The attack by protesters on churches and houses of the Christian minority in Faisalabad on Wednesday over allegations of blasphemy is yet another example of how dangerously sectarian Pakistan is. Triggered by reports that a Christian man from Jaranwala had desecrated the Koran, the incident took place just weeks after a man was shot dead by gunmen on an allegation of blasphemy in Balochistan. In February, a man was lynched over allegations that he had desecrated the Koran in Punjab. The authorities have largely remained spectators when mobs have taken it upon themselves to punish the “blasphemers”. In the Jaranwala incident too, according to reports, the authorities were slow to respond, raising questions on whether the state is willing to protect Pakistan’s religious minorities from repeated mob violence, especially when it comes to attacks in the name of blasphemy. In Pakistan, blasphemy is punishable by death, though nobody has been executed to date. But it has remained a deeply polarising issue with extremist sections raising allegations and often violently targeting those accused of the crime.
According to the Islamabad-based Centre for Research and Security Studies, at least 89 Pakistanis, including 18 women, have been killed in 1,415 accusations or cases of blasphemy since 1947. There has been a major jump in blasphemy accusations over the past decade. Civil society groups, international rights organisations as well as Pakistan’s judiciary have in recent years expressed their concerns over the misuse of the blasphemy laws. The Islamabad High Court had once suggested that Parliament amend the laws to give stronger punishment to those who raise false blasphemy allegations. But the rising violence and growing criticism have done nothing to push Pakistan’s leaders to address the menace. On the contrary, the Senate passed a Bill in August to increase punishment for those using derogatory remarks about the Prophet’s family members, close companions and the first four Caliphs, further tightening the blasphemy laws. It is this pampering of extremist sections of society by the state and the impunity with which Islamists and other parties have misused the laws that are empowering extremists who are unleashing violence against the defenceless in the name of blasphemy. This law with its colonial origins should not have any place in a modern state. But in Pakistan, where religion has been used by all stakeholders to maximise their interests, there is no commitment to tackle the real problem. The authorities should at least take urgent measures to stop the violence in the name of blasphemy. Such incidents only reinforce the sectarian fault lines of Pakistan’s state and society.