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Blasphemy violence: Blurring line between Islamists and common Pakistanis

Pakistani activists say that religious extremism and intolerance are no longer isolated phenomena in the Islamic country. The recent blasphemy killing of a Christian couple by an angry mob proves it yet again, they say.

"The punishment for insulting the Koran or Prophet Muhammad is death. No Muslim can tolerate it," Ahmed Jehanzaib, a shopkeeper in Karachi's Defense area, told DW.

Blasphemy has always been a very sensitive topic in the Islamic Republic, where 97 percent of its 180 million inhabitants are Muslims. But the blasphemy-related killings were not as frequent as they are now. Activists point out that religious intolerance has increased substantially in the South Asian country in the past decade, and is no longer an isolated phenomenon. The brutal murder of Shehzad and Shama – a young Christian couple – is proof, they say.

On Tuesday, November 5, the couple was beaten to death by a mob in a small town of Kot Radha Kishan in the eastern Punjab province, a political stronghold of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The angry crowd, which alleged that the Christian couple desecrated a copy of their holy book, the Koran, subsequently burned their bodies in a brick kiln where the couple worked.

Pakistani Christians chant slogans during a rally to condemn the attacks on Christians by Sunni Muslims, Saturday, Aug. 1, 2009 in Lahore, Pakistan (ddp images/AP Photo/K.M.Chaudary)

In 2009, Muslims burnt more than 70 Christian houses and many churches in the central Gojra town of the Punjab province

Their murder has outraged Pakistani activists and the liberal section.

"The investigations will likely prove that the blasphemy allegations against the couple were fake. According to unconfirmed reports, they had a dispute over wages with their Muslim boss at the brick kiln factory. Everything else followed after that," Farooq Sulehria, a London-based Pakistani researcher and activist, told DW.

Collective intolerance

Pakistan has witnessed an unprecedented surge in Islamic extremism and religious fanaticism in the past decade. Islamist groups, including the Taliban, have repeatedly targeted religious minorities in the country to impose their strict shariah law on people.

According to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), 2013 was one of the worst years for religious minorities in the country: Several people were charged with blasphemy, many places of worship were burnt down and houses were looted all over the country.

Asad Butt of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) told DW that intolerance was definitely growing in Pakistan, and that many Pakistanis considered blasphemy an "unpardonable crime."

But how and when did Pakistanis become so intolerant towards other religions and their followers?

"The days are gone when we said it was a small group of religious extremists, xenophobes, hate-mongers and bigots who commit such crimes," Karachi-based journalist Mohsin Sayeed told DW. "Now the venom has spread to the whole of Pakistani society," he added.

Butt blames former military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq for this. "There was no such issue prior to the 1980s, but when Haq came into power he Islamized everything and mixed religion and politics," Butt said.

Blasphemy laws

The murder of the Christian couple in Kot Radha Kishan comes at a time when the death sentence of a 49-year-old Christian woman, Asia Bibi, has put the South Asian country's blasphemy laws under increased national and international scrutiny.

Bibi has been languishing in prison for more than five years. The mother of five was arrested in June, 2009 after her neighbors complained that she had made derogatory remarks about Islam's prophet. A year later, Bibi was sentenced to death under the Islamic Republic's controversial blasphemy laws despite strong opposition from the national and international human rights groups. The slim hope that the Pakistani judiciary might pardon Bibi and eventually release her was dashed last month when the Lahore High Court (LHC) ruled to uphold her 2010 death sentence.

All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) protest against 295-A-B-C- and in solidarity with Rimsha Masih girl accused of blasphemy At Faisalabad Press Club on dated 26-08-2012 (Photo: DW/Nadeem Gill)

There have been demonstrations for Asia Bibi all over the world, including in Pakistan

Rights activists demand the reforms of the controversial blasphemy laws, which were introduced by Zia-ul-Haq in the mid 1980s. Activists say the laws have little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas.

But if you ask people on the streets whether they are in favor of the repeal of the controversial blasphemy law, their answer would most definitely be a no.

"It is not about amending or repealing the law (blasphemy law), or making new laws; those who insult our religion should not go unpunished," Ali Asghar, a student in Lahore, told DW.

A 'test case for human rights'

Imran Nafees Siddiqui, an Islamabad-based civil society activist, says that the South Asian country's civil society should keep putting pressure on the government and the courts irrespective of the legal outcome of Asis Bibi's case.

Asia Bibi (Photo: EPA/GOVERNOR HOUSE HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++)

Bibi's family members are hoping for a presidential pardon

"[The blasphemy law] is a man-made doctrine and not a divine revelation. The rights group should continue to demand Bibi's freedom. The media should also play an active role," Siddiqui told DW. "The public opinion carries a lot of weight and can also influence courts' decisions. We have to create an alternative narrative to defeat the extremist discourse in the country. It is a test case for the rights of minorities in Pakistan," he added.

In a DW interview, Dr. Clare Amos, a Program Executive and Coordinator for the Geneva-based World Council of Churches' inter-religious dialogue and cooperation program, says that Bibi's plight should not be ignored, and that Pakistan's blasphemy laws should be amended to make sure that they are not applied in cases of personal disputes.

"We would question the very rationale and essence of the blasphemy law in its existing form. We would question how it is worded; we would question whether the death penalty could ever be appropriate; we would state that it is very ambiguous; and we would question the way it is used as a way of solving personal grievances," said Dr. Amos, adding that the Supreme Court judges must throw out Bibi's death sentence.

Strong opposition from religious groups

But all this condemnation is not sufficient to convince the supporters of the blasphemy law. Fareed Ahmad Pracha, a leader of Pakistan's right-wing political party, the Jamaat-i-Islami, disagrees with the critics of the legislation and says the actual problem is not with the law but with its interpretation.

"We just want to say that the law should be enforced properly, there should not be any change made to the blasphemy law. We will not tolerate or accept this. If you make way even for a single change in the law, then there will be a number of changes, whereas there has never been a case where anyone has been punished," he emphasized.

A Pakistani greets, third from right, the alleged killer of Punjab's governor Salman Taseer, as he arrives at a court in Islamabad, Pakistan, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011 (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)

Mumtaz Qadri said he 'punished' Taseer for insulting Islam

There is evidence to support Pracha's claim. Although hundreds have been convicted of blasphemy, nobody in Pakistan has ever been executed for the offense. Most convictions are retracted after the accused makes an appeal. However, angry crowds have killed people accused of desecrating the Koran or Islam.

Extremist violence

A few months after Bibi's conviction, Salman Taseer, a former governor of the Punjab province, was murdered by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri. Qadri said he had killed Taseer for speaking out against the blasphemy laws and in support of Bibi.

In March 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's former minister for minority affairs, was assassinated by a religious fanatic for the same reason.

Farzana Bari, director of Center for Women's Studies at Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University, believes discrimination will persist unless there is radical change. "It is high time that the government reform the blasphemy law," she told DW. "These laws are against the spirit of Islam and are a cause of notoriety for the country."

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