Pakistan’s blasphemy laws creating political and economic problems

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws creating political and economic problems
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Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws are dividing the country and are creating a range of political and economic problems.

Pakistan is notable as a country that was formed as a home for the Muslims of British India. As a result, Islam and the state are closely intertwined, highlighted by the official name, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. An example of this close relationship is seen in the blasphemy laws in place in the country. These laws have, especially in recent years, been brutally enforced, resulting in often controversial outcomes. As a country placed at the forefront of the battle against Islamic extremism, from both a physical and a metaphorical perspective, these laws seemingly conflict with Pakistan’s outlook and development. It is for that reason that they have the potential to cause political and economic problems and hold Pakistan back.

Old laws, new enforcement

The laws themselves date back to 1860 and British rule of what was still then India. These initial laws set out how it was illegal to disturb a religious assembly, trespass on burial grounds, insult religious beliefs, and intentionally destroy or defile a place or an object of worship. They were then expanded in 1927 and inherited by the new state of Pakistan upon independence in 1947. During the 1980s, General Zia ul Haq expanded the laws again as part of his attempts to ‘Islamicise’ the country. These expansions included imprisonment for desecration of the Quran and the death penalty or life imprisonment for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). There is widespread support for the laws in the country but the way they are implemented is debated. The strict enforcement of these laws is controversial, especially when minorities are those being punished, as it is seen as a way to unfairly target them.

The enforcement of these laws has led to a number of political repercussions. For example in 2011 the Punjabi governor, Salman Taseer, was killed by his own bodyguard Mumtaz Qadhri. Taseer was opposed to the blasphemy laws while Qadhri was in support of them, motivating the latter to assassinate the governor. While Qadhri was eventually hanged for his crime he received substantial support for his actions and was hailed as a hero by many Islamist groups and hardline activists. This series of events indicates the divides among Pakistani society and the cycle of murder and death as punishment for murder seems to only cause distress.

Protests against Qadhri’s hanging in Islamabad in March 2016 indicate the strength of the support for the laws and provide evidence for why the laws have not been amended. Ultimately the laws shift focus away from other more pressing issues such as the economy, health, and education.

Causing problems for enterprises

Economic problems also emerge from the impact of these laws. For example in November 2014, the owner of Geo, Pakistan’s biggest private television channel, was sentenced to 26 years in jail for broadcasting a popular Sufi song about the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) during a light entertainment show. The effect on private enterprises such as Geo indicates the far-reaching the impacts of the law.

Ultimately, any effort made to either challenge and enforce these laws only diverts manpower, money and attention away from pressing issues and undermines the conflict against the Taliban. Having to deal with the problems of hardline interpretations of Islamic laws while battling against a hardline Islamist group like the Taliban serves only to confuse the people and cause disruption in society.

Overall, the blasphemy laws in Pakistan are divisive as some see it as a core part of Islam and Pakistan, while others believe they are disruptive, backward and an embarrassment for Pakistan. It remains to be seen what happens in the future as for now the government refuses to amend them, with the continuing public support for them being one crucial factor in the decision.

About Author

Rayhan Chouglay

Rayhan Chouglay is a GRI Analyst. He holds a BA in History from the London School of Economics with a particular focus on Hindu-Muslim relations in South Asia. His main political risk interests concern relations between India and Pakistan.