Blasphemy and Religious Intolerance in Pakistan
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Blasphemy and Religious Intolerance in Pakistan

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While South Asian human rights discourse, including both Indian and Pakistani, is obsessed by the issue of Palestine, a cause that has little real relevance to the region, numerous violent incidents closer to home get scant attention, such as the violence in Xinjiang, China, just over the border from both India and Pakistan. Most disturbing, however, is the daily violence perpetuated against religious minorities in Pakistan. Much of this violence is perpetuated by mobs or terrorists against individuals accused of apostasy, blasphemy, or other charges that relate to defaming Islam. The Pakistani government lacks either the ability or the will to put a halt to this violence, and there is even speculation that some government forces are participating in these acts of violence themselves.

Pakistan’s Ahmadi minority bears some of the brunt of this mob violence, in a trend that is getting worse. Ahmadis are members of the Ahmadiyya movement, which was founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in British India. Ahmad claimed to be a prophet and the second coming of Jesus, a claim that is deemed heretical by mainstream Islam due to the belief that Muhammad was the final prophet. However, Ahmadis consider themselves to be Muslim. The animosity towards Ahmadis took yet another deadly turn last week when a mob in the city of Gujranwala in Punjab province killed three Ahmadi individuals.

The mob formed after an Ahmadi man, Aqib Salim, allegedly published a “blasphemous” Facebook picture in which a scantily clad woman and the Kaaba in Mecca appeared together. This angered a collection of 150 men who had left a mosque in the town after prayers. These individuals marched to a police station where they demanded the registration of a blasphemy case. However, while police officers negotiated with them, another mob began attacking and burning the houses of Ahmadis, none of whom were connected with Aqib Salim.

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The three Ahmadi individuals killed included a 55 year old woman and her two granddaughters, aged 7 years and 8 months respectively. Many individuals in the mob seem to have used the violence as an excuse to loot and plunder various valuables. While the police claimed to have calmed the mob as quickly as possible, other reports argue that the police did not intervene. This lends credence to the allegation that accusations of blasphemy are frequently being used by individuals to grab property and settle scores, often with the collusion of local authorities.

However, underlying this is the fact that the rise of religious extremism in Pakistan has created a situation where opportunistic individuals or clerics can easily incite mobs against religious minorities. It implies that to an extent, an atmosphere of a lack of respect for non-Sunnis has taken hold among Pakistan’s Sunni majority. This is ironic, considering the fact that many prominent Pakistanis were Shia, including its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, as well as the Bhutto and Zardari families. Although Shias are a minority in Pakistan, Pakistani Shia are numerically the second or third largest Shia population in the world, after Iran and India.

Ahmadis, however, fare much worse than Shias. For reasons primarily due to political opportunism, Pakistan declared Ahmadis non-Muslim in 1974, on the basis of their heretical belief in another prophet after Muhammad (Iran applies the same logic in its persecution of Baha’is, while ironically Sunni extremists argue that the Shia doctrine of 12 imams after Muhammad amounts to almost the same thing). This declaration took the form of a constitutional amendment and was widely supported by Muslim clerics. As such, it is unlikely it will be reversed anytime soon, although there is a debate as to whether Takfir, the act of declaring someone to be non-Muslim, is even permitted in Islam.

Further discriminatory laws were introduced against Ahmadis in the 1980s, including those that forbade them from using Muslim greetings, calling themselves Muslim, or proselytizing. Four years ago, 86 Ahmadis were killed with impunity in coordinated attacks in Lahore when gunmen assaulted Ahmadi mosques. According to The New York Times, attacks against minorities have become the norm in Pakistan. This is largely due to the silence of society and governmental authorities.

The problem lies in the fact that many Pakistanis, especially in rural areas, support an interpretation of Islam that allows blasphemers to be executed. Due to the perception among many that Ahmadis or Shias are blasphemers, many individual Pakistanis believe that they deserve death. This view is fueled by the influence of the conservative Deobandi interpretation of Islam and Saudi Arabia. It serves both the religious and political purposes of both groups, as well as many in the Pakistani government who fear non-Sunnis as a potential fifth column. According to a Pew Research Center study, 64 percent of Pakistanis support the death penalty for people who leave Islam. The Pakistani Penal Code declares that “whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by an imputation, innuendo, or insulation, 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 fine.”

In such an atmosphere, it is unlikely that society will change its views on capital punishment for blasphemers soon or that blasphemy and apostasy laws will be removed from Pakistan’s criminal code. Even their modification is unlikely, after the assassination of several individuals calling for that. However, what is possible is strong state action that makes sure that all blasphemy cases are judicially tried and not by resolved by vigilante action. Furthermore, the government can ensure that only cases considered serious are tried and not every frivolous case that involves a Facebook post.

However, it is unlikely that the government will do even this due to its lack of ability or will. This amounts to a depressing verdict for the future of minorities in Pakistan. At best, it is to be hoped that eventually the more tolerant Sufi-influenced Islamic traditions native to Pakistan will prevail as people grow tired of the endless violence that characterizes daily Pakistani life.

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