Pakistan’s Tyranny of Blasphemy
LAHORE, Pakistan — “I used to feel my life was too straight, too linear.”
The speaker was Junaid Hafeez, a young poet and Fulbright scholar from the south of Pakistan, telling a radio show host in 2011 why he had given up studying medicine for a life in literature. Today, he is in jail on a blasphemy charge that carries the death penalty, and is mourning the lawyer who was murdered earlier this month for defending him.
Before his arrest, Hafeez was teaching in the English Department at Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan, a city in Punjab Province close to where he grew up. His personal charisma and liberal views had won him a following among students, as well as the envious attention of faculty members.
One day in 2013, a student affiliated with Islami Jamiat Talaba, a wing of the hard-line Jamaat-i-Islami party, accused Hafeez of insulting the Prophet Muhammad on Facebook. The student had no evidence, but no evidence was needed.
Hard-line students soon held a protest crying out for Hafeez’s execution. University administrators backed away. The police registered a case for blasphemy against Hafeez. They did not ask cybercrime specialists to investigate the accusation, relying instead on a fatwa issued by a seminary.
For months Hafeez’s father tried to find a lawyer. Finally he petitioned Rashid Rehman, the 53-year-old special coordinator for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Multan. A legal expert with 20 years of activism, Rehman was known as a go-to lawyer for hopeless causes. Despite the danger, he agreed to take Hafeez’s case. Defending a man accused of blasphemy, Rehman told a reporter in April, was like “walking into the jaws of death.”
Those jaws have been open wide since the 1980s, when the military dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq updated a set of colonial laws that criminalized “insulting the religion of any class of persons.” The original laws were devised in the late 19th century by a paternalistic British government trying to keep its multifaith subjects from fighting one another. Those laws were worded generally, and prescribed fines and, at most, two-year prison terms.
General Zia’s amendments particularized the insults and tailored the provisions to favor a stringent Sunni strain of Islam. They criminalized the desecration of the Quran, any defiling of the name of the Prophet Muhammad, and disrespectful remarks about his companions — a jab at Pakistan’s Shiite minorities, who dispute the outcome of the succession struggle that followed the Prophet’s death. Moreover, any attempt by members of the outlawed Ahmadi sect to refer to themselves as Muslims was criminalized. Punishments were upgraded: Blasphemers could be executed or jailed for life.
General Zia died in an air crash in 1988, but his legacy remains. It includes the empowerment of theological figures in every stratum of life — from clerics and televangelists to fanatical academics and Shariah judges — all aided in their righteous endeavors by a legislature that remains intractably Zia-ist.
The blasphemy laws are part of this package. For decades they had been rarely used, with only a handful of cases before the mid-1980s. But General Zia’s amendments opened the floodgates: More than a thousand cases have been reported since then, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Just last week the Punjabi police, prompted by a Sunni extremist, brought blasphemy charges against 68 lawyers.
The blasphemy laws can serve just about anyone with a dark design — an angry relative, an envious colleague, a neighbor with his eye on your property. But the greatest beneficiary has been the professional Islamists, who specialize in their application to encroach on both state and society.