The Platform

2011 protests in Lahore, Pakistan against the U.S. and changes to blasphemy laws.

In Pakistan, religious minorities have had to navigate through complicated and complex legal hurdles to exercise their religious choices.

This concern is exemplified in the extrajudicial killing of religious minorities suspected of committing blasphemy. For example, the mob-killing of Priyanka Kumara, a Sri-Lankan factory manager last December. Another instance was an angry mob that stoned to death a mentally challenged man in a remote village in Punjab over the alleged desecration of a Qur’an.

According to data on blasphemy-related crimes in 2021, eighty-four blasphemy cases were filed against Muslims, Ahmadis, Hindus, and Christians. Pakistan officials have reacted strongly to the abovementioned acts, condemning these acts as “barbaric” and according to official reports, all those involved in these very public killings were apprehended. However, violence against religious minorities has continued. For example, in 2018, 31 members of religious minorities have been killed, 58 were injured, and 25 faced judicial punishment for committing blasphemy. Judicial persecution of blasphemers has also seen an unprecedented rise. For example, most recently, a university professor was condemned to death by a court on charges of blasphemy.

Anti-blasphemy laws are rooted in Pakistan’s constitution. Although the constitution guarantees freedom of speech, this is subjected to “reasonable restrictions.” These restrictions in the context of religion are contained in Penal Code 1860, which prescribes stringent penalties in cases of blasphemy.

In almost all cases, anti-blasphemy laws are applied discriminatorily to members belonging to different religions. Similarly, anti-blasphemy laws are problematic for other reasons. Firstly, these laws make the government arbiter of what is blasphemous or offensive. Secondly, they also empower states to ascribe sacredness to personalities and books of one religion and refuse similar status to personalities and books of other religions. Lastly, these laws also subject individuals to sanctions imposed by the government and also to violence for committing offenses against Islam.

The question, however, as exemplified in mob killings, is why do some individuals take the law into their own hands? The public does not trust the courts to inflict appropriate punishment on the accused. For example, the Supreme Court was criticized for acting as a puppet of Western governments and conspiring against Islam when it acquitted and released Asia Bibi when she was accused of blasphemy. It is important to note that blasphemy is more political than religious as the Qur’an is a bit vague on the topic.

It is important to consider the religion-political nexus to understand the existence of a radical attitude toward sacrilegious acts in the public domain. One striking example is the establishment and growth of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, which traces its genesis to the demand for the release of Mumtaz Qadri, who murdered Salman Taseer, the former governor of the Punjab Province. Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan has used violence as an instrument for defending Islam. One religious scholar explains: “[Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan] have presented themselves as the sole flag bearers of the blasphemy issue, and violence is a currency which sells in today’s times.”

Because of its aggressive and violent political strategy, it has become a major political pressure group. Its success can be gauged from the 2018 by-election results where it secured 8% of the vote and emerged as a major powerbroker. The inability of the government to take authentic actions against Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan has further radicalized the political landscape of the country.

As Hussain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., notes: “There is still an absence of authenticity in Pakistan wanting to make a clean break with religious extremism. The action, somehow, feels insufficient to shut down the massive jihadi infrastructure and to limit the radical Islamist sentiment that backs it.”

The violent anti-blasphemy environment in Pakistan can be traced to several things. Political parties hide behind religion to escape from their failures. Weak governments have succumbed to pressures exerted by radical religious factions for introducing and enacting discriminatory legislation. The military has used radical religious parties to exert pressure on democratically elected governments. The judiciary has been more responsive to popular sentiments than to facts of the blasphemy-related litigation brought before it. Therefore, a politically responsive and economic-efficient government is necessary to neutralize the radicalized blasphemy landscape through the introduction of religious-neutral legislation in the country which should be founded on principles of inclusivity, tolerance, and co-existence.

Muhammad Azam is a development practitioner in Pakistan. He is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Sustainable International Development from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University. He is interested in land planning, digital geographies, and infrastructure-development.