Last March, in response to allegations of blasphemy from a Christian man in Lahore, a crowd of demonstrators torched over a hundred buildings in a Christian neighbourhood of the city. Authorities responded swiftly, reprimanding and arresting those who took place in the violence. Still though, they were unable to ease fears that Pakistan is being seized by a genocidal impulse against its religious minorities, including an increasingly fearful Christian population. The immolation of a Christian couple in Lahore last week, after an angry mob was incited by a local mullah, has renewed these concerns.
The Lahore pogrom took place after an alleged blasphemer was arrested under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code. Section 295-C specifically outlaws sacrilegious portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad, and is one of the infamous “blasphemy laws” that blend English penal codes with reactionary Pakistani Islamism. The cocktail dates back to the British Raj, when the Indian Penal Code was passed in 1860 after being originally prepared by Lord Macaulay. The Code was part of a series of reforms that were passed after the 1857 Sepoy rebellion, and Pakistan inherited it after Partition without significant overhaul. The sections in which the Raj sought to regulate Islamic conduct and inauthentic religious expression were maintained, and have periodically been used to sanction violence against those who deviate from an established line of increasingly Wahhabi orthodoxy.
Christians have been targeted with particular animosity, and the blasphemy cases themselves have become an outlet for popular rage, owing to their harsh penalties and light burden of proof. Despite carrying the maximum punishment of death, there are no fixed standards for evidence or procedure. Trials have taken place where intent is never proven on the part of the accused, and witnesses have been allowed to refrain from describing the actual crime so as not to “repeat the blasphemy.” As a result, entire proceedings can reach completion without the accused ever being told their alleged crime. Many cases also involve local disputes between Muslims and Christians that simply evolved into the latter being accused of blasphemy, with the former taking advantage of their ability to use the state to harass and violate Christians (and non-Sunnis in general) at Sunni Muslim leisure.
International outcry, particularly in the cases of Asia Bibi and Mohammed Asghar, has led to many governments and human rights organizations pressing the Pakistani government for reform. It is not that easy. Blasphemy laws have become a brutal part of the Pakistani social fabric. They have interwoven themselves into the complex power relations that constitute the country today, and are simply one manifestation of a growing trend of nationalist belligerence from Pakistan’s Sunni Muslim majority. This is a large part of the reason why recent attempts at reform have collapsed. When Bibi’s case gained worldwide attention in 2010, the ruling Pakistan People’s Party agreed to reevaluate the Penal Code and potentially repeal the laws altogether.
Three politicians were particularly outspoken: Governor Salman Taseer of Punjab, National Assemblyman Shahbaz Bhatti, and parliamentarian Sherry Rehman. Rehman spearheaded the initiative, and was ultimately forced to scale back from public life after Bhatti was killed by Talibani assassins, and Taseer was shot dead by a bodyguard who was later greeted with rose pedals from spectators at his murder trial. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani eventually shelved the reforms altogether. Pakistani Sunni fundamentalists require enough intimidation of minority groups, like the Christians, in order to mobilize politically, that reforms provoke intense violence.
The core of the issue is that blasphemy convictions, and the vigilante justice that is provoked by unsubstantiated accusations of transgression, inevitably lead to murder, because many Pakistanis need the release. According to the Islamabad-based Centre for Security Studies, at least 52 people have been killed after being accused of blasphemy since 1990, much of the time by angry mobs. Angry mobs don’t come out of nowhere, they need to get whipped into a frenzy, and directed at a perceived target. It should come as no surprise that Pakistani Sunnis have growing frustrations in an era of severe inequality and growing state violence. The situation usually demands a scapegoat, which in Pakistan, is usually a Christian, Shi’i Muslims, or Ahmaddiyah. The accusation of blasphemy isn’t meant to frame a reasoned discussion about religious representation, and a careful evaluation of the evidence. It is meant to give angry Sunnis permission to relieve their anxieties by attacking an allegedly anti-Islamic target. Christians, as well as Shi’i and Ahmaddiyah Muslims, become projections of our own worst qualities that need to be expunged.
If all of this sounds familiar, it is because there are many parallels between Pakistani anti-Christian politics, and religious racism in the West. Obviously, this comparison has limitations, not the least of which is the fact that ongoing state failures mean that pogroms occur with more frequency in Pakistani cities than they do in Europe, today. Abstractly though, there are still many similarities in a state that presses itself against embattled minorities, after intense agitation by nationalist and religious extremists. This point is crucial, because Western anti-colonial activists can be somewhat hesitant to grapple with the oppression of Christians in countries like Pakistan, because they forget that they operate in a much lower socioeconomic bracket than the fundamentalists in their own countries. It is ironic that terms like “blasphemy,” which are present in the Pakistan Penal Code because of the imperial strength of Anglican-infused British colonialism, are now being used against Pakistani Christians.
The murderous atmosphere surrounding Pakistani minorities is intensifying. The precarity of their lives is enough reason to be alarmed. However, there is an equally destructive tendency being played out in how Pakistani Muslims approach Islam. Social violence on this scale isn’t just a problem for the victim, it also damages the perpetrator on existential and spiritual grounds. Sunni nationalist bloodshed has estranged many Pakistanis from Islam as an affirmation of divine principles like social universalism and disciplined reciprocity.
Instead, Pakistani Islamism has become increasingly fused with empty ideas of violence and sectarianism. The religion is being deprived of its ethical righteousness, and willingness to consult other sources in an effort to enhance personal understanding and fulfillment. That is the tragedy confronting us as “winners” of this vicious internal war against the Christians. We are seeking to preserve ourselves by killing and maiming those who we believe to be existential threats against Pakistan. We believe that we are righteously defending our personal values, and that we are doing Allah’s work. They are all lies. All we are doing is killing ourselves, and the collective spirit of a country mired in escalating bloodshed.