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.