Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws: Death and Destruction

Another Pakistani politician, this time a Christian cabinet minister was slain by an assassin’s bullet. Shahbaz Bhatti, 41, was ambushed and killed because he campaigned for the country’s blasphemy laws to be amended or abolished. Clearly, passions are running high about the mere suggestion that the laws be amended. Punjab governor, Salman Taseer paid with his life in January 2011 for saying the blasphemy law was a ‘black law’. Even moderates chastised him for labeling the law in those terms, signaling that they too wish to retain some aspect of a blasphemy law. The truth of the matter is that the blasphemy laws no longer curbs blasphemy, but rather serves as a diabolical tool for demagoguery and provides a pretext for extra-judicial executions. While Pakistani officials normally say that not a single person was executed under the blasphemy law, what they fail to tell is that at least 30 people were killed once they were tainted with the charge of blasphemy and that dozens of people are languishing in jail. And the murderers of such accused people are never properly apprehended or seriously punished. The blasphemy provision in Pakistan not only kills people, it has become the kangaroo-court of choice for the demagogues–religious and secular alike and an open arena for vigilante murders. Perhaps the only time when Pakistanis will meaningfully do something about this law is when those very people who advocate it will become its victims. The day is not far off when a Muslim of Bareilwi persuasion will yell ‘blasphemy’ at his Deobandi adversaries for not honoring the Prophet Muhammad or vice versa, or when a Sunni will hurl the charge of blasphemy at a person of Shia conviction in order to legitimate bloodshed. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to predict this kind of outcome. If this blasphemy provision is not curbed, among other things, it will certainly mutate into a catastrophic tool of demagoguery and bring a fragile country closer to the precipice. Evil clearly flourishes when good people do nothing. But first there has to be a sensibility of what constitutes evil. But when one person after another gets slain within months of each other without even a murmur of effective protest and concerted outrage on the part of a considerable mass of right-thinking Pakistanis, then one really has to wonder.

About ebrahimmoosa

Professor of Islamic Studies, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA
This entry was posted in Ethics, Islamic Law/Ethics, Middle East, Muslim Ethics, Pakistan, South Asia. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws: Death and Destruction

  1. Sohaib says:

    Painful indeed. I do want to say however, that contrary to popular perception, critical voices in Pakistan haven’t been completely silenced over the matter. If you follow the mainstream print and television news media in Pakistan, there is such an evident overabundance of debate and dialog concerning the abuse of blasphemy laws in the country.

    A lot more can be, and should be, done of course. Regrettably, no significant mass protests on the streets have been observed in response to Governor Taseer’s and now Minister Bhatti’s killings. I personally think that public condemnations by the religious right *could* have a drastic impact on the irresolute position pertaining to such acts of violence taken by masses with a religious bent. Dr. Tahir ul Qadri and Javed Ahmad Ghamidi are influential voices indeed, but the former doesn’t command much respect and authority amongst his Barailwi comrades beyond his own organization, whereas the latter is viewed with suspicion owing to his popular acceptance amongst secular-liberals and the support he enjoys from the government.

    Mufti Taqi Usmani’s fatwas tend to change global financial market trends (that’s not an exaggeration; it happened in Malaysia in 2008). Last year, during facebook’s endorsement of the ‘draw Muhammad cartoon’ day, he even gave out a public appeal asking Pakistani Muslims to boycott the social network. Yet, he remains conspicuously silent about the joke that is now being made on punishing “blasphemers” of the Prophet in his own country. Perhaps he is trying not to invite the wrath of his Deobandi comrades by questioning the validity of an ‘Islamic’ law that he himself had an active role in formulating at the time of General Zia’s constitutional amendments. I might be completely wrong in my assessment of Mufti Taqi Usmani here. I did come across a fatwa in which he denounced the killing of Governor Taseer, but I couldn’t verify its authenticity since it was posted on a blog without any proper references. Access to Dar al-‘Ulum Karachi’s monthly “Al-Balagh” at Al-Rashid Trust’s “Darb-i Mu’min” seems indispensable these days! If I do get to travel to Pakistan this summer, I want to make sure that I dig deep into Deobandi journalism material and other resources to find out what is being said in their discourses and political commentaries on the situation in Pakistan.

    I just want to end by saying that the killings that have taken place in connection with Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are an epiphenomena. You yourself hinted to the larger political malaise that Pakistan has been going through in your blog post on Governor Taseer’s murder. Unless that complex assemblage of both local and foreign military, political and economic elements is factored into our analysis, I don’t know how we can predict or propose any workable solutions to Pakistan’s predicament. That is why I myself was a little skeptical when mentioning the need for the religious right to speak out. I felt it was necessary to say this, and also to provide a corrective in the beginning of my post about voices being silenced in Pakistan, because I know that New York Times best selling journalists like Ahmed Rashid are going to make a big buck out of the present situation by constructing a grand narrative of the “Pakistani apocalypse.”

    Check out his enthusiastic endorsement of this one:


  2. anisaljanis says:

    Dr. Moosa….I think the dichotomy results from a basic component of shariah law. Shariah forbids the proselytization of the poor and ignorant– it is in the Noble Quran. Freedom of speech legalizes the proselytization of everyone, including the poor and ignorant. Therefore freedom of speech and al-Islam are simply not compatible.
    In the terminology of John Maynard-Smith, in Evolution and the Theory of Games, islamic culture presents as an uninvadable strategy. This is empirically true in Iraq and Afghanistan. 10 years ago Afghanistan was 99% muslim and Iraq was 97% muslim…this is unchanged today, after nearly a decade of occupation and the expense of 4.4 trillion dollars of American taxpayer monies.
    No significant number of converts to westernstyle democracy with freedom of speech and freedom of religion. I actually think it cannot be done, because when muslims are democratically empowered to vote, they vote for shariah law, and never for “missionary” democracy with freedom of speech. Islamic culture is EGT immune to penetration by freedom of speech memes.

    bi la kayfah


  3. anisaljanis says:

    Dr. Moosa
    I have read al-Ghazali, I have read the Muhyyadin. I have read the Generous Quran.
    I have read the Poetics of the Imagination.
    I have asked every muslim I know.
    Could you please make a dihliz where we can discuss my question?
    Is freedom of speech incompatible with shariah law?
    I think freedom of speech is incompatible with shariah, islamic culture, and indeed, with al-Islam itself. In this slice of spacetime.


  4. anisaljanis says:

    Dr. Moosa
    this is from your CFR piece.
    “Just as every policymaker needs to know the ABCs of diplomacy, they need to understand the ABCs of culture. And a deep knowledge of the culture is the knowledge of religion. Lacking that, there can be all kinds of faux pas. Important military divisions and wings of our government [have shown] that there is a tremendous knowledge deficit.”
    In evolutionary theory of culture evolutionary games theory, Islam is an un-invadable CSS (culturally stable strategy). Islam is resistant to proselytization, the “killer app” of christianity.
    That is why I think it is very to important to determine if freedom of speech is incompatible with shariah. I think it is. What do you think?


    • ebrahimmoosa says:

      Dear Anisaljanis,
      I am not sure I agree with all your presumptions. There is nothing essential about Islam being “un-invadable” or a killer app of Christianity. Muslims convert to other religions and people convert to Islam. If you think Shariah consists only of those teachings that were construed in the early centuries where you had an ethics of obligation. But it is eminently possible that a version of Shariah that takes liberal or communitarian presumptions seriously could find a way to valorize freedom of speech.


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