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Pakistan must confront blasphemy-related vigilante violence

‘It increasingly feels like none of us are safe from dubious blasphemy accusations.’

This photo is taken from a low angle. There are groups of people all holding signs in protest. Akhtar Soomro/Reuters
Members of the Christian community chant slogans as they hold placards to condemn August 2023 attacks on churches and houses in Jaranwala, in Pakistan's Punjab province.

In 2006, angry mobs burned down two churches in Sukkur, my hometown in Pakistan’s Sindh province, after a Christian man was accused of blasphemy – the act of allegedly desecrating the Quran. One of those churches was attached to the Catholic school my father attended when he was a child. The day after it was attacked, we walked into the destroyed building, distraught, and joined our Christian friends as they wept. 

Standing there, it was clear to me, as a 15-year-old Muslim girl, that something had diabolically shifted in our mixed Christian, Hindu, and Muslim community.

Over the years, I realised that the attacks in 2006 were not isolated instances in Pakistan. In August this year, an armed mob of 1,200 men torched 22 churches and attacked 91 homes, businesses, and graveyards, all belonging to Christians, in the town of Jaranwala in Punjab province. Once again, their rampage was fuelled by accusations of blasphemy against two Christian residents. 

In May, a lawyer from the Ahmadi religious sect – which the government of Pakistan has persecuted and repeatedly failed to protect – was also arrested on a blasphemy charge. The lawyer was arrested because he had the word “Syed” – an honorific given to someone who can trace their lineage back to the Prophet Muhammad – in his name. 

Put simply, the lawyer was accused of blasphemy because he had the wrong name. As with so many other cases over the last decade, his legal team was subjected to online harassment and offline violence, despite being respected members of the legal profession who were simply doing their jobs.

In light of the numerous cases that have been lodged against Christians, Ahmadis, Hindus, and Muslims throughout Pakistan over the years, it increasingly feels like none of us are safe from dubious blasphemy accusations.

There have been repeated calls for the repeal of the blasphemy law – from international human rights groups and Pakistani activists, advocates, and academics – but that remains unlikely as, especially in times of flagging popularity, politicians continue to make public pronouncements about their support for blasphemy legislation.

In the meantime, living with the status quo is untenable. For Pakistan to begin to address blasphemy-related vigilante violence and repair the schisms it creates, we need a society-wide effort – including action by the government, educational authorities, civil society, and the media – to confront blasphemy-driven narratives, build safeguards into the criminal justice system, and emphasise the religious harmony that generations before us took for granted. 

The origins of Pakistan’s blasphemy law

By definition, blasphemy is the act of “insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God” or something that is considered sacred. Blasphemy laws have been present in societies throughout history. 

Pakistan’s blasphemy law was inherited from British colonial authorities, and it was later Islamised by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the military ruler of the country from 1978 to 1988 who was known for his hardline interpretation of Islam, and who hardened the law to include capital punishment.

“This violence, intimidation, and harassment shows that Pakistan’s blasphemy law lacks essential safeguards.”

Since then, the blasphemy law has led to violations of freedom of religion and belief through the intimidation of members of religious minorities, dissenters, converts, or reformers, and an exponential increase in blasphemy-related vigilante violence.

This violence, intimidation, and harassment shows that Pakistan’s blasphemy law lacks essential safeguards, such as evidentiary standards and robust witness protection – underlining why capital punishment, for starters, must be abolished.

The majority of blasphemy accusations, including the ones that led to the church burnings in my childhood home, stem from property issues or other personal vendettas, and too often they lead to mob violence well before there is any legal proof of guilt. 

The most high-profile moment came in 2011, when Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s only Christian state minister at the time, was assassinated by the Pakistani Taliban in Islamabad after he spoke out against the death penalty for anyone accused of disrespecting the Islamic faith. 

Bhatti’s killing came only months after Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, was killed by his bodyguard after he spoke in defence of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. Taseer’s killer, Mumtaz Qadri, an elite police commando, was hanged in 2016, but the execution led to protests by thousands of his supporters.

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif alluded to the trend of blasphemy accusations being used in personal grievances in 2017 and called for the punishment of those who weaponise the law, but the accusations persist.

The way blasphemy laws operate in Pakistan negates the presumption of innocence and violates fair trial rights. Witnesses often refuse to articulate the alleged act of blasphemy for fear of committing further blasphemy, lawyers are afraid of representing an alleged blasphemer, and judges are afraid of hearing – let alone deciding – the case. In other words, the blasphemy laws effectively disempower the criminal justice system.

Fear, violence, and feeling like the ‘other’ 

Blasphemy-related violence occurs against the backdrop of a state struggling with its religious identity and living with cultural and legal legacies introduced during General Zia’s regime. This has led to an antagonistic and disconnected relationship between communities and an atmosphere of fear, intolerance, and discrimination felt by minority communities in Pakistan.

In 2015, I conducted criminological research on the phenomenon of blasphemy-related violence and found that citizens commit vigilante violence because they believe blasphemy is a crime that deeply affects their morality. Defenders of this type of mob violence often feel that, although blasphemy is legally prohibited, the state is ineffective in upholding the prohibition and therefore protecting their religious sentiments. 

Privately, police officers told me the violence was wrong, but they also sympathised with the perpetrators and felt that some action was necessary to protect Islamic religious beliefs. A police officer in Sukkur said, “If your religion is insulted, it’s unbearable. We are an Islamic country; our religion should be respected. If it’s not respected, how can anyone tolerate it? These are raw human emotions.”

“It’s just a simple thing, in restaurants they keep a separate glass of water for non-Muslims and Muslims. You see this form of discrimination everywhere.” 

Many police officers felt betrayed by the judicial and political systems, with their low conviction and high corruption rates. They themselves appeared distrusting of the judicial system, mirroring the sentiments of vigilante groups. 

In 2022, Pakistan ranked 140 out of 180 nations in Transparency International’s corruption index and 129 out of 140 countries in the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index. Ultimately, Pakistan’s criminal justice system suffers from a crisis of legitimacy and mistrust, which contributes to the public’s violent response to blasphemy accusations. 

For my study in 2015, I interviewed Christian friends I grew up with in Sukkur. I recently revisited our conversations, and it appears nothing has changed in nearly a decade. They unanimously describe feeling society is unequal and discriminatory towards them, something they are taught to be cognisant of from birth in order to protect themselves. 

Yaqoub* ,a 40-year-old Christian man, told me in 2015 that some of his earliest memories are of feeling like an outsider, the “other”, in Pakistani society. “It’s just a simple thing, in restaurants they keep a separate glass of water for non-Muslims and Muslims. You see this form of discrimination everywhere,” he explained. 

This sense of being an outcast in your own country has led many Christians to find ways to conceal or downplay their Christianity.

“Our names are purposefully Muslim-sounding, so we are not identified immediately. As soon as they know we are Christians, we don’t get the spot in school or university, or the job later in life,” said Adam*, who works in a school.

The fear of overstepping certain cultural lines has also led Christians to constantly monitor their speech, said Mariam*. “We teach our children that they must stay away from any talk of religion,” she said. “If in class a child is talking about a subject related to religion, you must not get involved.”

‘The attackers have shamed us’

Since the violence in Sukkur in 2006, it has become clear to me that all state and non-state structures aimed at interfaith harmony have broken down, including educational programmes, neighbourhood peace committees, community policing, and deradicalisation programmes. 

Social media is also increasingly being used – with impunity – to fuel the violence, and online attacks too often translate to offline violence. 

I have spoken to friends with large social media followings – men and women, those prominent and those less so – and many of them are afraid of the extremism they see online. They self-police, avoid certain topics and imagery, and fear the wrong type of attention. The fear of blasphemy accusations has already pervaded the online space in Pakistan, and anyone who draws the wrong attention feels vulnerable. This is particularly concerning given that prosecution of blasphemy leads to mob violence in Pakistan. 

After the Jaranwala tragedy in August, Hafiz Tahir Mahmood Ashrafi, the chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, the umbrella organisation that brings together leaders from different Islamic sects, cried on national television, apologising profusely and condemning the attack in no uncertain terms. “The attackers have shamed us, for which I apologise to Christians all over the world, including Pakistan,” he said.

It was the first time a prominent Muslim religious figure had stood next to a Christian priest and expressed solidarity on a national level. It shouldn’t have to take a tragedy of this magnitude to elicit gestures of support, but perhaps it is a first step. 

Edited by Ali M. Latifi.

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