Skip Navigation

Unholy Laws For A Holy Cause: Blasphemy Laws In Pakistan

Saif-ul-Malook lives his life with two security guards and a constant fear of death. He receives threats daily and has spent weeks in the hospital due to anxiety related heart trouble.

This fear is not unwarranted for the Pakistani lawyer, who defended the woman known as Aasia Bibi in a blasphemy case last year. In the eyes of many Pakistani clerics and their followers, Malook’s crime is to have accepted the case of Bibi (also known as Aasia Noreen), a Christian woman accused of insulting

In October of last year, the Lahore High Court upheld a 2010 verdict that convicted Bibi of blasphemy and sentenced her to death. Later, Salman Tasser, a outspoken activist on her behalf and the governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, was gunned down in broad daylight by a member of his own security detail. The killer, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, immediately surrendered to the police, admitting Taseer’s opposition to the blasphemy laws was what set him off.

In the weeks leading up to his death, Salman Taseer had become a leading opponent of the blasphemy laws, even taking to Twitter to encourage protest. His opposition was widely condemned by Islamist political parties, who wholeheartedly support the antiquated laws.

Blasphemy laws have existed since before independence from England, and were a rallying point during partition. They date back to a Penal Code codified in 1860, which criminalized insults to the religion, establishing the precedent in both India and Pakistan of codifying a national identity essential to partition-era politics.. This same law was adopted in Pakistan after partition, but it was vastly strengthened under the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq in the 1970s. Although created in order to discourage inter-religious violence under colonial rule, the laws have proven to do the exact opposite. From 1979 until his death in 1988, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq served as head of state, during which, in 1977, he enacted martial law for the first time in the country’s history. His regime was characterized by his efforts to bring religion into mainstream society — ideals he secured whilst fighting for Pakistan during partition. Zia committed himself to enforcing Nizam-e-Mustafa (“Rule of the Prophet”), which included blasphemy ordinances in 1980, 1982, and 1986 that increased the scope of blasphemy and the sentences of those convicted. Prior to 1986, there were only fourteen reported cases pertaining to blasphemy in Pakistan. From 1986 to 2014, more than 1,300 people have been accused.

The hypocrisy of the blasphemy laws is highlighted in the cases of Aasia Bibi and Salmaan Taseer. The laws, which were intended to decrease violence, have precipitated tremendous and shocking brutality against those who speak out against them. The accused and the victims are disproportionately non-Muslim religious minorities, like Aasia Bibi. Many people accused of blasphemy, like Salman Taseer, never make it to their trials. Since 1990, 62 people have been murdered as a result of blasphemy allegations. Six of those cases occurred in the last year: a lawyer was shot for defending a university lecturer accused of blasphemy, a Christian couple was burned to death after being accused of desecrating a holy book, and a man was killed by a police officer wielding an axe while in custody. The atrocities culminated in 2011, when Pakistan’s minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, was shot dead. Bhatti, the only Christian in the Pakistani cabinet, had publicly spoken out against the blasphemy law.

Perpetrators of this violence, however, are met with very different treatment, which is underscored by the tremendous support received by Taseer’s killer, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, who is currently appealing his death sentence for the murder to which he has confessed. He is being defended by, among others, a former chief justice of the Lahore High Court and a 14-year veteran of the Court. Both of who argue that the murder was justified because of Qadri’s religious sentiments.

The laws have come to institutionalize a system of intimidation that serves to silence any opposition to the nation’s Islamization. The deaths of Taseer and Bhatti are morbid reminders to lawmakers to stay silent, and it is thus not a coincidence that no proposed amendments to the laws have made it to the floor of the National Assembly in over four years. The last time an amendment was proposed, in late 2010, the Prime Minister had it withdrawn from the legislative agenda of Parliament. It was never voted on.

As such, these laws have also become a powerful tool in settling day-to-day grievances. Personal disputes over land or money can easily be settled by an accusation of blasphemy, and the laws are used to pressure religious minorities into subservience. In 2012, a young Christian girl made headlines for being one of the few people to escape prosecution under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Rimsha Masih was originally accused of burning the pages of the Qur’an, but it was later discovered that the neighborhood’s local mullah had planted the pages in order to incite backlash against the Christian community.

According to many lawyers who handle these cases, lawyers and judges are pressured—and sometimes blatantly threatened—by religious clerics to deliver guilty verdicts in blasphemy cases. Threats to officials lead to a low burden of proof in blasphemy cases. There are also judges, like the one in Aasia Bibi’s case, who make a name for themselves by sentencing blasphemous minorities. According to local lore, he carries the pen he used to sign the decision as a souvenir. There are also instances of high court judges refusing to hear appeals, for fear of association with the highly sensitive topic. Blasphemy cases represent a judicial exception; no one in power wants to come near them.

This unwillingness does not extend to the other side of the argument, as illustrated by Mumtaz Qadri. Not only is the man who admitted to the murder of Salmaan Taseer being represented by high-profile officials, his lawyers apparently showered him with rose petals on his way into court proceedings.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have received worldwide attention, especially following the case of Aasia Bibi. One group that is largely ignored from this global exposure, however, is the Ahmadiyya, a minority Islamic movement that was founded in late 19th century India. Many Muslim clerics deem the group heretical, and laws passed in 1984 under General Zia-ul-Haq make it illegal for Ahmadiyya to refer to themselves as Muslim. The group is also prohibited from referring to their places of worship as “mosques” or to their call of prayer as the “azan”. Since the passage of the laws, the Ahmadiyya have also seen a tremendous increase in targeted killings, fourteen of which were in the last year. But, unlike many of the accused blasphemous Christians, the Ahmadiyya have a exceptionally difficult time garnering support from activists. Deep seeded racism and cultural bias permeate even the humanitarian factions of the legal world, and the cases brought against Ahmadiyya are largely seen as “legitimate” within the legal community.

Pakistan is a key US ally in the fight against Islamic extremists operating on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The United States has poured billions of dollars in civilian and military aid into Pakistan in the hopes of dimming the appeal of radical Islam amongst the nation’s population of 180 million people. But the existence of blasphemy laws—and the violence and oppression that erupts from them—is indicative of the difficulties faced by the Unites States in its attempt to bolster secularism in the country, as well as the pernicious legislation that religious minorities fall victim to. The assassination and manipulation of key government figures illustrates how extremism pervades even sectors of society that are close to Pakistani centers of power.

About the Author

Isabella Creatura '18 is a staff writer for the Brown Political Review.