An American citizen accused of violating Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws was recently gunned down during the middle of his trial in Peshawar, Pakistan.
The victim of this extrajudicial killing, Tahir Naseem, was a Pakistani-American from Illinois who was also a member of Pakistan’s Ahmadi muslim community. This religious minority group has long faced persecution by their country’s Sunni majority government which continues to not officially recognize their religion. Because of this, when Naseem made posts on Facebook in which he claimed to be a “prophet” of Islam, he was accused of violating a portion of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws that are intended to punish Ahmadis for the “misuse of epithets, descriptions, and titles designated for certain [non-Ahmadi] holy personages.”
The U.S. State Department claims that after Naseem first published these posts on Facebook, he “had been lured to Pakistan from his home in Illinois by individuals who then used Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to entrap him.” After first being arrested during his visit to Peshawar in 2018, he spent nearly two years in federal custody until he was recently shot and killed by a bystander at one of his court proceedings. After his killer, Khalid Khan, was subsequently arrested, thousands of far-right Islamist protesters came together to rally in Peshawar in his defence. This mob called for Khan’s immediate release, as they claimed that he “did what the government should have done two years ago.”
These types of mobs have long been instrumental in carrying out the full extent of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which officially call for the death penalty for anyone found guilty of disrespecting Islam. Although Pakistan’s government has never actually executed anyone for blasphemy, these radical Islamist mobs have been notorious for trying to take the law into their own hands and enforce the death penalty themselves.
This previously occurred in 2011, when Salman Tasseer, the Governor of Pakistan’s state of Punjab, was assassinated by one of his bodyguards who objected to Tasseer’s fervent criticism of the country’s blasphemy laws. Tasseer even supported legislation created by his party, the Pakistan People’s Party, that sought to amend the country’s blasphemy laws once and for all. However, this bill was withdrawn by the government soon after Tasseer’s killing, and similar legislation has not resurfaced in the country ever since.
To understand why attitudes around these laws are so hostile, it is necessary to understand the greater history of the laws’ imposition in Pakistan and the Indian subcontinent. These blasphemy laws were originally put in place in 1860 by British colonists who implemented them in Muslim-majority areas of what was formerly British India. After independence, these laws became formally inherited by Pakistan’s government when it came into existence after the partition of India in 1947.
However, although the laws have now existed for over a century, they were rarely enforced by the government until much more recently. During the 1980’s, Pakistan experienced a U.S.-backed military dictatorship under the hands of President Zia ul-Haq. Throughout his rule, President ul-Haq suspended democracy, placed the country under martial law, and implemented a series of increasingly radical policies that were intended to achieve a greater degree of “Islamization” and “Sharization” of Pakistan’s legal system. Because of this, he greatly expanded the scope of the country’s blasphemy laws by enforcing them far more frequently, and by adding several clauses that were specifically designed to target the Ahmadi community along with other religious minorities.
Between 1986 and 2007, Pakistan charged 647 individuals with blasphemy-related offences. Roughly 50% of these individuals charged were non-Muslim, despite the fact that non-Muslims only constitute 3% of the country’s total population. Although none of these individuals have been formally executed by the government, 20 of them have already been murdered in acts of extrajudicial violence similar to that of which happened to Tahir Naseem. Additionally, as of 2020, 17 individuals remain on death row in the country for blasphemy-related offences.
In light of the fact that these policies have recently led to the killing of an American citizen, the U.S. State Department has officially released a statement in which they urged “Pakistan to immediately reform its often abused blasphemy laws and its court system, which allow for such abuses to occur.”
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