Radical Islamists of Pakistan found a new ‘hero’ recently. His name is Khalid Khan, who shot dead Tahir Naseem, an American citizen accused of blasphemy, in a Peshawar courtroom on July 29.
Even though Khalid Khan surrendered before the police, thousands rallied in support of him and his photos were shared widely on social media. Even before he was taken to the court, he was welcomed with hugs and kisses.
Naseem was charged with blasphemy in 2018 after he declared himself Islam’s prophet.
The killing has ignited a debate on the dangerous blasphemy law and Pakistani society’s mindset in general. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws (PPC section 295 and subsections, section 298 and subsections) state that ‘derogatory’ remarks on the Prophet Muhammad, insulting any religion, disturbing a religious assembly and trespassing on burial grounds can cause lifetime imprisonment or sentence to death.
Till now, no blasphemy convict has been executed by Pakistan but allegations of blasphemy are enough to cause riots and killing of accused by vigilante groups. According to Al Jazeera, 77 people have been killed since 1990 over accusations of blasphemy. In Pakistan, as per data released by the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a total of 776 Muslims, 505 Ahmadis, 229 Christians and 30 Hindus have been accused under the various clauses of blasphemy law from 1987 to 2018. Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus constitute less than four per cent of the general population of Pakistan, but they account for around 50 per cent of blasphemy accused.
It isn’t that a politician has never tried to change these laws or bring reforms. But those who did, faced the wrath of the religious zealot section of the country. In 2011, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was killed by his own guard after he defended a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, accused of blasphemy. She was acquitted in 2018.
In another case, Pakistan’s only Christian cabinet member and first federal minister of minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, was killed after he reportedly pressurised the federal government to change blasphemy laws. Pew Research Center, a prominent organisation for the survey, had found that 75 per cent of the Pakistani Muslims support the country’s blasphemy laws. The number is not small enough to ignore.
Rights groups and critics say Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are often used against religious minorities. Often the laws are used as a weapon of revenge. Therefore, there’s an urgent need to replace these laws.
It is important that murderers like Khalid Khan be given maximum punishment by the judiciary to set an example that the guilty will not be spared. If Pakistan wants to prove itself as a haven for religious freedom, then it must ban these regressive laws.
It’s also imperative that global powers raise this issue on international platforms to create pressure on the internal politics of the country. Proposal to put sanctions or interrogation at international level may force them to think on this again. Progressive countries of the world should give refuge to the acquitted.
(The author is a columnist, south Asian political observer, and fellow at think-tank BVM. Views expressed are personal.)