Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which turns 30 this year, has become only more deadly with age. Since blasphemy was made a capital crime under the nation’s secular penal code, the effect has been to suppress moderate influences, pushing “Pakistani society further out on the slippery slope of extremism,” said Mujeeb-ur-Rahman, senior advocate at the Supreme Court of Pakistan, in Washington last week. With its large population and sensitive location, Pakistan is a place where any societal shift in the direction of the Taliban deserves the attention of all concerned about Islamic extremism. Instead, this is one more foreign threat that the Obama administration underestimates.
On October 16, for the first time, an appeals court affirmed a death sentence for blasphemy meted out to a woman. A Christian mother of five, Asia Bibi was arrested in 2009 after fellow field hands complained that, during a dispute, she had insulted the prophet of Islam. No evidence was produced, because to repeat blasphemy is blasphemous. Similarly, anyone who defends an accused blasphemer risks being labeled a blasphemer; two officials who made appeals on Bibi’s behalf—Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, federal minister for minorities affairs—were assassinated in 2011. Bibi has one last legal recourse, an appeal to the federal Supreme Court, but now no public official dares speak up for her—or for any other blasphemy defendant.
Accusations of blasphemy are brought disproportionately against Pakistan’s Christians, some 2 percent of the population. Intent is not an element of the crime, and recent years have seen cases brought against illiterate, mentally disabled, and teenage Christians. Each case seems to heighten the sensitivities of the extremists and further fracture society. The flimsiest rumor of a Koran burning can spark hysteria ending in riots against entire Christian communities. Lahore’s St. Joseph Colony was torched last year in such a pogrom.
But blasphemy complaints against Muslims are also on the rise. Muslims now make up the largest defendant class; by contrast, during the entire 200 years of the British Raj, not a single blasphemy case against a Muslim is documented, according to the Islamabad Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS). Particularly hard hit are the Ahmadis, who pride themselves on reconciling Islamic beliefs with modern principles of pluralism, secularism, and peace. In 1974, the constitution was amended to declare the group heretical, and two of the five penal code sections devoted to blasphemy are specific to them. A few months ago, in a not atypical case, an Ahmadi doctor was charged with blasphemy after two Pakistanis posing as patients accused him of “posing as a Muslim” because, at their request, he read from a Koran.
Increasingly, liberal thinkers among Pakistan’s majority Hanafi Muslims are accused of blasphemy. The law’s vagueness—it bans irreverent words about Islam “either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly”—means it can be used against almost anyone, for almost anything. Extremists aggressively manipulate perceptions. Emboldened and even legitimized by the law, some are dispensing with the legal process altogether, acting, often with impunity, as judge and executioner.
The most famous victim of this parody of justice is Malala Yousafzai, one of this year’s Nobel Peace laureates. The media have downplayed the whispering campaign accusing Malala of defaming Islam by challenging the cultural taboo against female education. The accusations have come not only from the Taliban, who shot her but failed to kill her two years ago. Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, pointed out in the Wall Street Journal the Twitter campaign #MalalaDrama, whereby hundreds of young followers of cricket hero Imran Khan have denounced Malala as a “tool of the evil West who is seeking to impose Western values on Islamic Pakistan.” She wisely remains in exile in the United Kingdom, even though Swat, her homeland, has been reclaimed from the Taliban. (Malala is Pakistan’s second Nobel laureate. Its first, Abdus Salam, awarded a Nobel in physics in 1979, was among the earliest Ahmadis driven from Pakistan. He died in exile, but after his remains were buried in Pakistan, a magistrate ordered that words identifying him as Pakistan’s first “Muslim” Nobel laureate be filed off his tombstone.)