Pakistan’s Perilous Religious Laws

By Knox Thames | October 30, 2014

Pakistani Christian Aasia Bibi’s death sentence for blasphemous activity has shone a spotlight on the perilous situation for religious communities in Pakistan. The country’s laws repress religious freedoms for all and are vigorously enforced, especially against religious minorities. In addition, an alarming level of violence against the religious “other” is plaguing Pakistan. Extremists victimize not just non-Muslims but Muslims who dissent from the extremists’ radical interpretations of Islam. Impunity increasingly reigns, as militants and mobs regularly perpetrate attacks with little or no state response.

Here are some numbers that highlight the challenges facing Pakistan:

38 sentenced — The number of people on death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy, five of whom were sentenced in 2014 alone. Blasphemy laws in Pakistan are easily abused or manipulated. Pakistan has no penalty for lying, no evidentiary requirement, and the maximum penalty for blasphemy is death. Blasphemy laws protect the systemic beliefs of the state at the expense of individuals, violating the freedoms of religion and expression and colliding with international human rights standards. Pakistan has the dubious distinction of having more people sentenced to jail for blasphemy than any other country in the world.

4 years — The length of time Aasia Bibi has been in jail while her death sentence is on appeal. The Lahore High Court recently refused to overturn the lower court’s decision despite ample evidence that the underlying event was an argument between farmhands and not a religious dispute. Commentators think Bibi could be in jail for an additional four years while her case awaits Supreme Court review. While she has garnered international attention, many others are in a similar position.

0 jailed — The number of people sentenced for the murders of Shahbaz Bhatti, Rashid Rehman, and Muhammad Shakil Auj. My friend Bhatti, a former federal minister for minority affairs and outspoken critic of Pakistan’s blasphemy law, was assassinated by the Pakistani Taliban in March 2011. Human rights lawyer Rehman was murdered in May 2014 for his defense of an individual accused of blasphemy after weeks of threats — authorities failed to provide Rehman protection or investigate the threats. Auj, a leading Islamic scholar, was killed this September for his “blasphemous” writings.

1,130 killed — The number of people killed over the past two-and-one-half years in targeted acts of violence against religious communities, as tracked by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (see reports here and here). The Commission found that while Hindus, Sikhs, and Ahmadis are also targets, Shi’a Muslims have been consistently victimized more than others and continued to be the target of terrorist attacks, with more than 850 killed during that period.

40 years — Four decades ago this past September the Second Amendment to Pakistan’s constitution was passed decreeing that Ahmadis could not be Muslims. While not unusual for a national constitution to establish a particular religion, it is virtually unprecedented for a constitution to define the boundaries of one faith, deciding who’s in and who’s out. The move cast Ahmadi Muslims as the religious “other” in Pakistan and presaged additional discriminatory laws that effectively criminalize practicing their faith. It set the stage for decades of repression, fueled violence, and laid the groundwork for the apartheid-like system that exists today.

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