The Debate

Blasphemy Laws: Pakistan’s Religious Apartheid

Recent Features

The Debate

Blasphemy Laws: Pakistan’s Religious Apartheid

Pakistan condemns Israel in Gaza is hypocritical, but has its own issues with religious minorities.

Blasphemy Laws: Pakistan’s Religious Apartheid
Credit: Blasphemy demonstration via Asianet-Pakistan /

Since the start of the recent Israeli-Palestinian crisis, Pakistanis have been very vocal about the actions of the Israeli government. Ordinary citizens have taken social media by storm, and a significant number have come out on the streets to demonstrate their opposition to the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. From Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to various political and religious leaders across the country, there has been an unequivocal and unapologetic condemnation of Israel.

Pakistan doesn’t officially recognize Israel as a state, and Pakistanis have always felt a deep sympathy toward the Palestinian cause. Ask almost anyone on the street, and they would express their opposition to the idea of a “Jewish” state, a state that privileges its Jewish citizens and gives them more rights than Palestinian Muslims, who have been living on that land for centuries. As a result, Israel, in its current form, is seen as an apartheid state to be boycotted and protested against, until Palestinians are given equal rights to Israelis.

However, when a mob last week burned down several Ahmadi homes in Pakistan, killing an elderly woman, two minors and an unborn child, the hypocrisy of that argument was underscored. Blasphemy laws in Pakistan have gotten international attention several times in the past, when people from young children to those having mental conditions have been accused of blasphemy. The reaction to these incidents however is very familiar: from deafening silence on one end to the outright celebration and condoning of the violence on other. Very few voices have dared to speak out against the brutality of these laws, and even those voices are now fading. Even the most liberal responses from politicians and religious leaders end up justifying the existence of these laws, while emphasizing the need to prevent their “misuse.” Those who see problems with the Israeli use of religious identity to discriminate against its minorities are unable to see the problems inherent in the blasphemy laws of the “Islamic” Republic of Pakistan. These laws also make Pakistan a religious apartheid state.

Blasphemy laws on the subcontinent were institutionalized by the British, though they didn’t differentiate between religions. Pakistan retained the laws after its creation in 1947, yet only eight incidents of blasphemy were reported before the laws were modified by President Zia ul Haq in the 1980s. During that time, certain additional provisions were included specifically related to Islam, such as criminalizing the defiling of the Quran and the use of derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad. A separate provision specifically targeted Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan. Ahmadis, while identifying themselves as Muslims, believe in a prophet after Muhammad, a belief that a majority of Muslims in Pakistan find heretical. As a result, mere expressions of their religious belief, such as calling themselves Muslims, performing prayers in the same way as Muslims, or using Islamic religious terms such as As-Salaam Alaikum (peace be unto you) are criminalized under the blasphemy laws of Pakistan. When obtaining a passport or an identity card, every Muslim in Pakistan has to sign an oath declaring Ahmadis as non-Muslims and their prophet as a false prophet. In other words, while Muslims can blaspheme against Ahmadi beliefs, Ahmadis can be accused of blasphemy just for practicing their own beliefs.

It was not surprising that the number of reported cases of blasphemy in Pakistan skyrocketed after these changes. Since 1986, more than 4,000 cases have been handled by the courts. According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, “from 1953 to July 2012, there were 434 offenders of blasphemy laws in Pakistan and among them were, 258 Muslims (Sunni/Shia), 114 Christians, 57 Ahmadis, and 4 Hindus.” Furthermore, “the report mentions that since 1990, 52 people have been extra-judicially murdered, for being implicated in blasphemy charges.”

The above numbers also point toward another important issue. Blasphemy laws in Pakistan not only discriminate against non-Muslim minorities, but also against those Muslims whose interpretation of the religion might differ from whatever is considered “proper” Islam. While on the surface, most religions espouse love, peace and harmony, once the finer details are examined each religion’s tenants have something that can be considered blasphemous by the others. Hinduism’s polytheism is a direct challenge to monotheistic faiths. The status of Christ as the son of God is unacceptable for Muslims. When the Quran uses strong language to admonish polytheists, or argues that Christ is simply a prophet, Hindus and Christians may take offense. Similarly, within Islamic literature, various scholars from different sects (Sunni and Shia being the predominant ones), have written very inflammatory things about other Muslims, either while interpreting the Quran or the Hadith, or while criticizing the members or beliefs of other Islamic sects.

Therefore, whenever a state identifies with a particular religion, and starts molding its laws according to a particular interpretation, it privileges that belief over others. As a result, it automatically becomes a discriminatory state not only against minorities, but also those co-religionists who don’t identify with that particular interpretation. By declaring one religion immune to blasphemy and giving its adherents more rights, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws constitute a form of religious apartheid against its minorities.

Hence, it is not the misuse, but the mere presence of these laws that justifies the second-class treatment of minorities in Pakistan. While abolishing these laws at the state level is not a guarantee against mob violence, it might give minorities some expectation that the state does not discriminate on the basis of belief, even if the people do, and that the culprits could be punished instead of hiding behind a veil of religion. Otherwise, Pakistan can hardly champion the rights of Palestinians if it continues to discriminate against its own citizens, based on the same principles that it criticizes Israel for using.

Aden Dur-e-Aden is an MA student in the Political Science Department at the University of British Columbia, Canada and can be followed on Twitter @aden1990.