only some come as close to the extreme blasphemy laws of Pakistan. This has become more apparent because of the widespread support for these laws that the people of Pakistan have seen in more recent years. Mashal Khan, a student at Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan, Pakistan was killed in 2017 by a mob after being accused of posting blasphemous content on Facebook. The attackers were none other than his fellow university students. Unfortunately, this kind of vigilante justice has been increasing in Pakistan but an incident on a university campus was wholly unexpected. 

Roots in the Raj

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are deeply rooted in British colonial rule in India. The British brought over these laws from Europe and integrated them into the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in 1860. The blasphemy laws intended to maintain social stability in a country with a diverse group of inhabitants. Originally, these laws protected all religious minorities in India by ensuring that they would not be discriminated against by the Hindu majority.  In 1927, Section 295-A was added to the IPA, specifically in response to rising tensions between the country’s two largest religious groups, Hindus and Muslims. Section 295-A added the requirement of “malicious intent” to the previous Section 153-A which penalized “acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” During the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the newly independent country of Pakistan adopted parts of the Indian Penal Code for their legislation. 

The 1980s ushered in an era of “Islamization” all over the Middle East. This was a result of failed governments and frustration with foreign intervention. Pakistan itself went through a dramatic change under the military dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq from 1978 until his death in 1988. The process of “Islamization” included making changes to the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and denying the Muslim identity of Pakistan’s Ahmadi minority. Zia changed the laws to only protect Islam and Muslim beliefs. He also introduced the death penalty as punishment for blasphemy. This meant that the blasphemy laws no longer protected minority rights but rather solidified the Muslim majority identity of the country. These laws penalize “defiling” the Quran, deliberately outraging religious sentiment, and insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

Unique in its nature, Pakistan was created solely on the basis of religious freedom for Muslims. In its early years, the rights of Pakistan’s minority religions were protected by these blasphemy laws. From 1947 to 1977, there were only 10 reported judgments on blasphemy charges. A lot of the complaints from this period were dismissed as being misunderstandings or personal grievances. Most of these cases were of Muslims accusing other Muslims or non-Muslims accusing Muslims. This demonstrates that the laws did in fact function as a way to protect the rights of minorities. Since the 1980s, there has been a drastic increase in these numbers. 

Righteous Vigilantism 

Today, the majority of blasphemy cases are based on false accusations. The laws have been mobilized as a means to settle personal scores such as property disputes. The widely publicized case of a Christian woman named Asia Bibi illustrates this problem.  In 2010, she was convicted of blasphemy and spent 8 years on death row before she was acquitted in 2018. After further investigation, it became clear that the woman who accused Asia Bibi had an ongoing property dispute with her. This was not an isolated incident. Those accused tend to spend years in jail before they can go to trial, often being abused or even killed in the process. 

While in more than 80 percent of the reported cases the accused are acquitted, the heart of the problem lies in the wider ideology of certain segments of the Pakistani public. The culture of intolerance has created an environment where killing a person who has been accused of blasphemy is being framed as an act of righteousness. Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of the province of Punjab who spoke out in support of Asia Bibi, was murdered by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, in 2011. While Qadri himself was hanged for his crime in 2016, the huge turnout at his funeral and public support of his actions show that the issue lies in public ideology. Many extremists view him as a “shaheed” or martyr, and a national hero. These are the very people who think it is their “religious duty” to kill those who blaspheme against Islam, especially when the law fails to do so. Not only are the accused attacked, but the people who criticize the blasphemy laws and the lawyers who take on blasphemy cases have been targeted as well. Judges in these cases are also threatened or pressured through intimidation tactics. 

This problem has been exacerbated by the new emergence of politicized Islam in the country. The new Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) political party is an example of this. Founded in 2015 following the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, this far-right “Islamist” party mobilized masses in protests against Asia Bibi being acquitted. Alarmingly, in 2018 TLP won 2 seats in the province of Sindh. Soon after protests against the acquittal of Asis Bibi erupted, the government cracked down on supporters of the party and since then the group has been “politically neutralized.” 

These angry protesters and TLP are promoting hate and violence under the guise of protecting religion. The future of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws remains unclear because of the widespread support for them. Some argue that the laws are meant to prevent people from vigilantism, but it has become clear that in practice they only serve to protect and embolden those who wish to take the law into their own hands. 

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