Blasphemy And The Character Of Pakistan

Pakistan's application of Section 295-C to non-Muslims promotes mob violence, disrespect for the law, and damage to Islam's reputation

Blasphemy And The Character Of Pakistan

Pakistan has the world's second-strictest blasphemy laws after Iran. Out of 71 countries which have criminalised blasphemy, 32 are Muslim majority. Among non-Muslim-majority countries, the harshest blasphemy laws exist in Italy, where the maximum penalty is three years in prison. Pakistan, however, is one of 12 Muslim-majority countries which permits capital punishment for blasphemy against Islam, yet no one has ever been legally executed in the country.

Nevertheless, the crimes committed by those accused of blasphemy in Pakistan have been related with, for instance, a water dispute in a village, the design of a place of worship, spelling errors, the naming of a child, burning a (non-religious) talisman or sharing a picture on social media. The blasphemy trials of two Christian women, Aasia Bibi and Rimsha Masih, have been well-publicised around the world. In many cases, not only the prime accused but the family and lawyers of the accused, and even judges, have been targeted. The issue of blasphemy becomes more critical, as what is vital in Pakistan is jostling for position as the true, passionate, authentic, and representative of Sunni Islam, that has given blasphemy charges its real force in political life.

As of 2023, at least 53 people were in custody across Pakistan on blasphemy charges. But vigilante mobs have lynched numerous people even before a case is put on trial. The blasphemy accused have been burned to death, hanged by mobs, hacked to death on the side of the road and shot dead in courtrooms, among other forms of extrajudicial murders.

Not only common Pakistanis but ministers and prominent political figures have also been murdered in the name of blasphemy. Punjab's Governor Salmaan Taseer, as well as Federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, were brutally killed on different occasions in 2011 for raising concerns about viciousness related to blasphemy accusations. Bhatti was assassinated by unidentified terrorists who fired 30 shots at him and managed to flee, while Taseer was murdered by one of his bodyguards, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, who was upset by the Governor's attempts to achieve minor revisions to the Blasphemy Ordinance as well as his advocacy for Aasia Bibi.

Interestingly, the blasphemy laws were originally promulgated by the British government in 1860. Initially, four blasphemy laws, IPC 295, 296, 297, and 298, were introduced. In 1927, IPC 295 was supplemented by 295-A due to the well-known case of Ilm-ud-Din, a Muslim carpenter who killed Mahashe Rajpal for publishing the book Rangila Rasul. The book was considered derogatory towards Muslims and the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Ilm-ud-Din was arrested, prosecuted, and eventually executed. Following independence in 1947, Pakistan retained the penal code inherited from the British. During the period spanning from 1947-1977, there are only ten reported judgments that relate to offences against religion.

In the 1980s, General Ziaul Haq, who considered himself to be the guardian of Sunni Islam, inserted Clauses 295-B and 295-C into the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC). Clause 295-B convicts anyone who defiles, damages, or desecrates the Quran with life imprisonment. Clause 295-C forbids derogatory remarks against the Prophet (PBUH), and such acts will be punishable by death, life imprisonment and fine. 

Clause 295-C was passed based on a claim of ijma (consensus among Islamic scholars) that such an offence is subject to a hadd (divinely fixed) punishment. Yet there is no consensus among Islamic scholars on the death penalty for non-Muslims who insult the Prophet (PBUH). Some early Islamic scholars held there was no punishment at all in such cases, and most said it was a ta'zir offense, i.e., subject to discretionary punishment or none at all. Under Islamic law, whether and how ta'zir punishment is practised depends on the interests of the common good (maslaha). Pakistan's application of Section 295-C to non-Muslims promotes mob violence, disrespect for the law, and damage to Islam's reputation.

Later, in 1991, the Federal Shariat Court held that the alternative punishment of life imprisonment provided in 295-C was repugnant to the injunctions of Islam. The court further directed the federation to add a provision to the effect that any act of blasphemy upon other prophets (RA) should also be punishable with death. The government was told to amend Section 295-C by April 30, 1991. The federation filed an appeal against the FSC verdict, but it was withdrawn.

In the socio-political scenario of Pakistan, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), comprising Barelvi followers and capable of mobilising thousands of supporters, has turned out to be a significant player, especially with respect to blasphemy-related violence

Not only Pakistani citizens but foreign nationals have also been harassed and killed within Pakistan due to blasphemy charges. In December 2021, a violent mob in Sialkot tortured, killed, and then set on fire a Sri Lankan citizen, Priyanth Diyawandana, a Buddhist, who was accused of blasphemy over some posters he had allegedly taken down. He worked as General Manager in a factory of Rajco Industries in Sialkot.

In July 2020, Tahir Ahmed Naseem, a US citizen on trial for blasphemy in Pakistan, was shot dead in front of a judge, while appearing in a court in Peshawar. In May 2023, a Chinese national working on the hydropower project in Dasu, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was arrested after he was accused by workers of making derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and Islam. An enraged mob took to the streets following this allegation, blocking the Karakoram Highway. The protestors demanded his arrest and prosecution on blasphemy charges. Reportedly, the police reached the spot and saved the Chinese from a violent mob attack, and he was released later on.

In July 2022, Casablanca - Samsung faced blasphemy charges from Islamists over an anti-Islam QR code and a Wi-Fi device that resulted in several protests and acts of vandalism. The protests erupted after Wi-Fi devices installed at the Star City Mall in Karachi reportedly posted insults against Prophet Muhammad's (PBUH) companions. Following the protests, the Karachi police shut down all Wi-Fi devices and took into custody at least 27 Samsung employees. Earlier, on December 31, 2021, a man threatened Pepsi for printing a QR code with the name of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) on its 7-Up soft drink bottles. The man threatened a truck driver of the drinks manufacturer with terrible consequences if the company did not remove the QR code from the 7-Up bottle. On questioning, the man, who identified himself as a mullah, insisted that the QR code was, in fact, the name of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and that they would burn the truck if the logo was not removed.

In the socio-political scenario of Pakistan, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), comprising Barelvi followers and capable of mobilising thousands of supporters, has turned out to be a significant player, especially with respect to blasphemy-related violence. TLP's violence-prone activism and politics emanate from its late leader and founder Khadim Rizvi's open provocation to mass protests. 

TLP was born in 2015 out of a complaint movement to pursue the release of Mumtaz Qadri, who had murdered Salmaan Taseer, over his calls to change the existing blasphemy legislation. Taseer's attitude had angered the Barelvi community to stage protests against Taseer and in favour of blasphemy laws. Barelvi clerics accused Taseer of committing blasphemy (for criticising blasphemy laws) and professed him Wajib-ul-Qatal (worthy of being murdered). Ensuing Taseer's murder, Barelvi religious scholars issued a fatwa that addressed Qadri, his killer, as a hero and advised common people of Pakistan to boycott Taseer's funeral prayers. Thus, TLP started as a movement, i.e. Tehreek Rihai Mumtaz Qadri (Movement to free Mumtaz Qadri). After Qadri's hanging in 2016, the movement was renamed as Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasoolullah (TLYRA), which then altered into a political party, i.e. TLP.

TLP's success in garnering support from individual sections of Pakistani society was due to two main factors. First, the state's pursuit for Sufi groups to push back against Deobandi radical groups in the aftermath of Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) uprising in Islamabad and the Army School attack in Peshawar. TLP, along with numerous other groups, fell in that group. Second, the TLP benefited from the divisions between the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government and the 'deep state'. The military establishment's efforts to prop up various religious groups to weaken the PML-N government allowed TLP's rise in political space.

The obsession with proving 'my interpretation of Islam is purer than yours', has resulted in sectarian violence and crimes in the name of blasphemy

When TLP considers its demands are not being met within the political domain, it takes to the streets to exercise pressure on the government. A case in point is the protest demonstrations carried out by TLP on Asia Bibi's release by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in October 2018. On the political pitch, TLP supports efforts to reinforce the blasphemy laws while differing the pro-minority policies. For example, TLP's election manifesto promotes the death penalty for anyone suggesting and recommending amendments to blasphemy laws of Pakistan. 

Moreover, TLP has employed social media platforms like Twitter (now known as 'X'), Facebook, and YouTube to increase its support base and spread its ideological narrative with a high degree of success. While most of TLP's support base comprises the working-class, social media has won it some pockets of support among the educated, urban class as well. 

Going back to the Pakistan movement, in one of his speeches, Qaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah reflected upon the idea of Pakistan: "Remember we are building up a state which is going to play its full part in the destinies of the whole Islamic World. We, therefore, need a wider outlook, an outlook which transcends the boundaries of provinces, limited nationalism and racialism. We must develop a sense of patriotism which should galvanise and weld us all into one united and strong nation…" 

Nevertheless, his dream of Pakistan as a united, progressive and Islamic nation, without any scope for bias and discrimination, championing the cause of Muslim countries all over the world, has become a far-fetched reality. The obsession with proving 'my interpretation of Islam is purer than yours', has resulted in sectarian violence and crimes in the name of blasphemy. These are scars on the face of the nation and have tarnished the pluralistic cultural character of Pakistan.

The author is a Research Fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management. She has co-authored the book, “The Taliban Misrule in Afghanistan: Suicide Brigades, the IS-K Military Strength and its Suicide Vehicle Industry”, along with Musa Khan Jalalzai. She has been writing on various socio-political issues of Pakistan for over a decade. She can be reached at