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Pakistan and Blasphemy: A Matter of Life and Death

Lela Gilbert

With increasing frequency, today’s global news stories and broadcasts report religiously inspired violence of insane proportions. In recent days the world has seen riots, beatings and murders including beheadings all attributed to the burning of a single Koran by a misguided American Christian clergyman. There is growing evidence that such incidents, like the Danish cartoon mob scenes before them, have been intentionally incited by radical clerics and even political figures. They have, in fact, become a macabre form of religious theater: The villains are those who allegedly blaspheme against Islam; the victims are Muslims, who are driven to uncontrollable fury by the infidel acts and exact ferocious vengeance on non-Muslims. All this often takes place half a world away from the initial incident.

We are often reminded that Judaism, Christianity and Islam comprise the world’s “three great monotheistic religions.” Of course, distinctive beliefs set the three faiths apart from one another. And while they all share a belief that there is but one God, within each great religion are divergent interpretations, making for myriad denominational debates: the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements in Judaism, the Shi’a/Sunni/Sufi divide in Islam, the Catholic/Protestant/Eastern Orthodox schisms in Christianity, and the innumerable other readings of holy texts that fall somewhere in between.

In the most radical contemporary interpretations of Islam, however, human life is of less value than the Islamic religion itself, or the sanctity of its holy book the Koran, or the revered reputation of its prophet Muhammad. And although riots over supposed acts of blasphemy and apostasy occur in many nations, no place on earth is more notorious in the enforcement of Muslim blasphemy laws than Pakistan.

In Pakistan, blasphemy is codified in the constitution as a matter of life and death.

The country has a population of around 187 million; it is 97 percent Muslim, with a minority population that includes Christians and Hindus. Founded in 1947 with the British Partition of India as a state for Muslims, Pakistan became virulently anti-Zionist when Israel declared independence the following year. The country’s already tiny population of Jews around 2,000 in 1948 was reduced by threats, violence and death to fewer than 200. Today it is negligible, although there may be random clusters of Jews who identify as members of other religious groups for self-protection.

At the time of the Pakistan-led terror attacks on Mumbai, India, in November 2008, the radical Islamist killers specifically targeted the city’s Chabad “Nariman House.” Reports later confirmed that the terrorists had been assured by their handlers in Pakistan that the lives of Jews were worth 50 times those of other non-Muslims. The Times reported, in an article titled, “Mumbai Attacks: And Then They Came for the Jews,” that “the organizers had sought [Nariman House] out with care. Most Mumbaikars knew of the Taj Mahal hotel. Few were aware of the small Jewish center tucked away on a backstreet.”

Considering the intentional targeting and the savage and torturous treatment of the hostages, particularly of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka, the hatred of some Pakistanis for Jews is clearly undiminished more than 60 years after the founding of the two states. However, as in other Muslim countries particularly in the Middle East, where the familiar slogan “First the Saturday people, then the Sunday people” is chanted and emblazoned on walls Pakistan’s “Saturday people” are virtually gone. Today it is the Christians, the “Sunday people,” who are in constant danger, thanks in large part to the feckless application of blasphemy laws.

Islam was established as Pakistan’s state religion in the 1973 constitution, which required all laws to be “consistent with Islamic ideology.” Blasphemy stipulations were entrenched during former president Zia ul- Haq’s regime: “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”

The stakes were raised even higher in 1990 when the Federal Shari’a Court, where cases involving Islamic issues are normally heard, ruled that “the penalty for contempt of the Holy Prophet… is death and nothing else.” These laws neither specifically define blasphemy nor protect those who are falsely accused. This, of course, invites shocking abuses and fabricated accusations, frequently motivated by business competition, personal grudges, property disputes or religious fanaticism.

At the same time, non-Muslims’ and women’s testimonies count for less in the Shari’a courts, so non- Muslims and women are particularly victimized.

One recent example is Asia Bibi, Christian mother of five, who was sentenced to death for blasphemy in November 2010. She is being held in solitary confinement in a filthy Lahore jail cell. Bibi is 45 years old, and on April 7 reports began to circulate that she was gravely ill. Although she is hardly the first Pakistani to face blasphemy charges, she has, in recent months, become a symbol of her homeland’s deadly religious edicts.

In late 2009, Bibi was working with other women in the fields of a local farm when she was asked to fetch drinking water. Some of the other women, all of whom were Muslims, refused to drink the water, as it had been brought by a Christian and was therefore “unclean.”

This erupted into an argument, which quickly ended and seemed to have been forgotten. Then, just a few days later, Bibi was attacked by a mob. The police were called and took her to a police station “for her own safety.”

According to the November 9 Daily Telegraph, “the police were under pressure from this Muslim mob, including clerics, asking for Asia to be killed because she had spoken ill of the Prophet Mohammed. So after the police saved her life they then registered a blasphemy case against her.”

Bibi was held for more than a year before being sentenced to death. Now her life is at even greater risk because of deteriorating health.

As we’ve seen, blasphemy accusations are not exclusive to Pakistan. Paul Marshall and Nina Shea write in National Review Online, April 8, “Muslim blasphemy has recently been defined to include: denouncing stoning as a human-rights violation (Sudan), opening girls’ schools (Bangladesh), criticizing the Guardianship of the Jurists (Iran), petitioning for a constitution (Saudi Arabia), use of the word ‘Allah’ by Christians (Malaysia), rejecting an order for violent jihad (Sudan), praying at the graves of relatives (Saudi Arabia), translating the Koran into Dari (Afghanistan), accidentally tearing a calendar page containing a Koranic verse (Pakistan), naming a teddy bear after a boy named Mohamed (Sudan), urging that the Koran be understood in its historical and cultural context (Indonesia), teaching Shi’ism (Egypt), and calling for a ban on child brides (Yemen). Mob violence, intimidation, court trials and penalties accompany these cases.

“And once in place, blasphemy laws are nearly impossible to reform. This year in Pakistan, Gov. Salman Taseer and cabinet minister Shabbaz Bhatti were murdered for opposing such laws.”

Indeed, in January, Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was gunned down by one of his own bodyguards. The shooter was angry about Taseer’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the fact that Taseer had come to the defense of Bibi. When the murderer arrived at the Islamabad court to plead guilty to the charges, he was greeted by an exuberant crowd, which congratulated him, slapped him on the back, kissed his cheeks and tossed flowers at him.

On March 2, Bhatti, a Roman Catholic and the only Christian member of Pakistan’s cabinet, was shot dead in an ambush by gunmen in Islamabad. He had often expressed his opposition to the blasphemy laws and persistently sought to reform them. Bhatti’s death was not unforeseen. After his death, The New York Times reported that the US government, concerned for Bhatti’s safety, had tried in the weeks before his killing to secure an armored car and beef up protection for him.

Leonard Leo, chairman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, said that in a recent visit to Washington, Bhatti had told the State Department that “his opposition to Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws had brought a stream of death threats.” The effort by the US to provide an armored car unfortunately became mired in bureaucracy, not least because of strained relations between Pakistan and the United States over the January arrest of a CIA contractor accused of murdering two Pakistanis.

On March 15, Qamar David, a Pakistani Christian serving a life sentence for blasphemy against Islam, was found dead in his Karachi jail cell. He was 55 years old and the father of four sons. Held in prison since 2002, David had been sentenced to a lifetime behind bars for allegedly sending insulting SMS messages about the Prophet Muhammad. The local authorities claimed that David had died of a heart attack, but his family dismissed that possibility, stating that he had been in good health at the time of his death. Those close to the case believe that the accusations were the result of a business rivalry, and that David was murdered by defenders of the blasphemy law.

Although no one in Pakistan has yet officially been executed for blasphemy, dozens of those accused have been put to death since the 1980s by vigilantes, local thugs or mobs, or police. The authorities too often turn a blind eye to such killings, even though some were killed even after having been acquitted. Many others have endured brutal rapes and beatings, while churches, homes and businesses have been ransacked, looted and burned.

Some Pakistani political leaders continue to stand courageously against the blasphemy laws, and so confront dangers of their own. Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, took the unusual step of holding a memorial service to eulogize Bhatti at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington. His powerful statements reflect the hopes, prayers and vision of like-minded countrymen and -women toward reforming their homeland’s draconian blasphemy laws.

Haqqani concluded his remarks saying, “Those who would murder a Salman Taseer or a Shahbaz Bhatti deface my religion, my prophet, my Koran and my Allah. Yet there is an overpowering, uncomfortable and unconscionable silence from the great majority of Pakistanis who respect the law, respect the Holy Book, and respect other religions.

“This silence endangers the future of my nation, and to the extent the silence empowers extremists, it endangers the future of peace and the future of the civilized world.

“We are all familiar with the haunting words of Pastor Martin Niemoller, written about pre-war Nazi Germany: ‘First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.’ “We cannot close our eyes, turn our backs and be silent about injustice and discrimination. When a Shahbaz Bhatti is murdered, and we remain silent, we have died with him.

“I recall the words of the great Rabbi Hillel, who said 2,000 years ago, ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? If not now, when?’ “If we are silent, we allow evil to win.

“If we are not with others, what are we? “It is unacceptable.

“It is un-Islamic.

“And if I may use a term that has been abused, it is blasphemy.”

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