In 2017, Mashal Khan, a 23-year-old university student in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, was killed in mob violence after being charged with blasphemy. Because the lynching took place on his college campus, the case has become the subject of intense debate at universities and educational institutions across the country. This has sparked a debate about Pakistan’s growing religious intolerance and abuse of blasphemy laws.
But the arguments and discussions at the time seemed fruitless.
On August 7, Abdul Rauf, a young teacher in Turbat Township, Baluchistan Province, was killed by unidentified militants for blasphemy. “He was going to a jirga meeting (traditional assembly) Ulema (The religious leader) explained his position, but before he could do so, he was shot,” Saadia Baloch (pseudonym), a student activist in Balochistan, told The Diplomat.
Killings and mob violence sparked by blasphemy charges are not new in Pakistan. Indeed, hundreds of people have been wrongly accused and many killed in targeted sectarian attacks over the decades.
Pakistan is a predominantly Sunni Muslim country with large religious and sectarian minorities including Shia Muslims, Christians and Hindus. Ahmadis, declared non-Muslims by the state, are perhaps the worst targets of persecution.
In Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, Shiites are often targeted for violence, while the Ahmadi community is seen as heretics. Hindus and Christians, especially those from lower castes, also face extreme violence.
Young rural girls from Hindu communities in Pakistan’s southwestern Sindh province have reportedly been abducted and forced to convert and marry. On the rare occasions such cases gain media attention and go to court, judges usually rule that the shift was by choice and voluntary. These women are forced to live with their abusers for the rest of their lives.
There is no comparison when it comes to deciding which form of violence based on religious intolerance is worse. While forced conversions and targeted sectarian killings affect millions of people in the country, the abuse of blasphemy laws, lynchings, personal feuds, the burning of entire neighborhoods and the destruction of places of worship are symptoms of a human rights crisis and collective social chaos.
Mob violence and criminal charges over religious issues are more common in Pakistan than anywhere else, according to a 2021 report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.
One reason for this is the poor record of the country’s law and order system in protecting citizens, especially minority communities.
But in mid-August, the system showed problems when police failed to stop or stop armed mobs who attacked Christian communities in Jalanwala, Punjab, raiding, looting and setting fire to their homes, churches and businesses.
It all started when several pages of the Koran were found near the Christian community with alleged blasphemy inscribed on them. The pages were reportedly handed over to a local religious leader who urged protests and demanded the arrest of the perpetrators. But before the matter could be further investigated, armed men broke into the Christian community and unleashed violence.
“[The mob] “We managed to destroy the entire neighborhood and its places of worship, and it must have taken hours,” said Waiza Rafique, a lawyer in Lahore. Arriving after the loss has already occurred? [done]? “
Pakistani society has undergone a process of Islamization starting in the 1980s, when General Zia used religion to legitimize his military coup. It leads to the Islamization of Pakistani society and its institutions.
“Religion is ingrained in all our institutions. It’s embedded in politics, education, and the media,” said Sadia Baloch, noting that “there is no proper understanding of religious scriptures but only instilling extremism in the masses.”
The origins of Pakistani blasphemy laws often date back to British colonial times, but were rarely used until the 1970s. The law was strengthened during the Islamization of the country under the Zia regime.
“Derogatory remarks about the Holy Prophet, etc.” under Pakistani criminal law [Muhammad] Whether spoken or written, or by manifest manifestations, or by any accusation, innuendo, or insinuation, direct or indirect, shall be punishable by death, or by imprisonment for life, and may be punished by a fine. This is often abused by people to resolve personal disputes. In such cases, vigilantes take the law into their hands and go on a rampage before any investigations even begin.
Although Pakistani laws also prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion, these laws are rarely enforced. What’s more, the police and other law enforcement agencies are not trained to deal with vigilante rioters.
There are several initiatives at the community level that can defuse tensions before they escalate into violence.
“Women from Hindu and Christian minorities collectively mediate and resolve local issues before they turn into disputes or from turning into interfaith violence,” said Elaine Alam, a human rights practitioner based in Lahore.
However, political institutions and the criminal justice system have yet to take any real steps to curb violence at the societal level. False allegations of religious-based blasphemy, mob lynchings, marginalization and persecution are fueling appalling religious violence. There is an urgent need to reform the educational, social and criminal justice systems.