Understand the history and politics behind Pakistan’s blasphemy laws

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Ahmet T. Kuru, San Diego State University

(THE CONVERSATION) Priyantha Kumara, a Sri Lankan woman working in Pakistan, was lynched by hundreds of people on December 3, 2021 on charges of blasphemy or sacrilegion. After he was attacked, he was dragged into the street and set on fire, and the lynching was recorded and shared on social media.

Such tragic murders in Pakistan on charges of blasphemy are not all about extrajudicial vigilance. According to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Pakistan has the second strictest blasphemy laws in the world after Iran.


In December 2019, university professor Junaid Hafeez was sentenced to death by a Pakistani court for insulting the Prophet Mohammed on Facebook.

Hafeez, whose death sentence is being appealed, is one of approximately 1,500 Pakistanis charged with blasphemy in the past three decades. Executions never took place.

But since 1990, 70 people have been murdered by mobs and vigilante groups on charges of insulting Islam. Several people defending the accused were also killed, including one of Hafeez’s lawyers and two senior politicians who publicly opposed the death sentence of Asia Bibi, a Christian convicted of verbally insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Despite being acquitted in 2019, Bibi fled Pakistan.

Blasphemy and apostasy

Out of 71 countries that criminalize blasphemy, 32 are predominantly Muslim. Punishment and enforcement of these laws vary.

Blasphemy is punishable by death in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania, and Saudi Arabia. Among the non-Muslim cases, there are the toughest blasphemy laws in Italy, where the maximum sentence is three years in prison.

Half of the 49 Muslim majority countries in the world have additional laws prohibiting apostasy, which means that people can be punished for leaving Islam. All countries with apostasy laws are Muslim majority except India. Apostasy is often charged along with blasphemy.

This class of religious laws is very popular in some Muslim countries. According to a 2013 Pew poll, around 75% of respondents in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and South Asia are in favor of making Sharia or Islamic law the official law of the country.

Among those who support Sharia law, around 25% in Southeast Asia, 50% in the Middle East and North Africa, and 75% in South Asia say they support “the execution of those who leave Islam” – that is, they support laws that punish apostasy with death.

The ulema and the state

My book “Islam, Authoritarianism and Underdevelopment”, published in 2019, traces the roots of blasphemy and garbage laws in the Muslim world back to a historical alliance between Islamic scholars and the government.

Around 1050, some Sunni jurists and theologians called “ulema” began working closely with political rulers to question what they believed to be the outrageous influence of Muslim philosophers on society.

Muslim philosophers made significant contributions to mathematics, physics, and medicine for three centuries. They developed the Arabic number system used throughout the West today and invented a forerunner of the modern camera.

The conservative ulema believed that these philosophers were inappropriately influenced by Greek philosophy and Shiite Islam against Sunni beliefs. The most prominent exponent of Sunni Orthodoxy was the respected Islamic scholar Ghazali, who died in 1111.

In several influential books that are widely read today, Ghazali declared two long-dead leading Muslim philosophers, Farabi and Ibn Sina, to be apostates because of their unorthodox views on God’s power and the nature of the resurrection. Her followers, Ghazali wrote, could be punished with death.

As the modern historians Omid Safi and Frank Griffel claim, Ghazali’s explanation provided from the 12th

This “ulema alliance”, as I call it, began in Central Asia, Iran and Iraq in the middle of the 11th century and spread to Syria, Egypt and North Africa a century later. In these regimes, questioning religious orthodoxy and political authority wasn’t just dissent – it was apostasy.

Wrong direction

Parts of Western Europe were ruled by a similar alliance between the Catholic Church and monarchs. These governments have also attacked free thinking. During the Spanish Inquisition between the 16th and 18th centuries, thousands of people were tortured and killed for garbage.

Until recently, blasphemy laws were also in force in various European countries, albeit rarely applied. Denmark, Ireland and Malta all recently repealed their laws.

But they persist in many parts of the Muslim world.

In Pakistan, the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, who ruled the country from 1978 to 1988, is responsible for its harsh blasphemy laws. As an ally of the ulema, Zia updated the blasphemy laws – drafted by British colonizers to avoid interreligious conflict – specifically to defend Sunni Islam and increase the maximum death penalty.

From the 1920s through Zia, these laws were only applied about a dozen times. Since then, they have become a powerful tool for crushing dissenting opinions.

A few dozen Muslim countries have gone through a similar process over the past four decades, including Iran and Egypt.

Dissenting voices in Islam

The conservative ulema base their arguments for blasphemy and apostasy laws on some traditional statements of the prophet, known as hadith, primarily: “Whoever changes his religion, kill him.”

But many Islamic scholars and Muslim intellectuals reject this view as radical. They argue that Prophet Muhammad never executed anyone for apostasy, nor did he encourage his followers to do so.

The criminalization of sacrilege is also not based on the most important sacred text of Islam, the Koran. It contains over 100 verses that encourage peace, freedom of conscience, and religious tolerance.

In chapter 2, verse 256, the Koran says: “There is no compulsion in religion.” Chapter 4, verse 140 urges Muslims to simply leave blasphemous conversation: “When you hear that the verses of God are rejected and mocked , do not sit down with them. “

However, by using their political connections and historical authority to interpret Islam, the conservative ulema have marginalized more moderate voices.

Response to Global Islamophobia

Debates about blasphemy and garbage laws among Muslims are influenced by international affairs.

All over the world, Muslim minorities – including Palestinians, Chechens in Russia, Kashmiris in India, Rohingya in Myanmar and Uyghurs in China – have experienced severe persecution. No other religion is targeted so frequently in so many different countries.

In addition to persecution, there are some Western policies that discriminate against Muslims, such as laws banning the headscarf in schools.

Such anti-Islamic laws and policies can create the impression that Muslims are under siege and provide an excuse that punishing sacrilege is a defense of the faith.

Instead, I find that such harsh religious rules can contribute to anti-Muslim stereotypes. Some of my Turkish relatives even advise against my work on the subject because they fear that it will fuel Islamophobia.

But my research shows that the criminalization of blasphemy and apostasy is more political than religious. The Koran does not require punitive sacrilege: authoritarian politics does.

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This is an updated version of an article that was first published on February 20, 2020.

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/understanding-the-history-and-politics-behind-pakistans-blasphemy-laws-173570.


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