Pakistan blasphemy laws ignite tension with the U.S.

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_PAK130912aa001.jpegLAHORE, Pakistan – Harsh laws forbidding blasphemy against Islam are dividing Pakistani society and driving a wedge between the South Asian country and the United States.

Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department announced added Pakistan to its Special Watch List for severe religious freedom violations, citing the abuse of Christians, Hindus, the Ahmadi Muslim sect and other religious minorities in the country.

Central to that abuse are the country’s blasphemy laws, said Daniel Mark, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “Pakistan continues to harass its religious minorities, has state-sanctioned discrimination against groups such as the Ahmadis, and tolerates extra-judicial violence in the guise of opposing blasphemy,” Mark said in a statement.

The Jan. 4 move came on the same day President Donald Trump froze security aid to Pakistan, saying Islamabad had failed to crack down on terrorist networks in the country.

Similarly, the draconian blasphemy laws reflect how Pakistani leaders have permitted radical Islamic beliefs to infiltrate the judiciary, said local experts.

“Why is Pakistan’s establishment mainstreaming jihadists?” asked Pervez Hoodbhoy, a political analyst based in Islamabad. “For three decades, Pakistan’s military establishment has stoutly denied supporting violent religious groups but today the military’s attitude is more ambivalent.”

Controversies over blasphemy laws boiled over in November when protesters led by firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi brought the Pakistani capital to standstill after lawmakers altered their parliamentary oath in a manner that Rizvi said undermined the sanctity of the Prophet Mohammed.

Lawmakers restored the original wording of the oath, but the protesters demanded for the resignation of the Law Minister Zahid Hamid. He resigned and the Pakistani military negotiated an end to the blockade of the main highway into Islamabad. Six died in the protests.

Now Rizvi’s political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah, which advocates for Sharia law in the country, is widely expected to gain seats in parliament in July’s general election.

His party has been growing since 2016, when authorities executed Mumtaz Qadri, a former police officer who assassinated Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in 2011 for his opposition to the country’s blasphemy laws. Qadri and Rizvi are both adherents of the Barelvi movement that holds mystical beliefs about Mohammed.

“The execution of Mumtaz Qadri has revived the blasphemy issue and reinvigorated Barelvi activism,” said Hoodbhoy.

Introduced under British rule, the blasphemy laws originally carried a maximum sentence of two years in prison. But in the mid-1980’s, General Zia ul Haq, a military dictator on a campaign of Islamization, revised the legislation to include strict punishments for a wide array of infringements, including the desecration of the Koran.

“Pakistan was made in the name of Islam and its Prophet and we should uphold a law like blasphemy, which protects our religion,” said Khadim Hussain Rizvi, leader of the Pakistani Taliban. “Why should Muslims be apologetic about it?”

Rizvi noted that that Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of modern Pakistan, was a lawyer who defended Ilm-ud-din, a 19-year-old Muslim man who stabbed Hindu publisher Mahashe Rajpal for publishing a book that the young man felt was offensive to Muslims.

Today, the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a Catholic group, said 633 Muslims, 494 Ahmadis, 187 Christians and 21 Hindus have charged under the blasphemy rules since 1987. No one has been executed, but currently 40 people are on death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy, according to the U.S. on International Religious Freedom.

The most prominent death-row convict is Asia Bibi, a Christian woman found guilty in 2010 for alleged blasphemy during an argument a year earlier about drinking Muslim women’s water as she was harvesting berries.

“Once someone is even accused of blasphemy, they are doomed,” said Farzana Bari, a Pakistani human rights activist and director of the Gender Studies Department at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. “Violence against minorities is on the rise, and people are now encouraged to commit such acts with impunity.”

Last year 2017 saw at least 10 high-profile blasphemy cases that garnered headlines in Pakistan. Many of the cases suggested that blasphemy laws were being used irresponsibly or as retaliation in other disputes, often in the form of vigilante killings.

“Blasphemy has become the tool of choice for Pakistan’s resurgent Islamists, one that rarely fails,” said Hoodbhoy. “Point your finger at someone – possibly someone whose business you covet or a political opponent – and scream that he defiled Prophet Muhammad. Before you know it, a lynch crowd will have assembled.”

In September, a judge in the eastern city of Gujrat sentenced Nadeem James, 35, to death after a friend accused him of sharing anti-Islamic material on WhatsApp.

In June, police charged 28-year-old Christian mechanic Ashfaq Masih with blasphemy after he got into verbal spat for asking a customer for 36 cents as payment for a car repair. He was booked under the blasphemy law and is now awaiting trial.

In May, a mob attacked a mentally disabled man and beat him brutally inside a mosque in Chitral in northern Pakistan after he was accused of uttering blasphemous remarks following Friday prayers. No one was charged in the incident, but prosecutors filed blasphemy and terrorism charges against the man.

In spite of occasionally talk of rescinding blasphemy rules, Pakistani officials have used them for their own ends, too. A year ago, authorities apprehended five bloggers who had been critical of Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies. They were released but charged with blasphemy.

The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), a counter-intelligence agency, later told a judge in Islamabad that no evidence was found against the bloggers. However, their lives will never be the same.

“Blasphemy accusations against us were never about prosecution,” said Ahmad Waqass Goraya, 35, one of the the activists forcibly abducted last year. “The purpose was to disgrace us and our families in public and set example for others. They wanted to suppress our voices.”

The bloggers either moved or keep a low-profile in their communities.  “The counter-intelligence agency’s statement doesn’t change anything for us,” said Goraya. “The fear of being lynched…remains the same. Our families live under constant fear from Islamic extremists and the state alike.”

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