Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are effectively a death sentence for anyone who insults Islam. These laws made headlines in the country when the case against Asia Noreen, commonly referred to as Asia Bibi, was overturned by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. According to the BBC, in 2009 while harvesting fruit Asia Bibi and a group of local women got into an argument concerning a bucket of water. The women accused Asia of contaminating the water by drinking from a cup they had used. Because Asia was a Christian and the women accusing her were Muslim, this made the cup impure for them. The women called on Asia to convert to Islam and she allegedly responded by insulting Prophet Muhammad. Subsequently, Asia was attacked by an angry mob before supposedly confessing and being taken to the police. The court of Sheikhupura in Punjab convicted her of blasphemy and sentenced her to death. However, on 31 October 2018, the Supreme Court acquitted Asia based on “flimsy” evidence and failure to follow proper procedure, since her alleged confession occurred in front of an angry crowd “threatening to kill her.”

After Asia’s acquittal, violent protests ensued in major cities across the country, orchestrated by the right-wing Islamists Tehreek-e Labbaik (TLP). Deutsche Welle reported that protestors “blocked 10 roads around Pakistan’s biggest city, Karachi, several others outside Lahore and one major entry to the capital Islamabad. Private schools in all three cities were closed.” Many assembled outside the Supreme Court, demanding that the conviction be upheld and calling for Asia’s execution. The extremists also pushed for the government’s removal and execution of the judge who acquitted Asia. Due to increasing pressure, the government acquiesced to TLP’s demands by hammering out a deal with them which prevented Asia from leaving the country and in exchange for an end to the protests. The government also agreed not to discourage any legal action to appeal her case. Critics attacked the deal as an indication that the government must to yield to extremists to maintain its authority.

Additionally, Pakistan has seen grotesque violence against people who advocate for the protection of minority rights. In 2011, Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab, took up Asia’s case and opposed Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. He was shot dead by his bodyguard. Likewise, Pakistan’s Minority Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, voiced his support for Asia and advocated for the protection of minority rights, which eventually cost him his life. Al Jazeera reported that “[a]t least 74 people have been killed in attacks motivated by blasphemy accusations since 1990.” Mehdi Hasan, the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, stated that Pakistan’s “weak government” is responsible for not enforcing an “effective hold on society.” He said that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are “misused by people to take revenge against their opponents, and it is very easy to charge anyone for blasphemy.”

Pakistan should have celebrated a step forward for protecting minorities by overturning Asia’s execution, but any time the country tries to make progress it is aggressively pulled two steps back. Extremists in the country wish to drag Pakistan back to medieval times, when minorities and women were suppressed under the pretense of practicing the ‘correct’ faith. The government fails to realize that their political maneuvering could someday become their own undoing, since extremists were already able to shut down major cities by rallying enough support, based only on the assumption of blasphemous comments made by one woman. The abuse of blasphemy laws against people is very common, and it would not take long for extremists to make accusations of blasphemy against government officials themselves and depose them. The power of extremists in the country needs to be dismantled, beginning with the government’s legal framework. Pakistan’s constitution needs to establish a separation of state and religion. Pakistan, as of right now, is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, which gives religious extremists enough legitimacy to challenge or attack any act they perceive to be against their religion. It is imperative that the country repeals such laws in order to challenge their legitimacy. It seems that the government is vulnerable to extremist pressure and refrains from challenging these laws because of the threat that extremists pose to the state’s stability. However, no change is achieved by universal compliance, and they should expect severe resistance. It is important to push for progress, the protection of minorities, and women’s rights, so extremist influence needs to be shut down.