Blasphemy: A Never-ending Pretext for Violence in Pakistan

Blasphemy-related ‘crimes’ require no proof of intent or evidence to be presented after the allegations are made.

7 min read
Hindi Female

Last month, in Lahore, the provincial capital of Pakistan's Punjab, an angry mob accused a woman of blasphemy, as she wore a dress adorned with Arabic calligraphy. The mob mistook the calligraphy as verses from the Quran.

The woman was saved by the police who escorted her to safety after hundreds gathered and practically corned her in a restaurant. However, the dress had the word Halwa (meaning sweet confectionary) printed in Arabic on it.

Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Syeda Shehrbano Naqvi stated that around 300 people had crowded outside the restaurant by the time they arrived. “Nobody actually knew what was written on the shirt,” she said. “The major feat was to try to get that woman out of the area in order to ensure that she is safe.”

The violent mob demanded her to remove the dress. Videos on social media showed the scared woman pushed into a corner of the restaurant, hiding her face with her hand. A man can be heard in the video asking her to remove the garment or saying it would be forcefully done. It was a local garment trader, who was able to identify the word Halwa and called the police to come to her rescue

While the woman was escorted by ASP Naqvi, the mob expectedly screamed, “Gustakh-e-Rasool ki ek hi sazaa, sar tan se juda.”

Unfortunately, yet, as it always happens, the woman, who was not only harassed but also abused, had to apologise publicly for wearing a certain print that had nothing to do with the Quran or hurting the sentiments of Muslims. Thus, she said, “I didn't have any such intention, it happened by mistake. Still, I apologise for all that happened, and I'll make sure it never happens again,” adding that she is a devout Muslim and would never commit blasphemy.


Targets of Blasphemy-related Crime 

Pakistan is one of 12 countries in which apostasy or blasphemy is punishable by death and continues to mete out more death sentences than any other country in the world. Interestingly, having never carried out an execution on this basis, this hardline anti-blasphemy stance has engendered extensive violence at the civic level, with countless accused being battered and killed by civilian vigilantes and mobs.

The dangers of the blasphemy law are that related 'crimes’ require no proof of intent or evidence to be presented after allegations are made. There is no penalty for false allegations. Moreover, most of those who are accused of blasphemy crimes in Pakistan, spend years in prison, waiting for a hearing. According to a Human Rights Watch report dated 11 March 2024, since 1990, at least 65 people have been killed in Pakistan over claims of blasphemy.

No one is safe from the charges of blasphemy in Pakistan and if the mob decides, anybody can be brutally murdered. Be it Salman Taseer, the former Governor of Punjab; the Sri Lankan national Priyantha Kumara Diyawadana; or Mashal Khan, a young student.  

These horrific murders occurred under the pretext of blasphemy and need further elaboration: 

  • Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated by one of his guards, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan on 4 January 2011. He was killed after he had his lunch at a restaurant in Kohsar Market. Qadri shot with an SMG gun due to which Taseer died on the spot. Qadri was enraged by the governor's efforts to secure marginal amendments to the Blasphemy Law as well as his advocacy of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy.

  • Sri Lankan national Priyantha Kumara Diyawadana who worked in a factory as an export manager, was killed by an angry crowd on 3 December 2021, also consisting of his fellow factory workers in Wazirabad Road of Sialkot, Punjab. According to an autopsy report, around 99 per cent of his body was completely burnt along with numerous fractures. This occurred as a co-worker reportedly accused Priyantha of desecrating and removing posters from factory walls bearing the name of Prophet Mohammad before informing others about the alleged blasphemy act.

  • Mashal Khan, a 23-year-old student, was brutally lynched and killed by an angry mob comprising his university friends on 13 April 2017. Khan was stripped naked, beaten, shot, and thrown out of the second floor window of his Abdul Wali Khan University dormitory in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province in broad daylight after being accused of blasphemy. An estimated 200 people were thought to be a part of the mob that attacked Khan.

More dangerously, blasphemy is frequently used in Pakistan to declare diverse religious sects "un-Islamic". Apart from personal hatred, members of the Ahmadi, Shia, Hazara, Sikh, Christian, and Hindu groups are frequently pronounced as wajib-ul-qatl (deserving of death) for various purported 'blasphemous’ deeds.

The well-publicised case is that of Asia Noreen, famously known as Asia Bibi, a deprived Christian lady who was wrongly accused of blasphemy in 2009. A year later, she became Pakistan’s first woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy. In 2018, the Supreme Court of Pakistan, under international pressure and in a 'face-saving move’, reversed her death penalty. Regrettably, she had to leave her own country and live in Canada, since she is still considered wajib-ul-qatl in Pakistan

According to the Islamabad-based Centre for Research and Security Studies’ Blasphemy Cases in Pakistan: 1947 – 2021, as of 2021, 89 people have been extrajudicially killed from roughly 1,500 accusations and cases. The actual number is believed to be higher because not all blasphemy cases get reported.

More than 70% of the accused were reported from one province – Punjab (1,098), followed by Sindh (177), Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) (55), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) (33), Baluchistan (12), and Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) (11).

Note that the capital of the country had more cases of blasphemy than KP and AJK jointly had. From 1947 to 2021, 107 women had been accused of blasphemy and 18 of them were extrajudicially murdered, two of them were minors. Among the women who allegedly committed blasphemy, the highest number was that of Christian women (57), followed by Sunni (38), Ahmadi (5), Hindu (2), and Unknown (5).

Blasphemy Laws under the Pakistan Penal Code 

The draconian blasphemy laws of Pakistan are the byproduct of the British colonial legal framework, promulgated by the British government in 1860. Initially, four blasphemy laws, IPC (Indian Penal Code) 295, 296, 297, and 298 were introduced. In 1927, the IPC 295 was supplemented by 295A as a result of the famous 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 Mohammad. 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 1947-1977, there were only 10 reported judgments that relate to offences against religion.

The blasphemy laws, while 'protecting Islam’, provided the privileged citizens with the means through which they could falsely accuse anyone with the act over personal feuds and interests manipulating the legal system. The PPP (Pakistan People's Party) government and the Musharraf regime tried to make the implementation of these laws stringent by introducing thorough investigations but were threatened and hushed by hard-core Islamic fundamentalists. Nonetheless, deviations occurred during the military rule of Zia-ul-Haq (1978-1988).

These blasphemy provisions include defiling or desecrating the Holy Quran (Penal Code Section 295-B) using derogatory remarks regarding Muslim holy personages (Section 298-A), and most importantly, insulting Prophet Mohammad (Section 295-C, in accordance with the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 1986.

In 1992, the Nawaz Sharif government went a step ahead and introduced the death penalty for a person held guilty of blasphemy under Clause 295-C of the PPC. The clause thus reads, "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 a fine."


TLP and Its Connection With Blasphemy-Related Violence

Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), one of the 'rising stars’ in the politico-religious backdrop of Pakistan, is famous for its quick mass mobilisation often leading to vandalism, street protests, sit-ins, mob lynching, and brutal murders, all in the name of religion and blasphemy.

The TLP was born out of a protest campaign to seek the release of Qadri who killed Salman Taseer. Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the TLP’s founder systematically launched a massive campaign demanding Qadri’s release and even provided legal assistance to him. This movement was later renamed "Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasoolullah", which subsequently morphed into the current formation of TLP.

Eventually, the capital punishment of Qadri provided a sufficient excuse for both Khadim and the TLP to plunge into the political arena of Pakistan. Qadri was sentenced to death and executed in 2016. The TLP announced its entry into electoral politics at his funeral attended by tens of thousands of people. The group whose rallying cry is man sabba nabiyan faqtuluhu (“kill the blasphemers of the Prophet”) belongs to the Barelvi Sunni sect of Islam, which is followed by a majority of Pakistan's 241 million populace.


An Established Act of Violence

Blasphemy-related crimes and murders have become a common act of violence in Pakistan. Perilously, such delinquency has a lot of backing from the Pakistani society. The public shaming, assaults, and murder of a Blasphemy accused, has taken the form of a widespread community sport in Pakistan. The very act is cruel and should not have any place in the civilised world. 

These rampant killings in the name of blasphemy are corrupting the Pakistani society from within, giving legitimacy to horrific human rights abuses in a country that is ranked 146 out of 163 countries in the 2023 Global Peace Index.

(Dr Sanchita Bhattacharya 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. Her core area of research is Madrasa Education in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:   Pakistan   Blasphemy Laws 

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