Religion-Fueled Mobs on the Rise Again in Pakistan

KARACHI, Pakistan – Last month, a man named Muhammad Mushtaq was accused of burning pages of the Quran in a mosque in central Pakistan. A mob armed with sticks, stones and axes gathered at the mosque and dragged him outside.

Mr Mushtaq was tortured for hours and eventually killed, his body hanging from a tree. Among the spectators were a handful of police officers.

The February 12 murder in Khanewal district was denounced across Pakistan. Prime Minister Imran Khan said the government had “zero tolerance” for such mob violence and promised the police officers would be punished.

But lynchings for transgressions of Islam, real or imagined, are far from new in Pakistan, where blasphemy is punishable by death. Rights activists say lynch mobs are abusing anti-blasphemy laws to take matters into their own hands.

In recent years, these episodes have risen to alarming levels, with more and more cases of deadly violence.

Critics and human rights activists say vows like the Prime Minister’s are just lip service and that Mr Khan’s government, like its predecessors, has taken no practical steps to curb the violence.

Mob violence and state-imposed blasphemy are more common in Pakistan than anywhere else, according to a report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom

“The lack of political will and commitment has always been the biggest obstacle to preventing the abuse, abuse and exploitation of blasphemy laws,” said Tahira Abdullah, an Islamabad rights activist.

Khan’s government is no different from its predecessors in pledging to deal with the threat of religious violence, she said. But “it is too cowardly to confront” influential religious parties in parliament, Ms Abdullah said, “and the raging militant extremist groups outside parliament.”

Blasphemy charges have led to the destruction of Hindu temples and neighborhoods, the setting fire to police stations by angry mobs, the lynching of a student on a university campus and the murder of a provincial governor by his own security guard. After Musthaq’s murder, a senior police official told a parliamentary committee that 90 percent of those involved in blasphemy are between the ages of 18 and 30.

Just two months ago, a Sri Lankan, Priyantha Diyawadanage, was lynched by workers he ran at a factory in the eastern city of Sialkot. Mr Diyawadanage was charged with tearing off stickers with religious inscriptions from the factory walls. He was tortured for hours by an angry mob before his body was thrown from the roof of the factory, beaten and set on fire.

According to the Center for Social Justice, a Lahore-based minority rights group, at least 84 people were charged with blasphemy in courts and angry street crowds in 2021. Three people, including Mr Diyawadanage, were killed by a mob over such allegations, it noted.

In August, a gang in the Rahimyar Khan district, also in Punjab province, damaged statues and burned down the front door of a Hindu temple after a court released an eight-year-old Hindu boy on bail. He was charged with blasphemy for allegedly urinating in a madrasa library.

Defense lawyers are also at risk. In 2014, gunmen murdered a Pakistani lawyer, Rashid Rehman, in the city of Multan for defending Junaid Hafeez, an academic accused of making derogatory comments about the prophet Mohammed. mr. Hafeez had been in jail and couldn’t find a lawyer until Mr. Rehman agreed to hear his case.

In 2011, two politicians were killed in similar incidents. Salman Taseer, then a provincial governor, was killed by a bodyguard after he opposed the blasphemy laws. Shahbaz Bhatti, a federal minister, was assassinated for resisting the death sentence imposed on Asia Bibi, a Christian convicted of verbally insulting the prophet Mohammed. Although Ms Bibi was acquitted in 2019, she has fled Pakistan and her lawyer has received death threats.

“Pakistan’s increasing theocratization and rising militant extremism are making it very difficult for lawyers to defend alleged blasphemers,” Ms Abdullah said. “It takes a lot of personal courage and professional integrity to withstand enormous open pressure and threats.”

Law enforcement agencies are not trained or equipped to deal with frenzied vigilantes, and are overwhelmed, Ms Abdullah noted.

Pakistan inherited 19th century British laws that set penalties for offenses related to blasphemy. But the government revamped these laws in the 1980s and introduced new clauses that added harsh penalties and even the death penalty for anyone who offends Islam.

Iran, Brunei and Mauritania are the other three countries that impose the death penalty for insulting religion.

“Since the death penalty, a mandatory punishment for blasphemy, became law, there have been several periods of religious violence in Pakistan,” said Peter Jacob, executive director of the Center for Social Justice.

While no one has ever been executed for the crime, violence against alleged blasphemers is hardly uncommon.

Rights activists link the current spike in blasphemy violence to Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, an emerging radical religious party. And Islamist parties and militant groups in Pakistan have been encouraged by the Taliban’s rise to power in neighboring Afghanistan last year.

“The government’s narrative of Islamophobia in the rest of the world” fuels the religion-based violence, Mr Jacob said.

“This story builds on anger among the youth, which is becoming ready-made ammunition for sporadic but large-scale violence against anyone suspected of having any respect for religious persons, scriptures, places or articles,” he said.

Tehreek-e-Labbaik, the radical religious party, first emerged as an organized force when it demonstrated for the release of Mumtaz Qadri, the police bodyguard who shot and killed Governor Taseer in 2011. Mr Qadri was eventually sentenced to death and hanged in 2016. Since then, it has formed itself into a political party, competing in elections and continuing to disrupt governments.

In April last year, Tehreek-e-Labbaik staged violent, nationwide protests to demand the deportation of the French ambassador after France’s President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to a French teacher killed for displaying caricatures of the prophet Mohammed in a classroom. had shown.

The Pakistani Taliban have also announced support for blasphemy campaigns and have promoted armed struggle to protect the honor of Islam.

Protests against blasphemy in the country often display posters showing a reward of around $56,000 for the murder of Faraz Pervaiz, a Pakistani Christian, for posting anti-Muslim content on social media.

Pervaiz, 34, who now lives in exile in Thailand, said he started speaking out on social media for the rights of non-Muslim communities after a Muslim mob attacked a Christian neighborhood in Lahore in 2013 and set fire to more than 150 houses. and two churches following reports that a Christian sanitation worker had slandered the Prophet Muhammad.

“Even in Thailand I feel insecure,” he said in an interview, after a Pakistani Muslim refugee shared one of his videos and his location on social media. Pervaiz left the country in 2014 after receiving threats, he said.

Journalists in Pakistan have failed to report blasphemy cases since the rise of the extremist parties and their growing influence.

“As a journalist, and especially for the Urdu-language press, on the issue of profanity reporting, you could die or be fired for endangering the very existence of the organization you work for,” said Razeshta Sethna, a journalist and author of a recent report on the stifling media environment in the country.

Salman Masood reported from Islamabad. Zia ur-Rehman from Karachi, Pakistan.

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