On Wednesday, Tahir Ahmad Naseem became the latest to be extrajudicially killed for blasphemy in Pakistan. The victim, who had formerly been an Ahmadi before leaving the community, had been under arrest inside Peshawar Central Jail since 2018 for claiming to be a prophet. He was facing trial for blasphemy, and was shot dead in the courtroom inside the Peshawar Judicial Complex.
There is gory symbolism in Pakistan’s latest blasphemy killing being committed inside a courtroom. It explains why, unlike Saudi Arabia or Iran – also among the 13 states that establish death as the penalty for sacrilege against Islam – vigilante justice is the norm in Pakistan. The country’s encouragement of mob violence is rooted in its paradoxical aspiration to be both a democratic republic and an Islamic state.
Where Saudi Arabia and Iran and continue to top the charts for executions, many of which are for “crimes against Islam,” the total number of judicial killings in Pakistan is zero. In fact, for seven years, 2008-2015, Pakistan simultaneously had a moratorium on the death penalty while upholding its codified capital punishment for blasphemy against Islam. It was during this period that Pakistan saw the most high-profile victim of its blasphemy law of the past two decades, when former Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated by his security guard in January 2011.
Since its inception, Pakistan has codified paradoxical legislation, encompassing jurisprudence borrowed from Western liberalism and Islamic sharia. The 1973 Constitution of Pakistan, for instance, calls the country both “Islamic” and a “Republic,” while granting sovereignty to Allah, the Quran, and Sunnah. Among many of its paradoxes, the constitution claims to allow freedoms of speech and religion, while denying criticism of Islam and “officially” excommunicating the entire Ahmadiyya Muslim sect.
While the preamble of the 1973 constitution itself contradicts Pakistan’s claim to be a democratic country, by virtue of elevation of one religion over others, the Islamist foundations found therein have since exploded to grotesque proportions in legislation spearheaded by both civilian and military leaders. This is best encapsulated by the blasphemy law.
The Pakistan Penal Code borrows Sections 295 and 295-A from the Indian Penal Code 1860, which were applied equally to all religions. The blasphemy law has since mutated into an Islamist tool in the Pakistan Penal Code with the addition of the Islam-specific 295-B and 295-C in 1987. These clauses establish death for blasphemy against Islam alone.
Following the addition of the exclusive protection for Islam, coupled with brutal penalties like capital punishment, Pakistan saw a mammoth hike in blasphemy cases. From 1987 to 2016, 1,472 Pakistanis were charged with blasphemy as compared to seven cases in the previous 60 years.
In the last three months alone, blasphemy cases have been launched against a singer, a football maker, academics, and an Ahmadi woman after a mosque refused to take charity from her. Earlier this month, former Foreign and Defense Minister Khawaja Asif was accused of blasphemy for merely saying that “all religions are equal.”
Indeed, the moment the law against blasphemy, which exists across 77 countries in largely diluted and redundant forms, was transformed into a Islamist rallying cry, the number of individuals queuing up to establish religionist supremacism precipitously accelerated. However, their lust for blood, promised by the Penal Code, remained unfulfilled.
As a result mobs and individuals have taken it upon themselves to serve out vigilante justice, which has seen at least 75 people being extrajudicially killed over blasphemy in Pakistan. This rationale – that individuals have to take the matter in their hands because the state isn’t hanging blasphemers – is ubiquitously expounded by the supporters of the latest murderer, declared a hero by many in Pakistan.
Among those glorifying the killer was Haleem Adil Sheikh, leader of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Two months ago, PTI’s minister of state for parliamentary affairs reiterated that blasphemers should be beheaded.
Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of Salmaan Taseer, has a shrine in Islamabad, which is frequented by, among others, Muhammad Safdar, a senior Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader and three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s son-in-law. Qadri’s admirers also include Rai Manzoor, the managing director of the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board, who is currently busy banning books for their blasphemous and treasonous content.
It is curriculum designers like Manzoor who have helped facilitate the state’s active push for Islamic radicalism in the Pakistani society by glorifying the legacy of Ilam Din, who murdered a Hindu publisher over blasphemy in 1929. Pakistan’s founding fathers Muhammad Iqbal, religiously, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, legally, defended Ilam Din. Among those who lauded Ilam Din, along with raising funds for his defense trial and funeral was Muhammad Din Taseer – Salmaan Taseer’s father.
And so the blasphemy boomerang intertwines fates. Ancestors’ glorification of blasphemy killers is resulting in their offspring being killed. The murder that was used to substantiate the blasphemy law in the 1920s has since grown into a blasphemy law that is used to substantiate murder in the 2020s.
The only way to stop Pakistan’s murderous rampage – with the blasphemy law signifying the gruesome expanses of Islamic radicalism – is for the state to shun its Islamist past and embrace absolute religious egalitarianism, which is the foundation of any democratic society. That requires subordinating Islamic law to a secular civil code, with the latter always triumphing in case of a clash. That, in turn, means that Pakistan should repeal its bloodthirsty blasphemy law, regardless of what Islam mandates.
Once outraged religious feelings become sufficient grounds for murder, the religionists will look for excuses to be outraged, and in turn murder. It’s the law of instrument: When Pakistan has weaponized the blasphemy law as an Islamist tool, its wielders will see blasphemers everywhere.
Even those who do blaspheme – against any religion – shouldn’t have to fear for their lives. Instead believers in human rights should wholeheartedly defend the fundamental right of freedom to offend – without which the freedom of speech does not exist.