Faith turns fatal as blasphemy laws ignite unchecked extremism in Pakistan

A 2018 protest in Geneva against the blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Image by Vivek Ravikumar via Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 4.0.

A 2018 protest in Geneva against the blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Image by Vivek Ravikumar via Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 4.0.

With a political landscape marred by instability, deepening economic crises, and rampant social unrest, Pakistan has its share of challenges. Against this backdrop, the issue of religious extremism and the misuse of blasphemy laws continues to escalate, claiming lives and perpetuating fear. Citing these instances, activists and human rights defenders accuse Pakistan of being “an authoritarian state.”

The June 20 lynching of a tourist from Sialkot on accusations of blasphemy against the Quran, is a stark reminder of how these dynamics violently unfold on the ground. Though the matter is yet to be fully investigated, multiple narratives have emerged. The victim, who was from the Punjab province, was on vacation in northern Pakistan's Swat Valley when he was beaten to death by a mob after being accused of desecrating the Holy Quran, the Islamic holy book.

According to local media, “the suspect denied committing blasphemy in police custody,” but was not shifted to a “safe” spot. The mob later stormed the police station and set his body ablaze. Thus far, the authorities have remained silent, with the police merely lodging an first information report (FIR) and moving 23 suspects who they believe to be involved in the lynching to an undisclosed location.

Lynchings are not uncommon after an accusation of blasphemy, which is punishable by death in Pakistan. Even unfounded accusations can incite protests and mob violence against the alleged perpetrators. Human rights critics have long argued that minorities are often the target of these allegations.

Around 96 percent of Pakistan's population is Muslim. Other countries, including Iran, Brunei, and Mauritania, also impose capital punishment for insulting religion.

History of draconian blasphemy laws

The blasphemy laws enforced in Pakistan were first introduced in 1860 by the British government during its colonial rule (1858–1947). In 1927, following the famous case of Ilm-ud-Din, a Muslim carpenter who killed Mahashe Rajpal for publishing the book “Rangila Rasul,” which was considered derogatory towards Muslims and the Holy Prophet, the Indian Penal Code 295A was added, defining the punishment for insulting religious feelings.

Ever since the partition of the Indian subcontinent after its independence from the British Empire, cases of blasphemy have been actively reported. However, a significant surge in such cases was observed during the military dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq, from September 1978 to August 1988. During his regime, additional clauses were added to the blasphemy laws, making minority groups more vulnerable to abuse.

The regime also introduced Zia's version of Islamization. At that time, Soviet forces had invaded Afghanistan, and Pakistan witnessed the rise of Wahhabism, a conservative Islamic reform movement that has nurtured the seeds of extremist narratives in the country ever since.

Religious minorities in Pakistan — most notably Christians, Ahmadis, and Hindus — have been victims of the misuse of blasphemy laws. These communities are frequently charged with blasphemy based on accusations that are either unfounded or lack evidence. They are often subject to mob justice, without due process in the court system. Not only have Pakistan's blasphemy laws been used to victimize minority groups, but they have also been deployed to settle personal scores, often against Muslim minority sects.

According to a report by the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), between 1947 and 2021, 95 people were killed by mobs or through other extrajudicial means after being accused of blasphemy. Over the past three decades, more than 1,500 people have been charged with blasphemy.

The political-religious conundrum

Of the 71 countries that criminalise blasphemy, 32 are majority Muslim, though the punishment and enforcement of these laws vary. Blasphemy is punishable by death in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania, and Saudi Arabia. Among non-Muslim-majority countries, the harshest blasphemy laws are in Italy, where the maximum penalty is three years in prison.

In all states that criminalise blasphemy, the laws are directly controlled and enforced by the state — but in Pakistan, the scenario is different. The military establishment and religious institutions are the two most powerful and influential forces in the country. Conservative ulemas — bodies of Muslim scholars regarded as having specialist knowledge of Islamic theology — base their support for blasphemy and apostasy laws on a few reported sayings of the Prophet, known as Hadith, primarily: “Whoever changes his religion, kill him.”

As the influence of Islamization spread in the region, these two forces collaborated to transform the country’s social, political, and economic landscape, which allowed religious influence to permeate every aspect of life. Consequently, spurious blasphemy allegations are often used to pressure opponents in disputes, including by top political leaders. For instance, former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer’s killer was lauded by many, and his murder was followed by the rise of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a far-right party with widespread support that calls for blasphemers to be beheaded.

Although the TLP was outlawed in 2021, government sources have said that some of the group's members were involved in the recent violence. The TLP has denied these allegations.

According to the data compiled in 2023 by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, there are at least 53 people in custody across Pakistan on blasphemy charges.

Can the perpetrators be held accountable?

The state has often ignored sectarian militancy or, when it does take action, relied solely on lethal force. It also tends to pass fabricated legislation in response to various hybrid tactics employed by Islamic scholars and their sympathizers.

Sectarian strife has remained a challenge to the Pakistani state and a danger to its citizens. While large-scale sectarian attacks, which killed thousands in the 1980s and 1990s, are now less frequent, they have taken on a more diverse and complex form. Moreover, major Islamic sects in the country have united in the modern era, promoting the same stance on blasphemy in the region.

In Pakistan, religion is often misinterpreted by the youth. In an in-person interview, one university student observed, “Most of us mishear a religious leader referring to Christians and think local Christians have defamed the Quran, and then lynch them. This is a societal problem. Extremism, in a wider sense, is gangrene in Pakistan.”

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