Pakistan’s Blasphemy Problem

Recently, the Pew Research Center reported that “nearly half (47%) of the countries and territories in the world have laws or policies that penalize blasphemy, apostasy (abandoning one’s faith) or defamation.” According to Pew, “remarks or actions considered to be contemptuous of God or the divine,” constitute blasphemy. Of the thirty-two countries with anti-blasphemy laws, Pakistan frequently draws international attention for its seemingly absurd application of its law. Pamela Constable examines the topic in a chapter of her book, Playing with Fire, noting that while state executions have never been carried out, “dozens of defendants have been given life sentences, and some have been killed by enraged Muslims while awaiting trial.”

In 2012 alone, NPR reports that nearly thirty cases were filed. Most recently, Iftikhar Shaikhm, a US national, is under investigation after his nephew claimed Shaikhm wrote “blasphemous words” about the Prophet Muhammad in his newly published book. Other cases this year have earned more attention. Most notable, perhaps, was the case involving a young Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, whose neighbor, a cleric, accused her of burning pages from the Koran. As a result, an angry mob descended on the girl’s home, demanding that authorities arrest her. Ultimately, a Pakistani court dropped the charges based on lack of evidence.

The apparent ease with which accusations are made in Pakistan is troubling, leaving many human rights groups, according to The New York Times, to draw attention to its disproportionate application against religious minorities. Masih’s arrest, for instance, sent reverberations throughout her Christian community, prompting many to flee.  

Frequently, blasphemy accusations “turn out to be about something else, often settling personal scores or grabbing property.” The attack on Farooqi Girls High School helps illustrate this point. The vice principal from a nearby madrassa accused one of the school teachers of insulting the Prophet, which incited a mob attack on the building, and ultimately led to the arrest of Farooqi’s principal and sent the accused teacher into hiding. Salman Hameed of  The Guardian argues that the real driver behind the attack was “envy,” stating that “the burning of the school [was] probably about a clash between the upwardly mobile, educated middle class and the frustrated, poor and uneducated class.” He adds that being a well-resourced girls’ school likely amplified resentment.   

 Unfortunately, few prominent Pakistani officials dedicate sufficient talk to reforming the law, recognizing that previous critics were assassinated – both Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Religious Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti were killed in 2011. Alarmingly, Taseer’s killer won praise across the country for his commitment to Islam; in turn, scaring many political figures away from addressing the blasphemy issue.

 Still, there are individuals, like Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, who, in 2010 as a parliamentarian, advocated  making religious offenses the jurisdiction of higher courts; thereby, requiring higher standards of evidence for prosecution. Though Rehman’s proposal was blocked by religious conservatives, it certainly proves a step in the right direction.

 Perhaps now is the time for politicians to revisit the issue and ride the wave of international condemnation focused on the attack of Malala Yousufzai, who was accused of leading “a campaign against Islam and Shariah,” a charge similar to those faced by the alleged blasphemers mentioned above. The lack of attention on Iftikhar Shaikhm’s arrest, however, sadly suggests that the focus on violent extremism and abuse of the anti-blasphemy law has nearly dissipated.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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