Pakistan’s blasphemy laws: a history of violence

In 1995, Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti, along with other judges of a Lahore High Court bench, struck down allegations of blasphemy against two Christians. A third who had been accused along with them had already been murdered while leaving court under police protection. The two acquitted — one of them a teenager — left Pakistan ...

ARIF ALI/Getty Images
ARIF ALI/Getty Images
ARIF ALI/Getty Images

In 1995, Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti, along with other judges of a Lahore High Court bench, struck down allegations of blasphemy against two Christians. A third who had been accused along with them had already been murdered while leaving court under police protection. The two acquitted -- one of them a teenager -- left Pakistan seeking asylum, declared innocent but still unable to live in a country where mobs had thronged their court hearings asking for their deaths.

In 1997 the judge was shot dead in his office. The next year a man owned up to the crime, but has apparently disappeared from custody since then.

Since the creation of the blasphemy laws, at least 38 cases of extrajudicial killings (some of which involved the active involvement or wilful neglect of the police) of people alleged to have directly committed blasphemy have been documented. Arif Bhatti's was a relatively unusual case at the time. More recently, though, two uniquely courageous Pakistanis lost their lives for defending victims of Pakistan's blasphemy laws. One was, of course, former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer. And now the federal minister for minorities' affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, an outspoken critic of the law, a defender of the rights of the country's religious minorities and one of Pakistan's bravest citizens, has met the end he had been predicting for himself these last few weeks.

In 1995, Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti, along with other judges of a Lahore High Court bench, struck down allegations of blasphemy against two Christians. A third who had been accused along with them had already been murdered while leaving court under police protection. The two acquitted — one of them a teenager — left Pakistan seeking asylum, declared innocent but still unable to live in a country where mobs had thronged their court hearings asking for their deaths.

In 1997 the judge was shot dead in his office. The next year a man owned up to the crime, but has apparently disappeared from custody since then.

Since the creation of the blasphemy laws, at least 38 cases of extrajudicial killings (some of which involved the active involvement or wilful neglect of the police) of people alleged to have directly committed blasphemy have been documented. Arif Bhatti’s was a relatively unusual case at the time. More recently, though, two uniquely courageous Pakistanis lost their lives for defending victims of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. One was, of course, former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer. And now the federal minister for minorities’ affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, an outspoken critic of the law, a defender of the rights of the country’s religious minorities and one of Pakistan’s bravest citizens, has met the end he had been predicting for himself these last few weeks.

In both cases, criticizing the law against blasphemy — one known to be exceptionally open to misuse, invoked to settle everything from professional rivalries to land disputes — became blasphemy itself. The Pakistani Taliban’s response to Bhatti’s murder made this abundantly clear; "He was a blasphemer like Salman Taseer," a spokesman said. Another person on the list of those condemned for simply criticizing the law is former information minister Sherry Rehman, who tried to table a bill to amend it. Several attempts have been made to register cases against her, although these have largely remained out of the public eye, and she has been barricaded in hiding since Taseer’s assassination.

What these examples show is an even more disturbing shift in an already disturbing situation. The boundaries of blasphemy for some Pakistanis have now been extended to include disagreement with a manmade law, and the punishment for committing this particular flavor of "crime" – just like that for violating the law itself – can be death without trial. The growth of intolerance within Pakistani society, fallout from years of state sponsorship of militancy and more recently from unwillingness or inability to wipe such militancy out after it struck out at the state, has forged an extreme, murderous antipathy to freedom of expression.

The unwillingness of certain sections of the media to confront this militancy loudly has only spurred it on. As others have noted, on Pakistani television this evening most political talk show hosts focused on the security aspects of the killing — why, they insisting on knowing, was Bhatti, a politician arguably under greater direct threat than any other, traveling without his guards when ministers’ extended security entourages are an enduring sight on the roads of Pakistan’s larger cities? Quite aside from the glaring fact that after Taseer’s murder at the hands of his guard, Mumtaz Qadri, Bhatti might not have trusted the ability of the police to weed out extremist elements within their own ranks, these analysts seemed to be — perhaps deliberately — missing the point.

The question now is, will the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government do the same? Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani condemned the murder in the National Assembly in harsh terms today, and the information minister went on air, complete with grief-stricken face, to rail against it. But the same was true at the time of Taseer’s murder — it was easy enough for the PPP, of which Taseer, Bhatti and Rehman are all members — to criticize it the day of, when the nation was reeling in shock. It was in the days following his death, when right-wing political parties jumped into the vacuum to exploit the incident and Qadri’s supporters began coming out of the woodwork, that calling Taseer a martyr became something most politicians were scared to do in public and the government withdrew Rehman’s bill (as much as you can withdraw a bill that was never actually tabled). 

It was behavior unworthy of Bhatti, one of their own. "I was told that if I came clean against the blasphemy law … I will be assassinated, I will be beheaded," he said in a recent interview with the BBC. "But the forces of … extremism cannot harass me, they cannot divert my attention."

"So you won’t be silenced?"

"Not at all."  

And he wasn’t — until today. At a time when it needs heroes, Pakistan has lost one of the few it had left.

Madiha Sattar is a senior assistant editor at the Karachi-based monthly The Herald. 

More from Foreign Policy

A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin
A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin

What Russia’s Elites Think of Putin Now

The president successfully preserved the status quo for two decades. Suddenly, he’s turned into a destroyer.

A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa
A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Cafe Meeting Turns Into Tense Car Chase for U.S. Senate Aides in Zimbabwe

Leading lawmaker calls on Biden to address Zimbabwe’s “dire” authoritarian turn after the incident.

Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.
Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.

Putin’s Energy War Is Crushing Europe

The big question is whether it ends up undermining support for Ukraine.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.

A Crisis of Faith Shakes the United Nations in Its Big Week

From its failure to stop Russia’s war in Ukraine to its inaction on Myanmar and climate change, the institution is under fire from all sides.