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Equivocated Intentions: Blasphemy Laws In Pakistan


By Amina Kator-Mubarez

"Bad laws are the worst form of tyranny."

—Edmund Burke, 18th century Irish statesman

General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq's cunning argument for the "Islamisation" of Pakistan in the 1970s enabled him to weaken his secular opponents and consolidate a decade of authoritarian rule over the country. His dogmatic Islamist reforms—especially with the amendment of the blasphemy laws—transformed the fabric of Pakistani society. Although the blasphemy laws originated in British-controlled India in 1860 to deter religious persecution of heterogeneous groups, Zia-ul-Haq's tainted amendment of the laws paved the way for institutionalized socio-religious intolerance and violent extremism in Pakistan.1 These egregious laws continue to permit shocking abuses against Muslims and minorities, as well as worsen Islamic radicalization not only in Pakistan, but in other countries as well.2 Militant groups in Pakistan have also exploited the draconian laws to legitimize their moral authority and galvanize flourishing conservative Islamic groups already sympathetic to the Jihadi cause.

This article will outline the content of Pakistan's blasphemy laws, and discuss the adverse effects they have had on minority groups and dissident Muslims in the country, as well as the veneer of legitimacy they have given to extremists both in Pakistan and its neighbouring country, Afghanistan. This increasing radicalization of elements in Pakistani society not only has had ripple effects in Afghanistan, but also has at times jeopardized Pakistani relations with the United States. The article will explain the failed attempts at repealing the laws, and provide some recommendations to improve the laws as they currently stand.

Pakistan's Penal Code: Blasphemy Laws

The coup d'état in 1977 that ousted Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's populist Pakistan Peoples' Party (PPP) and installed the Zia-ul-Haq regime emboldened Pakistan's religious extremists. Deviating from the country's pluralistic and secular origins, Zia-ul-Haq institutionalized Islamic tenets and laid the foundations for theocratic rule in the country by creating the Federal Shariat Court. With his support, this body used its religious authority to examine existing Pakistani laws for their obedience to Islamic teachings. Furthermore, he sought to imbed Sharia ordinances within Pakistan's constitution, and eventually succeeded in orchestrating Sharia’s gradual supremacy over the constitution itself.4Consequently, the "Federal Shariat Court, [was] accorded wide discretionary power, [and] became the state's legal instrument to legitimize subsequent criminal ordinances," also referred to as Pakistan Penal Codes (PPC).5 An amalgamation of Sharia and English law, the PPC explicitly state the punishments for multifarious offences in Pakistan.

The blasphemy laws that are the focus of this article sit within Sections 295–298 of the Penal Code, titled, "Of Offences Relating to Religion."6 During his decade-long rule, Zia-ul-Haq significantly strengthened the blasphemy laws through a series of martial law amendments; five additional clauses were inserted. Following are Sections 295-B, 295-C, and 298-A of the Penal Code [emphasis added]:

295B. [President's Order 1 of 1982] Defiling, etc., of Holy Qur'an:

Whoever willfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur'an or of an extract there from or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.

295C. [Criminal Law Amendment Act, (111 of 1986), S. 2]

Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet: Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine. Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.

298A. [Pakistan Penal Code (Second Amendment) Ordinance (XLIV of 1980), S. 2] Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of holy personages:

Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of any wife (Ummul Momineen), or members of the family (Ahle-bait), of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him), or any of the righteous Caliphs (Khulafa-e-Rashideen) or companions (Sahaaba) of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a termw hich may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.

Sections 298-B and 298-C of the Penal Code assert that certain minority sects—namely the Shiite Ahmadi community—is prohibited from referring to themselves as Muslims or using Islamic terminology, names, and practices under threat of imprisonment and fines.7 Ahmadis can also be punished if they "in any manner whatsoever outrage the religious feelings of Muslims."8

Violence against Minorities

Zia-ul-Haq's amendments to the blasphemy laws have legitimized bigotry under the guise of safeguarding religion, and have produced conditions ideal for the pursuit of vendettas. The laws are inherently flawed for several reasons: First, there is no filtering mechanism to prevent individuals from misusing the laws, considering only scant evidence is required to convict an individual of blasphemy. Second, the laws do not require "a link between an offence and the intention, so that even an unintentional act can also be treated as a willful one."9 Consequently, from 1984 onward, the number of blasphemy cases, especially against minority groups who bear the brunt of these egregious laws, reached more than 5,500.10 To date, the Pakistani court has not executed any convicted blasphemer; however, the trajectory of violence against offenders by vigilantes continues to escalate.11 The Pakistani government and army, both of which have an historical affinity to Sunni fundamentalism, have been utterly apathetic with regard to providing security for the accused.12

Following enactment of the PPC anti-Ahmadi laws amended by Zia-ul-Haq in 1984, extremist Muslims unleashed unprecedented levels of violence against the Ahmadi community.13 Hatred toward Ahmadis by orthodox Muslims derives from the Ahmadi rejection of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as the Khatam-e-Nabuwat (final prophet). Ahmadis claim Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, India, was the Messiah foretold by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).14 Declared heretics in Pakistan, Ahmadis have been the "most persecuted Muslim religious group," and a number of Ahmadis accused of blasphemy have been murdered by lynch mobs, especially if they were charged with claiming to be Muslim.15

Although Shiites are not legally declared to be non-Muslims in the PPC, blasphemy laws have perpetuated this sectarian divide, especially for the Sunni denomination. Extremist Sunni groups deride Shiites, who revere Hazrat Ali as the fourth and final Caliph and reject the Shiite claim that Hazrat Ali was the rightful successor to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Within the past decade, fanatical militant Deobandi groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) have escalated their persecution and indiscriminate killings of Pakistani Shiites.16 Targeted killings of Shiite scholars, political activists, and young professionals in recent years are evidence of the intensifying hatred extremists harbor for the sect.17 This trend is reflected in "hate material" found in school curriculums throughout Punjab: schoolchildren study chapters that shun and belittle religious minorities in Pakistan, as well as all non-Islamist religious groups in neighboring India.18 The most nefarious incident to date occurred in February 2011, when militants seized a bus traveling to Gilgit Baltistan, singled out all the Shia passengers, and bludgeoned them to death. The perpetrators have yet to be caught because the Pakistani police declared it a cold case and refused to investigate further.19

The U.S. war against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan post-9/11 not only affected Afghans, but Pakistanis as well. U.S. drone strikes against militants suspected of hiding in eastern Pakistan have exacerbated the plight of ordinary citizens, especially local Christians, and inflamed anti-Western sentiment in Pakistan. Consequently, the blasphemy laws—by default—have legitimized vendettas against Pakistani Christians because "Christians in Muslim societies are generally affiliated with foreigners, and are regarded by many as an extension of Western religious influence."20 Because Pakistan's religious extremists cannot punish perpetrators outside of the country for blasphemous crimes, they unleash their anger on the local Christian population. For instance, when in 2011 a Florida pastor organized a Qur'an burning ceremony in the United States to commemorate September 11, religious extremists in Pakistan responded by killing Pakistani Christians, and vandalizing and burning churches.21

Tensions against local Christians have mounted to the point that in August 2012, a mentally disabled 11-year old Christian girl was forced to flee from her home after allegations surfaced that she had burned Qur'anic scriptures. Although the situation diffused when it was discovered that a local imam had framed her, other innocent Christians have not been so fortunate.22 In 2009, seven Christians falsely accused of burning a Qur'an in Gojra and Korian were savagely burned alive by the Taliban-linked group Sipah-e-Sahaba.23

The most contentious aspect of the blasphemy laws that has directly affected Pakistani Christians has been Section 295B: death as punishment for defiling the Prophet. Because fundamentalist Muslims believe Christians reject the Prophet as the messenger of God, they have used this section of the law to "take matters into their own hands, and kill accused blasphemers [and their supporters], regardless of official rulings or investigations."24 Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who spoke out against the blasphemy laws and staunchly defended the rights of non-Muslims and dissident Muslims, was shot 26 times by his personal security guard, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, for defending Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five sentenced to death by hanging for making what were deemed derogatory comments about the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Qadri stated he was "protecting Allah's religion," and was subsequently lauded for his crime by conservative Islamists who "showered [him] with rose petals" upon his arrest.25 As for Asia Bibi herself, Yousuf Qureshi, an imam of the Mohabat Khan mosque in Peshawar, announced a reward of U.S. $6,000 for anyone who killed her. He publicly declared that if she was acquitted in court, the "Mujahideen would kill her."26

Failed Attempts to Repeal the Blasphemy Laws

Despite its severe flaws, the majority of Pakistanis ardently supports the blasphemy laws and claim the laws deter religious persecution and debasement. The reality, however, is that fundamentalist religious groups have drowned out—or silenced—the voices of moderates and secularists in Pakistan who want the laws either amended or repealed. Several unsuccessful attempts have been made at both. In 2001, former President Pervez Musharraf sought to repeal the blasphemy laws entirely, but was forced to retract his decision after strong opposition from religious groups. In 2010, Sherry Rehman, a PPP member, introduced a bill that called for procedural changes to the laws. The bill required that blasphemy cases be heard in higher courts, rather than in lower courts. Although it reached Parliament, it was struck down once again after extremist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) rallied against the bill.

Despite being a designated terrorist group, LeT has been at the forefront of protests demanding that the status quo for the laws remain, and has garnered tremendous support from conservative parties.27 The Pakistani army—historically aligned with the country's ideologically conservative groups—has also strongly opposed any amendments or calls for repeal of the blasphemy laws, thus giving the laws' extremist proponents a sheen of national legitimacy.

The Pakistani government has given up trying to repeal or amend the laws, because, "given the growing religious conservatism in Pakistan, the government is wary about losing public support over the issue."28 The government's inability to repeal or even amend the laws has established a pernicious legal precedent, and institutionalized religious intolerance and ethnocentrism in the country. This was recently illustrated when former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani stated that the laws would be "undiluted," despite the murders of several secular PPP members who criticized the laws.29 Opposition parties such as Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) have already aligned themselves with religious extremist groups in the upcoming 2013 general elections and acquiesced to the latter's anti-Western and pro-conservative rhetoric,30 a decision that has major implications for the trajectory of U.S.–Pakistan relations.

A Veneer of Legitimacy for Extremism

Zia-ul-Haq's Islamic social engineering did much to entrench fanaticism and xenophobia in Pakistani society. Now referred to as the "most dangerous place in the world," Pakistan has seen its prospects for social and economic development erode as even allies grow wary.31 Other countries such as Afghanistan that are divided by religious extremism should learn from Pakistan that entrenching a dogmatic ideology could have devastating consequences for the country's future. At this juncture, religious intolerance across the Muslim world has reached unprecedented levels. Blasphemy laws only kindle the fire of extremism and undermine judicial authority by legitimizing vigilantism. Reversing the damage becomes nearly impossible, particularly when insurgent groups are deemed the enforcers of the laws.32 Just recently, Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), one of Afghanistan's most sophisticated insurgent groups, claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing carried out by a teenage girl near the Kabul airport, which killed twelve people and injured many others. HIG stated the attack was in response to clips from an amateur film produced in the United States that mocked the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).33

Recommendations and Conclusion

Freedom of speech in democracies must be an inalienable right, and individuals exercising that right should be protected by the government from those who try to silence them. Once bigotry has become institutionalized, however, reversing it is no easy endeavor, particularly in the face of a volatile opposition force. The blasphemy laws in Pakistan are unfortunately so politicized that repealing them would cause a volatile backlash by conservatives and simply bolster the legitimacy of militant religious groups. The only way this issue can be dealt with is to strengthen the role of the judiciary by creating rigid procedural rules that will deter abuses and make the complaint process onerous. One suggestion would be to require accusers to provide substantial, rather than circumstantial, evidence against alleged blasphemers. To file a complaint, the accuser would have to provide proof that the act was premeditated and intentional. These strictures ideally would both uphold the presumption of innocence and prevent would-be accusers from instigating charges for unintentional acts.

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan are inherently biased and discriminatory, have induced sectarian violence, and have silenced honest political discourse in the country. More importantly, the laws run contrary to the spirit of justice and respect toward other faiths under the precepts of Islam. Verses in both the Qur'an and Hadith (specifically how the Prophet treated other faiths) leave no doubt about the importance of religious tolerance and the rights of minorities. Furthermore, according to Islam, forgiveness and preserving the sanctity of life are among the most rewarding deeds.34 In the case of Pakistan, the blasphemy laws "appease rather than control violent extremists, giving them license to continue bullying religious minorities or dissenters."35 Unfortunately, they also have become the third rail of Pakistani politics, and neither the repeal nor amendment of them appears likely anytime soon.

These laws are having effects beyond the borders of Pakistan.36 For instance, the Afghan Taliban could not have become established had it not been for the financial, ideological, and logistical support of Pakistan's radical religious parties, such as Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam.37 The Taliban, many of whom were taught in Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan but became inculcated with the puritanical version of Wahhabi Islam, unleashed unprecedented levels of relentless violence against religious minority groups—especially Hazaras (who are predominantly Shiite)—while they were in control of Afghanistan in the 1990s.38

Although blasphemy laws were not directly responsible for the proliferation of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Pakistan's institutionalization of bigotry and extremism—due in part to the implementation of the laws—and their export to Afghanistan by the Taliban, make Pakistan partially to blame.39 Following 9/11, Pervez Musharraf 's government was put under significant pressure by the United States to repudiate the Afghan Taliban. However, that sentiment has lately changed. Given the announced 2014 withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Pakistan is now considered crucial for securing a peace deal with the militant group. This has major implications for whether the Taliban will seize control of Afghanistan once again, and reinstate its draconian laws and abuses against minorities. Unfortunately, given Pakistan's continued state-sanctioned religious intolerance and extremism, Islamabad might just give the Afghan Taliban a free pass. The already strained U.S.–Pakistan relations are likely only to worsen as Pakistani opposition groups such as PML-N and PTI begin to capitalize on the country's growing radicalization and anti- Western sentiment in preparation for the 2013 general elections.40



1. Shuja Nawaz, Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 384–85.

2. There are, of course, many other factors contributing to the rise of extremism in Pakistan, which include but are not limited to Pakistan's corrupt and incompetent government, its dwindling economy, and the near-collapse of the public education system. Those factors, however, are beyond the scope of this paper.

3. All photos acquired August 20, 2012 on private Facebook account.

4. David F. Forte, "Apostasy and Blasphemy in Pakistan," Connecticut Journal of International Law vol. 27 (1994): 30.

5. Ahmad M. Khan, "Persecution of the Ahmadiyya Community in Pakistan: An Analysis Under International Law," Harvard Human Rights Journal vol. 16 (Spring 2003): 227.

6. Pakistan Penal Code, 1860 [Pakistan], Act XLV of 1860, October 6, 1860: html [hereafter cited as PPC].

7. PPC. Persecution against the Ahmadi community was actually initiated by President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who sought to consolidate his own power by acquiescing to fundamentalists' and Islamist organizations' demands to treat Ahmadis as takfir (non-believers).

8. PPC.

9. "Q&A: Pakistan's Controversial Blasphemy Laws," BBC News South Asia, September 2, 2012:

10. "A Report on the Religious Minorities in Pakistan," Human Rights Monitor 2011, National Commission for Justice and Peace, Lahore, 2011, 85.

11. Ibid.

12. Rasul Rais, "Religious Radicalism and Minorities in Pakistan," in Religious Radicalism and Security in South Asia, Satu P. Limay et al., eds. (Hawaii: A-PCSS, 2004), 459–60.

13. Khan, "Persecution of the Ahmadiyya Community:" 225; PPC XV Section 298-C.

14. Khan, "Persecution," 227.

15. Donna E. Erzt, "Heroes or Heretics: Religious or Dissidents under Islamic Law," Wisconsin International Journal of Law vol. 14, (Spring 1996): 408; "Pakistan: Use and Abuse of Blasphemy Laws," Amnesty International, New York, 1994, 6–7.

16. Deobandis are a sect of Sunni fundamentalists known for their extremism. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi was linked with the 2002 murder of U.S. reporter Daniel Pearl, along with various other militant attacks.

17. Kathy Gannon, "Pakistan Shiites Face Rising Militant Attacks," ABC News, September 11, 2012:; Qasim Zaman, "Sectarianism in Pakistan: The Radicalization of Shia and Sunni Identities," Modern Asian Studies vol. 32, no. 3 (1998): 689–99.

18. Mansoor Malik, "Hate Content in Punjab, Sindh School Curricula," Dawn, September 3, 2012:

19. Ibid., 691.

20. Rais, "Religious Radicalism," 462.

21. Johnathan Seidi, "Pakistani Christians Reportedly Killed: Churches Attacked in Response to Koran Burning," The Blaze, March 29, 2011:

22. Zarar Khan, "Pakistan Frees Christian Girl Accused of Blasphemy," ABC News, September 7, 2012:

23. Paul Marshall and Nina Shea, "Blasphemy in Pakistan," The Weekly Standard, January 24, 2011:

24. Saroop Ijaz, "The Real Blasphemy: Pakistan's Law Not Only Threatens People Like Asia Bibi, It Strengthens Radicals and the Taliban," Los Angeles Times, January 5, 2011: http://articles.latimes. com/2011/jan/05/opinion/la-oe-ijaz-blasphemy-20110105

25. Ibid. Qadri was sentenced to death by a Pakistani court in October 2011; as of December 2012, he remained in prison.

26. Zofeen Ibrahim, "Pakistan: Fundamentalist Groups Scuttle Repeal of Blasphemy Law," Global Information Network, January 1, 2011. As Asia Bibi languishes in prison, many fear for her life at the hands of her guards. Ahmed Rashid, "Can Pakistan Step Back From the Brink?" BBC World News South Asia, January 2, 2013:

27. "Extremists Exploit Pakistan's Political Paralysis," BBC News South Asia, February 16, 2011:

28. "Q&A: Pakistan's Controversial Blasphemy Laws," BBC News South Asia, September 2, 2012:

29. Marshall and Shea, "Blasphemy in Pakistan," 23.

30. "Pakistan: Diplomatic Ties With Washington Set to Alter," OxResearch Daily Brief Service, March 27, 2012.

31. Joe Cirincione, "Pakistan is the Most Dangerous Country on Earth," Forbes, May 9, 2012:

32. It must be emphasized that not all conservative Muslims are extremists or engage in terrorist activities.

33. "Afghanistan Suicide Bomber Hits Foreigners on Kabul Bus," BBC News Asia, September 18, 2012:; HIG has two primary media outlets it uses for propaganda dissemination, one of which is Daily Shahadat (Martyrdom):

34. "The repayment of a bad action is one equivalent to it. But if someone pardons and puts things right, his reward is with Allah," (Qur'an, 42:40); "because of this did we ordain onto the children of Israel that if anyone slays a human being, it is as though he had slain all mankind," (Qur'an 5:32).

35. Asma Uddin, "Blasphemy Laws in Muslim-Majority Countries," The Review of Faith & International Affairs vol. 9, no. 2 (Summer 2011): 52:

36. Imran Hayee, "Religious Intolerance of Pakistan Is a Global Threat," Duluth News Tribune, July 8, 2010:

37. Saudi Arabia had also contributed heavily to the rise of the Taliban by providing considerable financial assistance to JUI and JeI; Laila Bokhar, "Radicalization, Political Violence, and Militancy," in The Future of Pakistan, Stephen P. Cohen et al., eds. (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institute, 2011), 84.

38. "Afghanistan: Massacre of Hazaras in Afghanistan," Human Rights Watch, New York, 2001:

39. There were ethnic tensions and violence among Pashtuns, Hazaras, Tajiks, and Uzbeks in Afghanistan even before the Taliban; however, the Pashtun-dominated Taliban not only targeted ethnic minorities, but religious minorities as well.

40. Two recent significant events have further exacerbated U.S. and Pakistan relations: The first occurred in January 2011, when a CIA contractor killed two Pakistanis in Lahore. The second occurred in November 2011, when American airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani troops at two Afghan border posts. The United States has claimed it was an accident, but the Pakistani army claimed it was deliberate. U.S. drone strikes against suspected militants in Waziristan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have also emboldened hatred toward the United States in Pakistan.

Amina Kator-Mubarez works as a research assistant in the DA Department of NPS.