Apr 25th 2017
PAKISTAN’S blasphemy laws have been a source of infamy for decades. International human-rights groups regularly document their abusive implementation. Many cases would be comic if they were not so tragic: in 2010 a doctor was arrested for tossing out the business card of a man who shared the name of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad. Nineteen people are currently on death row for blasphemy.
Members of Pakistan’s beleaguered Christian minority are used as targets by hate-mongering mullahs and others. Accusers often level false claims of blasphemy to settle land disputes, and other entirely worldly affairs. Police, scared of the mobs that round on alleged blasphemers, rarely resist pressure to lodge charges. Judges in the lower courts are unwilling to throw out even the most nonsensical cases for fear of retribution. Why doesn’t Pakistan make its blasphemy laws less prone to abuse?
In their original, colonial-era form, the laws were relatively sensible. The British rulers of undivided India wanted to stop religious offence giving rise to rioting between Hindus and Muslims. But after Pakistan became an independent country in 1947 the laws were hardened and became focused on protecting Islam. In 1986, during the military rule of an Islamist general-turned-president, Muhammad Zia ul Haq, it became a capital offence for anyone to insult Muhammad the Prophet. Religious hardliners now regard these man-made laws as being almost as sacred as the Koran itself.
In 2011 a liberal-minded governor of Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer, was shot dead by his bodyguard simply for daring to criticise what he called a “black law”. Later that year Shahbaz Bhatti, a government minister and critic of the laws, was also killed.
The killing of Taseer and Bhatti explains the reluctance of politicians to tackle the issue. It is risky even to call for the harsher punishment of people who make false blasphemy allegations. Preserving the laws as they stand has become a key issue for the leaders of the Barelvi community, otherwise moderate believers who follow a Sufi-inspired form of Islam.
An estimated 100,000 people attended the funeral prayers of Taseer’s murderer in March 2016, after he was convicted and executed. An elaborate shrine and mosque is being erected in his honour on the outskirts of Islamabad (pictured). Although politically disorganised, Barelvis are thought to comprise the majority of Pakistan’s Sunni Muslims. Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister, will not risk even modest reforms, especially in the run-up to an election expected next summer.
Without changes to the laws, charges of blasphemy are being bandied around ever more loosely. On April 14th a student at Abdul Wali Khan University, in the north-west of the country, was lynched by a vigilante mob of his fellow students, having been falsely accused of publishing blasphemous material online. More alleged blasphemers, usually convicted on flimsy evidence, will continue to languish in prison where they face the risk of death at the hands of other prisoners. That includes Asia Bibi, a poor Christian farmhand sentenced to death in 2010 on the say-so of Muslim women in her village with whom she had squabbled. Her case was at the centre of the controversy that led to the assassination of Mr Taseer.
Barelvi hardliners insist she must be executed. Most legal observers believe the evidence against her is so weak that the Supreme Court will have no choice but to throw it out. Her final appeal was scheduled for October. The judges chose to postpone the hearing to an unspecified future date.