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Blasphemy and violence

Shamil ShamsNovember 5, 2014

A Christian couple in Pakistan has been killed by a mob of people for allegedly insulting the Koran. The country's liberal sections have condemned the murder and called on the government to protect minorities.

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)
Image: AP

On Tuesday, November 5, Shehzad and Shama were 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 young Christian couple worked.

"Yesterday [Monday] an incident of desecration of the holy Koran took place in the area and today the mob first beat the couple and later set their bodies on fire at a brick kiln," local police officer Bin Yameen told the media on Tuesday.

PM Sharif's younger brother and provincial head Shahbaz Sharif ordered an investigation into the incident.

Blasphemy is a sensitive topic in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where 97 percent of its 180 million inhabitants are Muslims. Rights activists demand the reforms of the controversial blasphemy laws, which were introduced by the Islamic military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. Activists say the laws have little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas.

All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) protest against 295-A-B-C- and in slidarity 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 PakistanImage: APMA

The couple's 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.

Sulehria added that a majority of Pakistani Muslims had a hypocritical attitude towards the issue of blasphemy: "In Pakistan, the 'faithful' lynch the defenseless. But they also chose to remain silent when not so long ago the copies of the Koran were discovered in the trash in Saudi Arabia. Nobody in Pakistan protested."

Majid Nawaz, chairman of the UK-based counter-extremism think tank Quilliam Foundation, too, was quick to condemn the killing. "Pakistan's disgusting blasphemy law must go! Muslim mob burns to death Christian couple accused by rumour of blasphemy," Nawaz tweeted.

Blasphemy laws debated

The latest blasphemy murder 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.

Asia Bibi (Photo: EPA/GOVERNOR HOUSE HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++)
Bibi's family members are hoping for a presidential pardonImage: picture-alliance/dpa

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

"[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 into 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.

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.

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 IslamImage: AP

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 said to DW. "These laws are against the spirit of Islam and are a cause of notoriety for the country."

Religious discrimination in Pakistan is not a new occurrence but it has increased considerably in recent years. Pakistan's liberal sections are alarmed by the growing influence of religious extremists in their country. Rights activists complain that the Islamists enjoy state patronage, while on the other hand liberal and progressive voices have to face the wrath of the country's security agencies.