When religious extremism combines with jingoistic mob mentality, most horrific incidents of lynching are brazenly enacted in Pakistan. In the country, few issues are as galvanizing and emotive in nature as blasphemy; even the slightest suggestion or allegation of an insult to the state religion of Islam can provoke protests and incite merciless lynchings.
The shameful details of the mobbing of a Sri Lankan factory manager in Sialkot in December 2021 were yet to be wiped from the collective memories of the Pakistani nation when there was another lynching incident, this time in Khanewal, Punjab. The horrible killing of a mentally unstable man took place just a little over two months after Sri Lankan Priyantha Kumara Diyawadana was beaten to death and set on fire by a mob over blasphemy allegations in Sialkot, also located in Punjab province.
On February 12, 2022, Mushtaq Rajput was tied to a tree and stoned to death by a charged mob in Jungle Dera, Khanewal district, following announcements that he had torn pages of the Holy Quran and set them on fire. The mob lit on him after evening prayers. This most reprehensible incident of lynching once again shook the Pakistani public to the core, with strong outpourings of online and media denunciation of the gruesome act. Tahir Ashrafi, special representative on religious harmony of then Prime Minister Imran Khan, pointed out, “This is not the religion of my prophet, to kill people under your own interpretation of religion.”
Indeed, nothing could be closer to the truth than that these “avatars of devoutness” follow a flawed, self-serving interpretation of Islam, lynching and lurching at anyone, including non-Muslims, on the slightest pretext of finding them guilty of bringing disgrace to Islam with their actions or words. According to the Islamabad think tank Center for Research & Security Studies, there have been 89 extrajudicial killings of alleged blasphemers in Pakistan between 1947 and 2021. Of this number, 43 took place in the last decade. The Center for Research & Security Studies says as well that of the 89 extrajudicial killings, 70 took place in Punjab. The Center for Social Justice based in Punjab has said that this may be because the provincial capital, Lahore, is “home to many religious groups promoting a narrative based on religious intolerance.”
In a meeting convened on Feb. 23, 2022 to review the alarming rise in the cases of blasphemy-triggered viciousness in the country, the Council of Islamic Ideology declared violence against a person on allegations of blasphemy contrary to Shariah or Islamic principles. Quoting a statement issued by the forum, the council said that “subjecting any person to violence on allegations of dishonoring religion, desecration of the Holy Quran, and Namoos-i-Risalat (dishonoring the Prophet) was against Shariah, inhumane, and contrary to Islamic principles.”
In truth, the barbarous reaction to unproven blasphemy charges comes from a people who barely blink whenever someone harasses and catcalls women on the streets, or when they hear reports of rape and children being strangled, or about adulterated food items, hoarding and overpriced goods, and other multiple overt and covert crimes. They act as if all of these depravities do not bring dishonor to Islam, the religion most Pakistanis claim to follow, or to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), whose teachings they profess to follow. Though easily enraged by alleged blasphemous acts, Pakistani mobs are never angered by the sacrilegious sins of child molesters, animal abusers, or decapitators, who are, hence, never lynched.
Roots in politics
The amplified significance of the issue of blasphemy in the country, in comparison to other Muslim states — even Saudi Arabia — is believed to be linked to the formation of Pakistan as a homeland for South Asia’s Muslims. Religious identity has always been highlighted here as one of the most important features of national belonging. The state defines Islam as the source of sovereignty; anti-blasphemy battles thus take on political significance.
The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan has further fanned religious extremism in Pakistan. But Pakistan itself has seen far-right religious parties rise to eminence, campaigning explicitly on the basis of shielding the honor and sanctity of Islam from purported blasphemers, which has added “heightened political significance” to the issue of blasphemy. These days, these rightwing parties are becoming more active politically; one of them, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, recently got its first win at the local government polls in the conservative Khyber Pakhtunkhawa province.
What these rightwing political parties totally ignore, however, is Islam’s repeated stress on the principles of plurality and inclusivity, and the fact that there are no clear orders therein on meting punishment on blasphemers, much less killing them.
As episodes of mob lynching over alleged blasphemy continue to taint the country’s human rights record, some fingers have been pointed at Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws. These are considered among the strictest such laws globally, second only to those of Iran. While Pakistan inherited its blasphemy laws from its colonial masters when it came into existence in 1947, more hard-hitting clauses were added to these during the 1980s dictatorship.
And yet religious scholars differ on a clear and confirmed definition of blasphemy in Islamic jurisprudence. There is no consensus among them as well on punishment for alleged blasphemy, if at all one is ordained, rendering laws regarding it controversial.
“The blasphemy laws have no justification in Islam,” says Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, a reformist scholar and Pakistani preacher who has been in self-exile in Malaysia for many years out of fear for his life due to his rationalist views. “These ulema (council of clerics) are just telling lies to the people. But they have become stronger, because they have street power behind them, and the liberal forces are weak and divided.”
“If it continues like this,” Ghamidi says, “it could result in the destruction of Pakistan.”
Renowned international academician and journalist Raza Rumi also says in his published research, Unpacking the Blasphemy Laws of Pakistan: “The Quran never specifies any penalty in this world for blasphemers, whether it be the sacred name of Allah, his Prophet (PBUH), or the Islamic religion that has been defiled.”
Punishing the perpetrators
In August 2021, an eight-year-old Hindu boy became the youngest person to be charged with blasphemy in the country. So far, though, no execution has taken place under Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws. According to the National Commission of Justice and Peace, a human rights and legal aid group in Pakistan, 774 Muslims and 760 members of various minority religious groups have been accused of blasphemy in the last 20 years. Most of them are either under trial or languishing in jails.
Many argue that the absence of executions in blasphemy cases encourages mob lynchings. Then again, many in the killer mobs are probably not even aware of the existence of such a law.
Or perhaps they think the law is on their side. Both of the most recent cases of lynching were done in the presence of the police, who had reached the venues of the gruesome attacks before the victims were beaten to death. That the mobs got their way anyway raises questions about the capacity and impartiality of the police force in the face of blasphemy-triggered vigilantism.
It may also be that some anti-blasphemy ideologues within the police became complicit in allowing both victims to be lynched. In Khanewal, Rajput, the mentally unstable victim, had been taken into police custody before the mob reached him, but was snatched from the police and killed.
Still, a day after Rajput’s murder, the police in Faisalabad managed to rescue another individual accused of blasphemy from a charged mob.
Two days after Rajput’s death, the police also arrested around 85 suspects in connection with his case. Some of them were released later, the others are still probably being tried. Since media and public interest in the case have waned, there have been no updates on the fate of those detained.
In the Sri Lankan’s lynching case, six men have received death sentences while nine others are to be jailed for life. The anti-terrorism court that heard the case also handed down a five-year jail term to another defendant, while 72 others are to serve two years in prison. In addition, the victim’s family was compensated financially and his children were supported by the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce — something that usually doesn’t happen, as compensations are rarely offered to the families of victims of mob lynching.
But few believe that death sentences like that received by some of the defendants in the Sri Lankan’s case or any other extreme punishment can deter further cases of extrajudicial killings of alleged blasphemers. Naveed Walter, president of Human Rights Focus Pakistan, even has reservations about the death penalty for such killings. In 2016, for instance, Mumtaz Qadri was hanged for the murder five years earlier of then Punjab governor Salman Taseer, whom he had shot 28 times over accusations of blasphemy. Qadri has emerged as a hero, glorified as a shaheed (someone who dies in God’s way); a shrine has been built around his grave.
Religious radicalization leads to sectarian violence and fuels intolerance toward minorities. A society like Pakistan’s, with gloomy education indicators, is more vulnerable to faulty indoctrination and its negative impacts, which include slavish mindsets.
Successive governments in Pakistan have spent very little on education. Perhaps the government that just recently took power can start to change that — and more — by de-radicalizing religious education. Or as Human Rights Focus Pakistan’s Walter puts it, “We demand that pupils in schools and madrasas be sensitized and that fundamentalist mindsets be changed.” ●
Faryal Shahzad is a freelance journalist, entrepreneur, and academician.