Pakistan needs to wake up to its blasphemy law crisis before it is too late

Last month, the desecration and burning of the Quran in Stockholm, Sweden sparked worldwide condemnation. Pakistan witnessed widespread protests and termed the act as blasphemous and deeply damaging to the sentiments of the Muslim community. A banned extremist group in the country, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, labelled it as an attack by Christians on Muslims and called on their followers to attack Christian settlements and kill Christians, while further vowing that they will make Pakistan a ‘hell for Christians’.

Last week, in the city of Sargodha, in Punjab province, a blasphemous poster was found near a local mosque. It prompted locals to gather in protest and demand that the police find a Christian from the nearby Christian settlement of Maryam Town. Since then, tensions in the area have been high with most of the 3,000-4,000 Christian families fleeing their homes due to fear of a mob related attacks.

Tensions over blasphemy have already had devastating consequences in Pakistan this year. On 6 May, a local cleric in the city of Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, was killed by a mob after he was accused of making a blasphemous reference during a political rally of former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party. In February a mob in the city of Nankana Sahib, Punjab, stormed the police station and proceeded to lynch and kill a man accused of blasphemy.

According to the Centre for Social Justice, a local partner of CSW in Pakistan, from 1 January – 30 June 2023, 78 cases of alleged blasphemy have emerged along with four extrajudicial killings. In half a year there has been a startling increase in cases of blasphemy and related incidents from the previous years. One can only pray that the second half of this year remains calmer than the first half. This is an extremely worrying time, and one wonders if the government of Pakistan is even concerned about addressing the long-standing issue of the misuse of the blasphemy laws.

During the fourth cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Pakistan’s human rights record at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the government chose not to accept any recommendations relating to the reform or repeal of the blasphemy laws. While Pakistan accepted recommendations from Netherlands and Norway to take steps to prevent the misuse of the blasphemy laws, in practical terms we are yet to witness the government take any concrete measures towards this.

An atmosphere of fear

The blasphemy laws in Pakistan have become a subject of immense controversy for several reasons. One of the primary concerns is the abuse of these laws for personal vendettas, as false accusations of blasphemy can be used as a tool to settle scores or target individuals from minority communities. The lack of safeguards and due process often leads to miscarriages of justice and the persecution of innocent people.

Blasphemy laws have disproportionately targeted religious minorities in Pakistan. Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and other minority groups are particularly vulnerable to false accusations, resulting in discrimination, violence, and even extrajudicial killings. The fear of being accused of blasphemy forces many individuals and communities to live in constant fear, leading to self-censorship and limited freedom of expression.

Accused individuals often face unfair trials, biased investigations, and a presumption of guilt. The burden of proof rests on the accused, making it incredibly challenging to defend oneself against baseless allegations. Legal professionals and judges who dare to defend the accused or question the validity of blasphemy laws themselves face threats and intimidation.

Furthermore, these laws have created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, stifling freedom of speech and expression. Many individuals, including intellectuals, journalists, and religious minorities, have faced threats, violence, and even murder as a result of alleged blasphemy accusations. The mere accusation of blasphemy can lead to mob violence and vigilante justice, bypassing the proper legal channels.

A crisis decades in the making

Over the past four decades, the education policy, curriculum and biased content in the textbooks taught at school and colleges has fostered an atmosphere of intolerance and even hate against minority religions and sects in the country. Both formal and informal education has allowed for this mindset to grow.

The issue of the blasphemy laws is no longer an issue for minorities alone; all citizens in Pakistan are now threatened by the possibility of being accused of blasphemy for merely expressing their point of view or even having a constructive dialogue on the issue.

Failure by the state to implement the rule of law has further allowed this issue to grow. The relevant authorities only react after incidents of blasphemy accusations or mob related violence occur. Because of the mindset that has evolved over the past few decades, there seems to be a lack of political and societal will to introduce measures that seek to prevent the misuse of the blasphemy laws. The state has failed to hold those accountable for hate speech and incitement to violence and therefore one could argue that they are a party to this state of lawlessness in the country.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have drawn widespread international criticism for their human rights implications. Several human rights organizations and international bodies have raised concerns about the violation of freedom of religion, expression, and conscience. The misuse of these laws and the resulting persecution of religious minorities have been highlighted as significant issues that need urgent attention.

Over the years, there have been calls for the reform and even repeal of blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Critics argue that these laws are subjective, open to abuse, and disproportionately target minority groups. However, attempts to reform or repeal the laws have faced significant challenges due to the sensitive nature of the issue and opposition from religious conservative groups.

As a starting point, the government of Pakistan and those in power must reflect on what sort of a Pakistan they wish to leave for their future generations.

For far too long, the state has been passive or even silent in genuinely addressing the misuse of blasphemy laws in the country. Despite nine years having passed since a historic Supreme Court judgment on the protection and promotion of rights of religious minorities in the country, the state has failed to implement the orders of the apex court of Pakistan.

Time to wake up

There are short term urgent measures and long-term strategies that need to be adopted in order to deal with this cancer that has ripped through the entire social fabric of the country. Pakistan must urgently implement the rule of law. Under no circumstances should an individual or a group be allowed to take the law into their hands and dispense a mob like vigilante justice. 

Pakistan must also immediately adopt measures to protect the lower courts, judiciary and lawyers who are either hearing or defending cases of blasphemy. The state must further implement training and sensitisation programs for the security and police authorities to train them on how to deal with cases of blasphemy, especially when the accused happens to belong from a minority community. If any such police official is found to be biased in their dealings, then they must be held accountable for their actions, to prevent others from following the same biased behaviour towards victims who are falsely accused of blasphemy.

In the long-term, it is imperative for the state to work towards fostering an environment of tolerance, inclusivity and promote the true religious, ethnic, and linguistic diversity that Pakistan has to offer. The government must also be open to partnering with civil society and members of the international community to engage in constructive dialogue and work towards finding a solution that upholds both human rights and religious harmony.

Unless Pakistan does not address this biased mindset towards minorities in the country, she will also find herself struggling to bring about any reforms in the blasphemy laws and repealing such laws will remain a far-fetched dream.

In choosing to be blind towards this growing issue, the state has allowed it to spread beyond religious minorities in Pakistan and is now affecting every individual. The country must wake up and address this issue before it is too late. The government must send a clear message that no one will be allowed to take the law into their own hands before it spirals out of control, and goes beyond the point of no return.

It must also seriously review the statistics provided by civil society on blasphemy cases, mob attacks, and extrajudicial killings and reflect on the figures which include Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs who are all affected by these laws before it’s too late and one finds this mindset knocking at your own door.

The government and those in power must wake up before they are also silenced by the same mindset that they have allowed to grow in Pakistan.

By Cecil Chaudhry (Christian Solidarity Worldwide)

Original post can be read HERE.

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