In Bahawalpur, Pakistan, a court handed out a death sentence to 30-year-old Taimoor Raza. What was his crime? He has been found guilty of blasphemy for insulting the prophet Muhammad. Last year, Raza was arrested following his participation with a man on Facebook about Islam. As it turned out, this man was a counter-terrorism agent looking for those blaspheming against Islam. Pakistan’s Penal Code prohibits blasphemy of any recognized religion, and this arrest was part of a crackdown on perceived dissent through social media outlets.
Pakistan is a unique nation in its own right, as it is the only nation to have been created in the name of Islam. Islam is the stage religion of Pakistan, with about 97 percent of the 195,343,000 person population practicing. The rest of the nation practices Hinduism, Christianity, and other religions. Coupling this limited inclusion of other religions with the blasphemy laws, it is nearly impossible to express issues or concerns regarding Islam in any sort of public way without fear of retribution.
Over the years, 1300 individuals have been accused of blasphemy, and there has been a large increase in arrests due to increased use of social media as a way to share and browse information that the government could regard as blasphemous. To combat this, a number of counter-terrorism agents such as the one who arrested Raza, search through online forums and have been known to send text messages encouraging Pakistani citizens to report blasphemers.
There are a number of concerns related to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. The first is obviously related to freedom of speech. By preventing people from speaking out against a religion and expressing critical views about it, Pakistan prevents citizens from engaging in free speech. With agents’ new focus on social media, there are now concerns over freedom of the internet and privacy.
This is made more difficult under the nation’s controversial Prevention of Electronic Crime Act, in which any crime committed online can be punished. It is under this act that Raza is able to be detained for his online activities. The law has been criticized for the overreaching power it provides law enforcement agencies and has been accused of suppressing human rights.
One agent is reported as saying their agency was told they had full powers without warrant. This included the right to interrogate individuals and seize personal property, such as laptops and phones. “We are authorised to detain anyone, just on suspicion,” the agent said.
Furthermore, there have been a number of incidents in which people were accused of blasphemy in order to carry out personal vendettas. This is exacerbated by the fact that there are no punishments for false accusations and the nation’s zealous reaction to blasphemy. In Pakistan, there is a culture of harassment and mob mentality surrounding those accused of blasphemy. Over the years, more than 60 accused blasphemers have been killed because of allegations. Others face harassment in the forms of death threats and attacks. This is part of the reason Pakistan has taken a more internet focused approach to finding these individuals, as it involves concrete proof through interactions online.
However, this does not change the fact that this is an attack on freedom of speech and privacy. No nation should prevent its citizens from speaking their thoughts on any platform, whether in person or through the anonymity provided online. Pakistan needs to move away from such laws to ensure the rights of their citizens to the fullest extent. Only then will the social issues regarding personal vendettas and mob mentality also fade away. So long as blasphemy laws are on the books, these issues will remain.