The Barbarism of Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws

Novelist Ali Sethi has an op-ed column in the New York Times about Pakistan’s brutal and horrifying blasphemy laws, which have been used more frequently over the last few years, primarily against Christians and other religious minorities. He traces the history of those laws:

Those jaws have been open wide since the 1980s, when the military dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq updated a set of colonial laws that criminalized “insulting the religion of any class of persons.” The original laws were devised in the late 19th century by a paternalistic British government trying to keep its multifaith subjects from fighting one another. Those laws were worded generally, and prescribed fines and, at most, two-year prison terms.

General Zia’s amendments particularized the insults and tailored the provisions to favor a stringent Sunni strain of Islam. They criminalized the desecration of the Quran, any defiling of the name of the Prophet Muhammad, and disrespectful remarks about his companions — a jab at Pakistan’s Shiite minorities, who dispute the outcome of the succession struggle that followed the Prophet’s death. Moreover, any attempt by members of the outlawed Ahmadi sect to refer to themselves as Muslims was criminalized. Punishments were upgraded: Blasphemers could be executed or jailed for life.

General Zia died in an air crash in 1988, but his legacy remains. It includes the empowerment of theological figures in every stratum of life — from clerics and televangelists to fanatical academics and Shariah judges — all aided in their righteous endeavors by a legislature that remains intractably Zia-ist.

The blasphemy laws are part of this package. For decades they had been rarely used, with only a handful of cases before the mid-1980s. But General Zia’s amendments opened the floodgates: More than a thousand cases have been reported since then, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Just last week the Punjabi police, prompted by a Sunni extremist, brought blasphemy charges against 68 lawyers…

Pakistan’s Islamist groups have little incentive to reform the blasphemy laws. They have even expanded the understanding of blasphemy so that it now includes any criticism of the laws themselves. This has been achieved by targeting high-profile dissenters, like Salmaan Taseer, a governor of Punjab province, and Shahbaz Bhatti, a federal minister for minorities, who were both assassinated in 2011.

And then, just two weeks ago, there was the murder of Rashid Rehman.

They closed in on him as mafias do, from all sides. First there were encoded warnings in Urdu newspapers, describing a lawyer who was out to “hurt himself.” Then there was a press conference in Multan at which a group of stern-faced clerics accused Rehman of trying to make an international issue of the Hafeez case. In April, during Hafeez’s trial, three lawyers for the prosecution told Rehman in front of the judge that by the next hearing he “would not exist.”

Let us not mince words: This is barbarism. It is totalitarianism. It is intellectual and religious fascism.

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  • raven

    Let us not mince words: This is barbarism. It is totalitarianism. It is intellectual and religious fascism.

    Among other things.

    Pakistan is a failed nation state. There are so many conflicts, it is hard to keep track of them. There is a civil war in Baluchistan. The Sunnis attack the Shiites and Sufis. Everyone hates the xians, Ahmadiyas, and Hindus. The Taliban hate everyone else.


    As of 2013 massive long-standing electricity shortages continued with long-standing failure to provide reliable service and rampant corruption being met by public protests, unauthorized connections, and refusal by consumers to pay for intermittent service.[2][3][4]

    Electricity generation in Pakistan has shrunk by up to 50% in recent years due to an over-reliance on fossil fuels.[5] In 2008, availability of power in Pakistan falls short of the population’s needs by 15%[6] Pakistan was hit by its worst power crisis in 2007 when production fell by 6000 Megawatts and massive blackouts followed suit.[6] Load Shedding and power blackouts have become severe in Pakistan in recent years.[7] The main problem with Pakistan’s poor power generation is rising political instability, together with rising demands for power and lack of efficiency.[8] Provincial and federal agencies, who are the largest consumers, often do not pay their bills.[9]

    They can’t even keep the lights on. The amount of electricity they have is going down, not up.

  • raven

    There have been studies on Why Nations Fail, the title of a recent book.

    You need a strong central government and you need to collect enough taxes to keep things running. For taxes, the minimum is around 10% of GDP.

    Pakistan has neither a strong central government nor a working tax system. The amount they spend on public education and social services is very low and they have the results to show for it. Illiteracy is high and so on. It’s what keeps the polio epidemics going, decades after the disease should be extinct.

    While this is bad news, there is worse. There doesn’t seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel. The trends are unfavorable and getting worse, not better.

  • StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Fucvk yeah Ed.

  • colnago80

    The bottom line is that Pakistan is a failed state, much like Syria. The scary part is that Pakistan has a fairly substantial nuclear arsenal which is a danger to every neighboring country. Imagine if the Taliban were to get their shithooks on some of that arsenal.

  • StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    @2. raven : Pakistan is fucked.

    That sucks.

    But it is.

    Would hate to be them. Feel sorry for them. But is the case.

  • StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    @ colnago 80 : Yes.

    It is a fucking nightmare prospect.

  • StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    NO, I do NOT think we sould nuke them or attack ’em.

    But fuck, what do we do? How do we handle it if that happens?

    How can /do we stop innocent people from dying and in which places?

    So fucken glad I don’t have any say in what happens with this issue. Would hate to be in the shoes of those who do hafta make whatever decisions will have to be made if /then. Whatever those are. They will be horrific.

    World is fucken fucked.

  • Nick Gotts

    So fucken glad I don’t have any say in what happens with this issue. – StevoR@7

    Something on which I’m sure there will be near-universal agreement.

    It’s been said (I can’t recall the source) that:

    “Most countries have an army. The army of Pakistan has a country.”

    The army owns around 40% of the economy. Sometimes they let civilian politicians pretend to run the place for a while, but it’s a flimsy facade at best. The core of the state apparatus is the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), which has complex relationships with the extreme Islamist factions, but none of these has any real prospect of taking over. In the usual sense, Pakistan is not a failed state – it’s quite clear who’s in charge. Rotten for most of the population, but despite the nukes, probably not a short- or even medium-term danger for the outside world.

  • colnago80

    Re Nick Gotts @ #8

    Not entirely accurate. The Pakistan Government has no control over the tribal areas near the border with Afghanistan, among other things. In other parts of the country, Al Qaeda elements act freely with no interference by the military, which is too busy preparing for an invasion by the Indian Armed Forces to bother with internal terrorists.

  • Kamaka

    These blasphemy laws are the same damn thing as the centuries of witch hunts and pogroms against the Jews: an excuse to take other people’s stuff and to destroy the lives of enemies, the disliked and anyone else that gets in the way of the “I’m in charge” nasties.

    Torquemada lives on.