Pakistan's blasphemy laws are infamously strict and unjust1,2,3 and tied to the country's overall culture of intolerance and prejudice. There are hundreds of people queued for the death penalty, awaiting trial3. In 2017, the interior minister described blasphemers as "enemies of humanity" and implied the "logical conclusion" is their murder. Mob violence against those accused of blasphemy causes a steady stream of horrific murders and assaults, with the government doing little to prevent it - the security services themselves are sometimes complicit.
The laws are often employed against minority groups, even where there clearly was no intent, and against non-Muslims within non-Muslim communities in Pakistan4. Knowing that the consequences can be life-destroying even when the claims are false, accusations are often made against competitors during feuds or to resolve grudges2,4.
Dozens of politicians, lawyers and campaigners have been assassinated and others are subjected to mob violence for opining that the blasphemy laws should be relaxed. The Punjab state governor was assassinated in 2001 by his bodyguard for asking for leniency for Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was sentenced to death2. Demonstrations broke out in favour of the bodyguard. Such is the temper in a country that is being dragged backwards into a barbarous theocracy by religionists, amidst a wave of fear. The concept of blasphemy is their primary weapon.
Decades of increasingly strict and conservative Sunni Islam has resulted in a situation of violent intolerance of anything else5 with the worst possible scale of religious persecution6. Pakistan has no freedom of religion or belief6,2, and sees consistent violence and disproportionate judicial process against religious minorities, especially Shia Muslims7, Hindus4, Christians7,4, the Ahmadiyya Muslim community7,4 and atheists are victimized even more than Christians. It is impossible to apply for a passport or citizenship without choosing a religion - no religion is not a legal answer2. Pakistan's infamously unjust blasphemy laws are used as the primary weapon of intolerance1,2,3 and to prevent any criticism of Muhammad or those connected to him, including academic and historical analysis1,8, with deadly consequences for those doing so.
When it comes to religious freedom and persecution, sociologists Grim & Finke place Pakistan into the worst category, along with just 13 other countries. In this category, severe restrictions on religious freedom and freedom of belief stem simultaneously from top-down pressure from government and institutionalized religion, and from bottom-up grassroots movements that often go even further than the government in harassing those who do not believe the right things (2011)6.
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The International Humanist and Ethical Union produced a summary of some of the relevant law in Pakistan:
“The constitution and other laws and policies restrict freedom of religion, and in practice national and local government enforce these restrictions. Chapter XV of Pakistan's Penal Code contains several sections regarding blasphemy-type laws. Article 295-A outlaws "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs." Article 295-B outlaws the defiling of the Holy Qu'ran. Article 295-C bans the use of derogatory remarks in respect of the Holy Prophet. Article 298 bars uttering works with the deliberate intent to wound religious feelings. And article 298-B punishes any misuse of epithets, descriptions, or titles reserved for certain holy personages or places.”
"Freedom of Thought" by IHEU (2012)2
Things got worse in 2023; "Insulting Islam or its founder is already a capital offense, but now those who insult people connected to the Prophet Muhammad could get prison time"8.
“Prosecutions for blasphemy are widely thought to be brought against those wishing to eliminate competitors or those against whom they have a feud or grudge. The mere accusation may result in accused's life being endangered in prison, and such is the power of the mullahs who often come to court to intimidate the judiciary in such cases, that obtaining a lawyer, and even a judge to try the case fairly is often impossible. An accusation, however false, can therefore become a sentence of death. [...]
On June 22, 2011, 29-year-old Abdul Sattar was sentenced to death and fined 50,000 rupees (US$1,000) for sending text messages and having phone conversations in which the Holy Qu'ran, the Prophet Muhammad, and other Islamic figures were allegedly blasphemed.
On Oct. 13, 2012, a retired schoolteacher named Ameer Ali Wahocho was sentenced to three years in prison for allegedly making insulting remarks about the Prophet Muhammad and his family. Wahocho was originally sentenced to one month, which he appealed. While out on bail, his accuser also petitioned - for a stricter sentence. The accuser's petition was granted and Ameer Ali Wahocho's prison sentence was extended to three years.
[...] An IHEU member organization was formed in Pakistan in the 1990s, but its founder, Dr Younus Shaikh, was soon charged with blasphemy and sentenced to death (following an IHEU campaign, Dr Shaikh's conviction was overturned and he fled the country). Today, there is no registered organization in Pakistan able to become an IHEU member. Yet there is a thriving Facebook group for Pakistani atheists with far more participants than the defunct off-line group ever attracted.”
"Freedom of Thought" by IHEU (2012)2
A Chinese man working on a dam project, Mr Tian, was arrested and jailed in April 2023, accused of making 'blasphemous remarks'. Muslim protests and demonstrations have endangered a Chinese-workers camp in Barseen, Kohistan (northern Pakistan), disrupted traffic, and resulted in Mr Tian being moved to a different location4.
An article in the New York Times in 2023 which reported on Mr Tian reflected the world's despair at the state of Pakistan's blasphemy laws:
“The arrest of a foreigner under the country´s harsh blasphemy laws, which can lead to the death penalty, is rare and could strain an otherwise warming relationship between China and Pakistan. [...]
People accused of blasphemy frequently become targets of mob violence and have been beaten or killed in growing numbers in recent years [...] including the vandalization of Hindu temples and neighborhoods, the torching of police stations by furious mobs, the lynching of a student on a university campus, and the arrest and killing of teachers and senior politicians.”
“At least 19 people remained on death row in 2017 after being convicted under Pakistan´s draconian blasphemy law, and hundreds awaited trial. Most [are] members of religious minorities [...] and are often victimized by these charges due to personal disputes.
In 2017, Pakistan witnessed an increase in blasphemy-related violence while the government continued to encourage discriminatory prosecutions and other forms of discrimination against vulnerable groups by failing to repeal discriminatory laws and using religious rhetoric inciting hatred against minority groups. In March, the interior minister described blasphemers as "enemies of humanity," and stated he would take the issue to its "logical conclusion" in taking action against them.
In 2017 [...] March, the interior minister described blasphemers as "enemies of humanity,"and stated he would take the issue to its "logical conclusion" in taking action against them.
In April, a mob dragged Mashal Khan, a 23-year-old student at a university in Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, from his dormitory and shot him dead over accusations that he made blasphemous remarks against Islamic injunctions. In May, a 10-year-old boy was killed when a mob tried to storm a police station in Balochistan to attack a man held on blasphemy charges.
The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) sent out a mass text message in May to millions of users informing them that uploading and sharing blasphemous content is a punishable offense, and asking them to report such content.”
“On November 8, 2010, Asia Bibi, a Christian farm worker and mother of five was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death for allegedly making blasphemous remarks following a disagreement with a Muslim co-worker who refused to drink from a container of water she carried, believing it was tainted. Several prominent Pakistani politicians have been assassinated for supporting her freedom.”
The Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, argued for leniency for Bibi and campaigned to reform Pakistan's horrible blasphemy laws. As a result, he was assassinated by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Hussein Qadri on 2011 Jan 042. Demonstrations of support for the bodyguard broke out across Pakistan - "'the demonstrations expressed the feelings of many' according to Pakistanis themselves, the reforms were making people angry and 'God gave Qadri the courage to do something about it'"9.
“His assassins left leaflets threatening opponents of blasphemy laws with a similar fate. Despite the fact that members of the Tehrik-e-Taliban have taken responsibility for the murder, no one has yet been charged in Bhatti's death.”
"Freedom of Thought" by IHEU (2012)2
After she was finally acquitted in 2019, she and her lawyer have faced death threats, and both fled Pakistan4. Such is the temper in a country that is being dragged backwards into a barbarous theocracy by religionists, amidst a wave of fear.