Pakistan's Controversial Blasphemy Law Creates Unrest

By Leah Cerilli

Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law has recently come under international attention after a Pakistani woman was convicted of blasphemy and subsequently sentenced to death by hanging.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have affected scores of citizens. Critics argue that the law is unfairly used to target minority faiths. Since 1987, a total of 633 Muslims, 494 Ahmadis, 187 Christians and 21 Hindus have been accused under various clauses of the blasphemy law. Accusations of blasphemy often lead to mob violence by militant Islamists, particularly when the accused are Christian. The vast majority of these cases are for desecrations of the Quran. Since 1990, at least 65 people have been killed in Pakistan after being informally accused.

Aasiya Noreen (commonly referred to as Asia Bibi) is a Catholic and is an example of a life fundamentally altered as a result of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. She was reported to be the only Christian in her village and was arrested in 2010 after allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad in front of her neighbors.

    In June 2009, Asia Bibi was harvesting fruit with her neighbors. An argument broke out after she took a drink of water from a bucket. A neighbor argued that Bibi contaminated the water and now the neighbors could no longer use it as Bibi’s faith made it unclean. Both women then exchanged a series of offensive comments about the other’s religion, with Bibi eventually insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Bibi maintains that she did not insult the Prophet, and that she is a victim of false accusations prompted by bigotry and racial hatred.

    Following the dispute, Bibi was allegedly attacked by an angry mob at her house and was later taken away by police. She was held in jail for over a year before being charged with blasphemy. She was then placed in solitary confinement until she was acquitted in October 2018 by the Supreme Court. Bibi currently remains in prison, which has been turned into a safe house run by the Pakistani army and intelligence services. Bibi fears for her life and is unable to leave. Her husband is looking for the family to be granted asylum in the United States, United Kingdom, or Canada.

    Under Pakistan penal code, blasphemy is punishable by life imprisonment or death. Bibi was the first citizen to be sentenced to death for the crime. Public support for the laws are strong, with violent protests breaking out after her acquittal was announced. Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, an Islamist movement, is a prominent force in the opposition and violent demonstrations. The government struck a deal with the group in order to end the protests, promising not to oppose a review position against the Supreme Court’s decision. The government also pledged to release everyone detained in connection with the protests.

In 2009, a prominent governor Salman Taseer spoke out in favor of Bibi and openly condemned the laws. He was subsequently assassinated by his own bodyguard. This case divided Pakistan, with some deeming him a criminal and others calling him a hero.

    A month later, Shahbaz Bhatti, was shot and killed outside his home after speaking out against the laws. Bhatti was the only Christian cabinet minister in the Pakistani government.

Nearly all political parties have voiced desires to reform the laws, but little has been accomplished. The subject seems to be too sensitive for most politicians to pursue, with the threat of  violent attacks to those who dare criticize the laws. Politicians are also reluctant to alienate influential religious groups and parties by altering the laws.