Fabien Baussart
Fabien Baussart

Pakistan: Religious minorities at risk

The blasphemy cases in Pakistan narrate a very different story on human relationships, wherein individuals/communities are seen using the clauses of the blasphemy law to settle personal scores with members of religious minority groups often on very flimsy grounds. The blasphemy laws in Pakistan can have serious consequences as enforcement officials have powers to arrest, indulge in arbitrary detention with a penalty up to death/life imprisonment as per the law of the land. These controversial laws are also deployed as tools to spark assaults, cause murders and indulge in mob attacks on minority community members. The infamous case of Asiya Bibi case is a grim reminder of the reality of Pakistan where even after the Supreme Court’s decision to free her, the religious extremists who were enraged by the judgement, killed a prominent politician who made statements in her favour, polarised the society and engaged in rioting which went on for almost three consecutive days in a supposedly civilized society.

Not just for those practicing other religions, Pakistan’s blasphemy law derived from the principles governing the country’s constitution has a discriminatory legal structure for different Muslim sects. The Ahmadiyya Muslims are prohibited from identifying themselves as Muslims or calling their places of worship as mosques, thus diminishing their right to practice their own faith.

The USCIRF 2019 report highlighted that groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), and Tehrik-e-Taliban (Pakistani Taliban) directly threatened religious minority communities—particularly Hazara Shi’as in Quetta—and targeted community leaders who advocated religious freedom.

For the past few years, the far-right religious group Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has created havoc in the country with one of its religious scholars in the eastern city of Lahore, Hassan Muawiya, alone lodging nearly 20 cases of blasphemy against members of Ahmaddiya community. In these cases, Muawiya is either a complainant or a witness/advisor. He is also involved in intimidating lawyers who fight blasphemy cases on behalf of the accused. At present, Muawiya is regarded as the flag-bearer in the blasphemy fight against the Ahmaddiya community.

Cases are registered against the Ahmadis if they possess a copy of Islam’s holy book, the Quran, or for writing Prophet Muhammad’s name on auspicious occasions like wedding, ceremonies etc. or for uttering the Muslim works of faith in places of worship. Moreover, judges in Pakistan are pressurised not to acquit the accused and if they do so, they or their family members are threatened with murder. Since 1990, nearly 80 people have been murdered in the name of blasphemy laws, which include lawyers, judges, family members of accused etc.

The majority of blasphemy cases that have occurred in Pakistan are from the dominant Punjab province where many religious minorities reside. In a case of February 2018, two teenage Christians were arrested in Lahore for posting an allegedly “sacrilegious photo” on a Facebook group. Subsequently, religious extremist groups carried out violent protests in the teenagers’ predominantly Christian neighbourhood, threatening to burn down the entire area and its inhabitants. Nearly 800 Christians living in the area fled for fear of attacks, and the families of the accused simply vanished.

In another instance, a Hindu teenager in Sindh was charged with blasphemy after he shared allegedly “controversial” images relating to Muslims on Facebook. Many individuals accused of blasphemy have never made it to the courtroom as vigilante violence has caused the murder of 62 innocent people since 1990, with very few being prosecuted for mob violence or lynching.

In fact, in one instance, the Chief Justice of Pakistan during a special case hearing in May 2018, candidly accepted that attacks on the Hazara Shi’a Muslims in Balochistan Province were tantamount to wiping out an entire generation and that the state needed to “protect lives and property of the Hazara community.”

In Pakistan, the persecution of the Shi’a Muslim community continues till date not only driven by extremist groups, but in some instances backed by the government too. In May 2018, the BBC had exposed the “story of Pakistan’s ‘disappeared Shias,’ which detailed the harassment, arrest, and torture of nearly 140 Shi’a Muslims at the hands of Pakistan’s security agencies, the Pak Army and ISI. These individuals were often kept in secret detention without any formal charges/trial.

Back in 2010, Asiya Bibi’s family had requested the then Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, to take the matter to President for pardoning her death sentence. On finding merit in the case after meeting her in Sheikupara District Jail, Taseer endorsed a pardon letter on her behalf to then president Asif Ali Zardari. During the course, Taseer made the biggest mistake of his life while calling the British-made blasphemy law with no Quranic endorsement, a “black law”. This cost him his life when in broad daylight, he was assassinated (January 4, 2011) by his own security guard on duty, Mumtaz Qadri, who shot Taseer 27 times. Qadri confessed saying he did it because of the Governor naming the blasphemy law a black law. Barely two months after March 2011, another voice of support for Asia bibi drowned when PPP’s Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti was killed for speaking in favour of Asiya bibi.

In Pakistan, Hindu and Christian women are particularly vulnerable to these crimes because of the societal marginalization and the lack of legal protections for religious minorities. They not only bear the brunt of the blasphemy law but are also victims of forced conversion and marriage. These minority young women are forcefully converted into Islam and marriage, generally in the form of bonded labour. On this cause, several independent institutions, including the National Commission of Justice and Peace and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, estimated that nearly 1,000 young women are forcibly converted to Islam each year; after being kidnapped, forcibly married, and subjected to rape.

The apathy towards women remains long drawn as these women can barely reach out to the police, since in most cases, particularly in Punjab and Sindh provinces, the police were seen as being complicit with political leaders and the accused in cases of forced marriage and conversion. Local police investigation is generally either flawed or is in connivance with accused who creates pressure on the lady to deny any coercion. Blasphemy cases also face delay tactics including transfer of judges, prosecution witnesses not coming forward during trial and lawyers’ reluctance to present such cases.

Pakistan, literally meaning the land of the pure, is comprised of 97 per cent Muslims. The country is characterized by numerous self-avowed vigilantes of religion and self-declared guardians of the Islamic faith who often tend to cause chaos to promote their own political agenda, polarize the population and benefit in elections. Blasphemy charges can also take a toll on a person’s mental health along with impacting his existence in society. For instance, Junaid Hafeez, a former English lecturer from Multan, is one such victim among nearly 80 individuals to have faced alleged blasphemy charges. The USCIR in 2019 had highlighted in its report that “Hafeez has experienced extreme trauma to his mental and physical health, in part fuelled by death threats against himself, his family, and his lawyers; his previous defense counsel was murdered in May 2014.” It further observed that the “lengthy trial is now on its eighth judge and the prosecution has repeatedly failed to produce evidence of the alleged blasphemy.”

In Pakistan, blasphemy laws are also used to criminalize religious conversion and proselytization, thereby limiting the rights of religious minorities. Simply put, the state of blasphemy in Pakistan is such that, if someone wishes to express views publicly or leave Islam, they could face the death penalty, mob violence, incarceration and extra-judicial violence. It is time the world sits up and takes notice of not only these laws which are a violation of the human rights to freedom of thought and expression but also of the logic that supports them which is narrow, perverted, and an abuse of human freedom and intellect.

About the Author
Fabien Baussart is the President of CPFA (Center of Political and Foreign Affairs)