In the early days of the summer, residents living along Pakistan’s Jhelum River in northern Punjab faced the frustration of standstill traffic and disconnected phone and internet lines. It didn’t take long for them to discover that this was a result of trenches being dug, at the direction of the federal government, to prevent the “Save Pakistan” march from advancing to the nation’s capital. In Pakistan, the long-march model of public protest is often used by political parties to decry government corruption. But this time, the march was primarily focused on one aim: strengthening blasphemy laws.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are already some of the harshest in the world — it is one of only seven countries that makes the crime of blasphemy punishable by death. Even so, the organizers of the march — Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), an extremist political party — felt that the scope of the existing laws was still not broad enough and that it ought to be expanded.
The government bowed to their demands. Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy regime has now become even more extreme.
Open Doors currently rates Pakistan the seventh-worst country in the world for Christians. They and other religious minorities will now face even greater threats to their already precarious positions. Mob violence and pretextual accusations of blasphemy promise to get worse.
In January of this year, Pakistan’s parliament passed an amendment to the country’s blasphemy laws, making insults to the Prophet Mohammed’s wives, companions, and close relatives a non-bailable offence punishable by three to ten years in prison, along with a fine. Following the deal made with the TLP last month, the government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has introduced further expansions of the law, which will now impose a criminal charge of terrorism on anyone accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammed. The government has also committed to expedite blasphemy trials, crack down on blasphemous content on social-media websites, and create a counter-blasphemy government department.
Equating blasphemy with terrorism means that victims of these laws will now face limited legal protections and an increased risk of violence and arbitrary detention. Even the country’s supreme court has recognized that blasphemy cases are often registered for “mischievous purposes or on account of ulterior motives” and that the publicity inherently associated with blasphemy allegations is likely to “jeopardize a fair trial.” The famous cases of Asia Bibi and Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel show how unfounded and pretextual blasphemy accusations can be. The latest amendments will only perpetuate an ongoing pattern of vigilante justice.
Since 1986, when Pakistan instituted the death penalty for blasphemy, more than 2,000 cases of alleged blasphemy have been recorded, while at least 88 people accused of blasphemy have been murdered. And the trends haven’t changed — so far this year, at least 59 cases of blasphemy have been reported, while four individuals have been murdered under such allegations. They include a Muslim cleric who was lynched by a mob two months ago, after remarks he made at a political rally were deemed by onlookers to be blasphemous.
But the greatest risk from the mere existence of these laws is posed to the more than 8.6 million members of minority religions in Pakistan. They account for more than half of the country’s blasphemy cases. Just two weeks ago a Christian man, Haroon Shahzad, was accused of blasphemy simply for posting a Bible verse on his Facebook page. The news of his alleged crime was reportedly spread over loudspeakers, causing hundreds of Christians in the area to flee their homes in fear of violent protests.
In April, a Christian woman, Musarat Bibi, illiterate, was accused of burning pages of the Koran. In May, two Christian teenagers were arrested on blasphemy charges after a complaint that they referred to a puppy as “Muhammad Ali.” Another Christian man, 22-year-old Noman Masih, was handed the death penalty last month, despite a lack of evidence of his alleged crime.
By negotiating with an organization that had previously been banned as a terrorist entity, the Pakistani government has abdicated any authority it had to maintain law and order over its volatile citizenry. The most recent threats made by another terrorist organization, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, scapegoating Pakistan’s Christian communities in retaliation for a Koran-burning incident in Sweden, are indicative of the consequences of appeasing extremism. At the United Nations, the Pakistani government is now using the Koran-burning incident to promote the criminalization of “blasphemy.”
Pakistan’s worrying moves on blasphemy are gaining international attention. A U.S. religious-freedom watchdog agency called on the State Department to impose targeted sanctions on Pakistani government officials and agencies for the country’s severe violations of religious freedom. Meanwhile, the EU is renegotiating Pakistan’s GSP Plus preferred trade status with a special focus on concerns about its systematic human-rights violations.
Additional international pressure must be added to bolster voices of reason within Pakistan, those calling on the government to uphold its international obligations instead of cowering to violent extremists. Riaz Pirzada, Pakistan’s minister of human rights, has called on the prime minister to withdraw enhanced punishments for blasphemy, and well-known human-rights attorney Asad Jamal has raised concerns over the contradictory nature of the latest amendments to the law and their consequences.
Barbaric laws promote barbaric behavior. The Pakistani government has clearly indicated that violent agitators are only one long march away from accomplishing their objective. The rest of the world as well, not only for its own sake but to prevent the massive regional instability that could result if extremism wins, must stand up for the fundamental freedoms of expression and religion or belief in Pakistan. The Pakistani government must be held accountable for its dangerous decisions before these compromises lead to damage that cannot be undone.