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Pakistan’s Government Is Choosing Extremist Islam Over Economic Stability

By curtailing free speech and doubling down on blasphemy laws, Islamabad is endangering its relationship with Europe and the United States.

By , a Pakistan-based journalist and a correspondent for The Diplomat.
Supporters of the religious Namak Mandi Tajir Group against French President Emmanuel Macron during a protest against the publishing of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad they deemed blasphemous.
Supporters of the religious Namak Mandi Tajir Group against French President Emmanuel Macron during a protest against the publishing of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad they deemed blasphemous.
Supporters of the religious Namak Mandi Tajir Group against French President Emmanuel Macron during a protest against the publishing of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad they deemed blasphemous. Hussain Ali/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

On Feb. 3, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) blocked Wikipedia nationwide. In its statement before the ban, the PTA said the online encyclopedia had refused to remove “sacrilegious contents” from the website. In 2020, Pakistan had threatened legal action against Google and Wikipedia for “disseminating sacrilegious content,” regarding Islamic beliefs held by minority Muslim sects. And while the ban on Wikipedia was overturned three days later, there’s an evident surge in Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy policymaking targeting Muslim minorities, which in turn is further emboldening Islamist vigilantes.

On Feb. 3, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) blocked Wikipedia nationwide. In its statement before the ban, the PTA said the online encyclopedia had refused to remove “sacrilegious contents” from the website. In 2020, Pakistan had threatened legal action against Google and Wikipedia for “disseminating sacrilegious content,” regarding Islamic beliefs held by minority Muslim sects. And while the ban on Wikipedia was overturned three days later, there’s an evident surge in Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy policymaking targeting Muslim minorities, which in turn is further emboldening Islamist vigilantes.

On Feb. 11, a Muslim man was lynched by a mob in the eastern city of Nankana Sahib over allegations of desecrating the Quran. The victim was killed inside the local police station, with the law enforcement authorities being hapless bystanders. Often, local police are complicit in victimizing individuals and communities once Islamist thugs conjure the accusation of blasphemy. And this thuggery has the backing of the state, which is now expanding its already notorious blasphemy codes.

While Pakistan is yet to execute anyone for sacrilege, its blasphemy laws continue to encourage mob violence.

The Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) was co-opted after Partition in 1947 from the Indian Penal Code (IPC) of 1860, with Sections 295 and 298 dedicated to desecrating worship places and outraging religious sensibilities, respectively. The IPC under British rule added Section 295-A to curtail “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings.” The original sections, identically present in the IPC, are equally applicable to all religions. In the 1980s, under the Islamist military dictatorship of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan added Islam-specific clauses, defining violent penalties over blasphemy against Islam alone.

Last month, the National Assembly passed amendments to the PPC to expand its blasphemy laws. One of those amendments, the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2023, ups the penalty from three years to life imprisonment for “disrespecting” the companions (including the caliphs), family, or wives of the Prophet Muhammad. The PPC criminalizes any sacrilege against the Quran and the prophet, with penalties including capital punishment.

While Pakistan is yet to execute anyone for sacrilege, its blasphemy laws continue to encourage mob violence; at least 93 people have been killed extrajudicially since 1947—including the most recent victims—and more than 1,500 have been imprisoned since 1987, the year after the death penalty was introduced for heresy against Islam in Section 295 of the PPC. The most high-profile victim of the blasphemy laws was one of their staunchest critics, former Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, who was gunned down by his security guard Mumtaz Qadri in 2011. Taseer’s killing silenced debate on the blasphemy laws and turned Qadri, executed over terrorism charges in 2016, into a saint, with his tomb turned into a shrine.

Last year, a teacher was attacked and killed by her colleague and students in an all-girls school, a mentally unstable man was stoned to death by a mob, and a man born without arms was drowned, in separate incidents of blasphemy killings.

Last month, a Muslim man threatened to incite mobs against a Christian security officer working at the Karachi airport by accusing her of blasphemy against the prophet after the woman had denied his acquaintance entry into the premises. The brutal killing of Sri Lankan business professional Priyantha Kumara illustrated the menace of Pakistan’s murderous blasphemy laws nearly 15 months ago.


While the blasphemy laws have disproportionately and overwhelmingly harmed non-Muslims in Pakistan, many of those victimized have been Muslims themselves. Sometimes these are individuals targeted for personal vendettas; however, many are Muslims who espouse beliefs deemed divergent from those sanctioned by majoritarian orthodoxy. The man killed for blasphemy in October was killed for expressing devotion at the graves of Sufi saints, a significant tenet of Barelvi Islam that the vast majority of South Asian Muslims have traditionally adhered to.

The ideology of takfir, or excommunicating Muslims, is based on outlawing divergent beliefs and penalizing those deemed guilty per Islamic law, or sharia, with punishments for apostasy that include execution. The takfiri ideology fuels murderous sharia codes and jihadi groups alike. Outfits such as the Islamic State and its Pakistani Taliban affiliates have bombed Sufi shrines over the years, deeming the mystic practices heretical. The Islamic State-orchestrated 2017 bombing at the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in Sehwan, killing at least 90 people, remains one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Pakistan’s history.

The Islamic State and the Pakistani Taliban have similarly targeted Shiite mosques across the country, dubbing Shiites, comprising the second-largest sect of Islam, collectively guilty of sacrilege. And the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2023, passed last month, is the systematization of this anti-Shiite narrative, which borders on codification of the entire sect’s excommunication.

The new amendments to the blasphemy codes were introduced by Abdul Akbar Chitrali of Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party that espouses radicalism against, among others, Shiite Muslims across South Asia. In the bill’s Statement of Objects and Reasons, Chitrali argues that the current penalty for sacrilege against Muhammad’s companions, unlike the capital punishment for blasphemy against the prophet, is insufficient deterrence, citing the Quranic verse that upholds fitna (mischief or deviance) as “worse than murder.” Following the amendment, Section 298-A of the PPC, which heretofore upheld lighter penalties for any sacrilege of Muhammad’s companions, will henceforth make it a nonbailable offense punishable by life imprisonment.

The amendment passed by the National Assembly is an extension of a bill passed by the Punjab Assembly in 2020, albeit still awaiting the governor’s signature. These laws, in effect, outlaw Shiite beliefs by enforcing Sunni theology and tradition across the population, in turn playing judge, jury, and executioner over a 1,400-year-old Sunni-Shiite split in Islam.

The Sunni-Shiite divide has been militantly fanned by the Saudi-Iranian proxy wars over the past half a century, with Islamabad doing Riyadh’s bidding from the onset. This proliferated Salafi and Deobandi madrassas and propped up the correlated jihadi militias, including anti-Shiite outfits such as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). While these groups have militarily gravitated toward the Islamic State and the Pakistani Taliban, their political wings have allied themselves with major parties, especially in Punjab.

The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which has historically dominated Punjab, has done so with the help of SSP and LeJ affiliates such as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat. The PML-N’s rival, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, and its allies have all backed the anti-Shiite legislation designed to uphold Sunni supremacism in Pakistan by making “respect for the caliphs” a rallying cry to woo the sectarian vote bank.

Following the enactment of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act in 2016, the state initiated a war on nonbelief, sending official texts nationwide asking users to notify any form of blasphemy.

Sunni Islamists strong-arming veneration for their caliphs is an extension of the general Islamist intimidation over any critique of Muhammad, which even Barelvi jihadis have weaponized.

The idea that even those who do not believe in Islamic figures should be coerced into, at the very least, silencing their views so as to not offend the believers is, at best, an antediluvian notion that represses freedoms of belief, conscience, and expression; at worst, it is a tool of bloodthirsty ethnoreligious cleansing. And in Pakistan, this radical Islamist superstructure of jurisprudential takfir, blasphemy vigilantes, and state-sponsored jihad is founded on the fall of the first excommunication domino: the constitutional apostatizing of Ahmadiyya Islam.

Just as Shiites today are being compelled into shunning their beliefs so as to be accepted as Muslims in Pakistan, Ahmadis were forced to do the same vis-à-vis their belief in their sect’s 19th-century founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, via the Second Amendment to the Pakistani Constitution in 1974. The official declaration of Ahmadis as non-Muslims was followed by Sections 298-B and 298-C a decade later, banning the community from “posing as Muslims,” including referring to Islamic literature or expressions, thus making Pakistan the only country in the world where an individual can be imprisoned for reciting the Quran.

This veritable apartheid against Ahmadi Muslims over the past four decades has seen members of the community killed, their mosques vandalized, and graves desecrated. Ahmadis have to be declared non-Muslims for individuals to obtain a passport, exercise the right to vote, or even get a marriage certificate. Among the Wikipedia contents flagged by the PTA are pages on Ahmadiyya Islam.

While Shiites and Ahmadis are subjugated owing to their beliefs, another Muslim minority is targeted owing to their nonbelief: nonbelievers. Fast-growing atheism, agnosticism, and deism among Pakistani Muslims has been met with a state crackdown, especially online. Atheism and apostasy, as an extension of blasphemy, are punishable by death in Pakistan.

Following the enactment of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act in 2016, the state initiated a war on nonbelief, sending official texts nationwide asking users to notify any form of blasphemy. In 2017, the state promoted a crackdown on dissident bloggers deemed to be posting anti-Islam content online, with the “Pakistani Atheists and Agnostics” Facebook group among those highlighted by the Federal Investigation Agency. With the country’s blasphemy laws going digital, the new expansive codes are going to further stifle online expression in Pakistan, as exemplified by the Wikipedia ban.

The Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2023 aims to do precisely that: restrict the religious discourse and intimidate Muslim minorities against expressing any contrarian views within Islam, just as non-Muslims have long been silenced into submission over Islam. This, in turn, will encourage vigilantes to expand their hunt for so-called blasphemers, whether in Islamic congregations, university auditoriums, or private WhatsApp chats.

Within a month of the Punjab bill being passed, 42 blasphemy cases were lodged, predominantly against the Shiite community, including against a 3-year-old. The toddler, Syed Fazal Abbas Naqvi, was taken into custody along with his father and uncle, with all of them facing terrorism charges before being released on bail. The Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2023 has been followed by a spike in Shiite killings in the town of Dera Ismail Khan.

While the financially motivated Arab states that historically spread radical Salafism worldwide are now embracing moderation—even if not free thought in Islam—Pakistan appears to be wholly invested in being the bastion of Sunni fundamentalism and plunging further into takfiri jihadism. With Saudi Arabia expecting Pakistan to toe its line of significant geopolitical moves, such as normalization of ties with Israel, it can ill-afford Islamabad to be bogged down by radical Islamist mobs, which are also expressing condemnations of Saudi Arabia’s ostensible liberalization.

The United States, despite its withdrawal from the region, wouldn’t want a Pakistan that spirals further into radical Islamist disintegration at a time when the Western powers are still mulling the fate of the jihadi takeover in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s devastating economic crisis can further push the United States to condition any economic support to human rights advancements.

The Saudi and U.S. petrodollars that helped sustain Pakistan’s jihadi superstructure in the past are no longer on the table, with barely two weeks’ worth of foreign currency reserves to cover imports currently in the central bank. Global institutions, including the European Parliament, are mulling sanctions over Pakistan’s human rights abuses, especially its grotesque blasphemy laws. Any government expanding these codes in a way that risks increasing global sanctions is clearly not invested in Pakistan’s economic well-being.

Self-sustenance for the country is only possible through a purge of radical Islam at all national tiers, from the constitution to governance to the masochistic security policy. And Pakistan will only truly signal a departure from its jihad-infested past when it sounds the death knell for its blasphemy laws.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based journalist and a correspondent for The Diplomat. Twitter: @khuldune

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