Protests against blasphemy are a common sight in Pakistan. Credit: AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images

December 16, 2021   4 mins

A few weeks ago, a Sri Lankan factory worker was lynched by a mob in Sialkot, a city in Pakistan, before his corpse was left to burn in the street. He had been accused of blasphemy for removing posters that bore prayers eulogising Muhammad. Hundreds gathered to participate in the barbarity, while the local authorities stood by. Videos of the man’s body being torched circulated widely on social media.

This was Pakistan’s third blasphemy-related incident in just seven days. Earlier that week, a mob had set fire to a police station after it refused to hand over a man accused of desecrating the Quran. A couple of days earlier, four men were arrested for asking the local mosque to make a funeral announcement for a Christian.

Pakistan is only one of 12 Muslim-majority countries to carry the death penalty for blasphemy; 20 others implement harsh prison sentences. And blasphemy laws are frequently cited. Over the past fortnight, they have been used to censor schoolbooks in Northern Syria, curb digital freedom in Indonesia, send a Saudi man to death row over a tweet, and sentence renowned Egyptian lawyer and thinker Ahmed Abdo Maher to five years in prison.

It is in Pakistan, though, where the crime of blasphemy is most ferociously punished. But not through the courts. Pakistan likes to call itself a “democratic republic”, and therefore shies away from actually judicially executing anyone for sacrilege — unlike, say, Iran or Saudi Arabia. But the state has been known to turn a blind eye to Islamist mobs meting out vigilante justice. Many of the perpetrators actually argue that it is the state’s “failure to hang blasphemers” which means punishment has to be carried out extrajudicially. This claim was echoed in the aftermath of the Sialkot killing by the leader of the Islamist party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl (JUI-F), who said: “If the state won’t punish those who insult the prophet then such incidents will happen.”

The Islamist mobs are now so emboldened that they will freely target not only religious minorities, but also dissenting Muslims — the “wrong” kind of Muslims — even if they practise and believe in Islam. They have burned down Christian homes, vandalised Hindu temples and destroyed “sacrilegious” mosques belonging to the Ahmadiyya Muslim sect; they have lynched university students, 10-year-olds and even those who had memorised the Quran by heart.

The vigilantes gain their strength from two contrasting, but similarly morally corrupt, sources.

The first, of course, is the Pakistani state itself. The military, who are the de facto rulers of the country, prop up radical Islamist outfits as assets. These range from militia, which might give the state strategic influence in a neighbouring nations, to Islamist pressure groups, which would keep civilian leaders in check if the army’s stooges felt like staging a coup. Groups like the JUI-F could easily mobilise madrassa students against any authority figures by accusing them of working against Islam.

The current Prime Minister, Imran Khan, is really just a puppet, maintaining the democratic façade of this military-ruled realm. He described the Sialkot lynching as a “day of shame” for Pakistan. But he also sends unhelpfully mixed messages about the radical Islamists Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), whose slogans the lynch mob were chanting.

The TLP has a powerful hold on the state, which it manipulates through orchestrated street violence. It was formally banned in April for its sustained violent action over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. But then, in November, after weeks of violence in which four police officers were killed, and dozens of civilians injured, the TLP was removed from the terror list and 2,000 detained members were released. I’m sure Khan’s motivation is partly ideological; back in April, he was reassuring the group that they “shared the same goals”: to eradicate blasphemy against Islam. But I’m sure, too, that the two million Islamist votes that the TLP mustered in the 2018 elections had something to do with it.

Khan has also, on several occasions, vowed to export Islamic blasphemy laws to the West, so that people over there are similarly “scared of blaspheming against our prophet”. Khan already has many allies in this quest: when Western media refuse to publish the images that lead to satirists or teachers being massacred by jihadists, blasphemy law is upheld. It is reaffirmed whenever educational institutions are intimidated into shunning any critique of Islam, or any learning that makes Islamists uncomfortable. Blasphemy laws are also endorsed when the Council of Europe celebrates Islamic sexism by synonymising the hijab with freedom. The Islamic blasphemy law was formally implemented when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that critique of Islam’s prophet goes beyond the limits of free speech.

Freedom of speech is a now rapidly shrinking human right. For instance, the term “Islamophobia” is conveniently used by progressives to paint satire, or critique of the religion, as racism against the entire Muslim people. Of course, moderate Muslims in the West respond to Islamist violence by excommunicating the radicals among their community, echoing exactly what the jihadists say of them: they are not following “true Islam”. But this is a cop-out: it still allows the moderates to partake in outrage over ‘offences’ such as blasphemy, while shunning any responsibility towards addressing the most violent manifestations of that outrage.

As a result, while Islam remains the only religion that still promotes punishment by death, progressive voices don’t seem particularly interested in preventing that practice in the Muslim world. This absolute dearth of resistance emboldens Islamist leaders to call for global blasphemy codes, using tactics reminiscent of Western social justice warriors: they equate the drawing of cartoons with perpetrations of Muslim “genocide”, and accuse anyone who questions these claims of having a phobia of Islam.

And yet, as long as the law in around two thirds of Muslim countries upholds harsh penalties for criticising Islam — and as long as Islamists are killing individuals over cartoons published in the West — fear of Islam seems perfectly rational.

There is perhaps no place where this fear is more rational than in Pakistan, where all it takes is an allegation of blasphemy for a lynch mob to attack, where a cabinet minister justifies the latest mob violence by saying that “murders happen when emotions are high”, and where the Prime Minister lauds the world’s most notorious terrorist, Osama Bin Laden, as a “martyr”.

The hollow leadership of Pakistan won’t address blasphemy-related violence unless it’s under international pressure. This should start with the West’s self-avowed moderate Muslims, who should take a clear and unequivocal stance that prioritises humanity over their religion. For if they cannot muster the moral courage to say that no one should be killed for blasphemy regardless of what Islam says, or doesn’t say, they might as well stand with the Sialkot mob.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a journalist based in Lahore.