Furqan* spends his days and nights in immense mental anguish and inadequate security in the notorious Adiala jail in Rawalpindi.
Around six months ago, the Catholic Christian was picked up by the Federal Investigation Agency, or FIA, from an impoverished neighbourhood in Karachi and whisked away to Islamabad to face trial under the blasphemy law.
A rights activist, who recently met Furqan in Adiala, said the allegation against him is that he had sent a text message to a Muslim friend who claimed it contained blasphemous content, hurting the latter’s religious feelings.
“Initially, the FIA team travelled all the way from the federal capital to Karachi to arrest Furqan’s younger brother. After subjecting him to physical torture and incarcerating him in Adiala jail for a month, the FIA released him, and arrested Furqan,” added the activist, who wished to not be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.
“In jail, I surprisingly had the chance to meet around 150 other inmates, who are also languishing – from months to years – under the same allegations of having blasphemed the Muslim majority’s religion,” the activist says. The case against Furqan was lodged in 2021-2022. However, this case is just the tip of a rock-hard iceberg that shows no signs of melting in the foreseeable future.
A difficult year
Despite the distressing circumstances Furqan is currently in, his family believes he is lucky to be alive since the prison at least protects him from vigilante mobs like those that were behind the recent Jaranwala incident.
Hundreds of enraged men had torched dozens of churches and many more houses following rumours that two Christian brothers had desecrated pages of the Holy Quran.
“The incidents show a pattern and a replication of what happened in Shanti Nagar in 1997, Sangla Hill in 2005, Gojra in 2009 and many other incidents, where frenzied mobs are collected through provocative announcements on the pretext of blasphemy,” said Peter Jacob, executive director of the Centre for Social Justice, Pakistan, sharing the preliminary facts of the incident.
The Centre for Social Justice has been keeping a record of cases against religious minorities nationwide since the promulgation of blasphemy laws by military dictator Ziaul Haq in the 1980s. More specifically Sections 295, 295-A, 295-B and 295-C that deal with blasphemy were introduced to the Pakistan Penal Code, under General Zia.
The watchdog says the year 2023 has witnessed a worryingly high number of blasphemy-related incidents. “In 2023, there has been an exponential increase in the abuse of blasphemy laws. Till August, 16,198 persons have been accused [of blasphemy] with 85% [of them] Muslims, 9% Ahmadis, and 4.4% Christians,” said Jacob.
When did the matter exacerbate
Jacob believes that the rise in blasphemy cases is deeply rooted in the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) former government, and the rising religio-political party Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP).
Commenting on the Centre for Social Justice’s 2023 report, he stated that it is unfortunate that the highest number of blasphemy cases in recent years have been reported under the PTI regime. According to the Centre for Social Justice, 499 blasphemy cases were reported during the PTI’s three-and-a-half-year-long tenure between 2018-’22. This number had only been exceeded under General Pervez Musharraf’s regime with 503 cases over 2000-’07.
“The PTI government’s tenure was the worst compared to its predecessors in terms of victimisation of religious minorities and Muslims alike over allegations of blaspheming the majority religion,” he says.
There is a clear upward trend in the use of blasphemy laws over the years.
Government-wise statistics show that in the years after the law was promulgated, Zia’s regime (1987-’88) saw only 31 cases compared to the recent hundreds. Sixteen cases were filed in the Pakistan People’s Party’s 1989-’90 government, 98 during Pakistan Muslim Leagu-Nawaz’s 1991-1993 rule, 76 in the Pakistan People’s Party’s second tenure (1994-’96) and 195 during Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s 1997-’99 regime. While the numbers already saw an exponential rise, it was during the Musharraf regime that the numbers crossed the 500 mark.
The successive civilian governments that followed the Musharraf dictatorship failed to control the misuse of the laws with 441 blasphemy cases registered during the Pakistan People’s Party’s 2008-2013 and 261 during Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s 2014-2018 tenures.
After the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the number surged close to 500 once again during the PTI government.
Asad Iqbal Butt from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan also agreed that there was a clear rise in blasphemy cases during the PTI government’s tenure. “It was firstly because former prime minister Imran Khan was openly in support of having a dialogue with terrorists and militant outfits,” he opined.
“Then, the TLP, which has a very radical view about one specific Muslim sect, was allowed to be launched. They not only lodged blasphemy cases against religious minorities but also didn’t spare Muslims,” he told Prism. He noted that TLP activists and supporters had also been involved in the Jaranwala incident.
However, Amir Mufti Qasim Fakhri of TLP’s Karachi chapter denied allegations that his party was involved in the arson and violence at Jaranwala.
However, Fakhri admitted that his party’s leaders and activists had lodged a large number of blasphemy cases across the country, saying: “If anyone blasphemes our Prophet (PBUH) and other personalities, it is our duty to stop them.”
Fakhri declared that the punishment for blasphemy is the death sentence, as it is clearly defined in Section 295-C of the PPC.
The cleric alleged that the media and other elements which “toe American and Western lines”, portray a bad image of the TLP over the issue of blasphemy.
He also hit out at reports that linked the group to the violence in Jaranwala and demanded the stories be retracted.
Politicisation of law
In recent years, the use of blasphemy laws against opponents seems to have become a regular occurrence.
On the grassroots level, common people have been using blasphemy allegations as a tool to settle personal scores, most commonly monetary and land disputes, by accusing opponents – from religious minorities – of blaspheming Islam. In 2013, at least 125 houses in a Christian community were burned down by mobs for the sole purpose – as it transpired later – of dispossessing them of prime lands in the Badami Bagh outskirts of Lahore and usurping the same.
This practice of false blasphemy allegations has also been observed with politicians and religious outfits that openly use it to settle personal scores against rivals.
PML-N vs PTI
In September last year, the PTI announced legal action against PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz for what it called her “controversial social media campaign” accusing PTI Chairman Imran Khan of blasphemy that could potentially endanger his life.
Earlier, Maryam had uploaded two purported statements of Imran Khan and as many verses of the Holy Quran on her X (formerly Twitter) account to draw comparisons between them. She also posted saying: “This man (Imran) is using religion for his politics and promoting his false narrative. Save your faith and the country from this devil.”
Most recently, the PML-N resorted to using the religious card against Imran when reports emerged that the PTI was engaging human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson – who had reportedly represented Salman Rushdie – to represent Imran in international courts in relation to unlawful detention and human rights abuses. The PML-N alleged that Imran was “conspiring against Islam and Pakistan” while Maryam insisted that this shows Imran’s double standards.
In a post on September 2, 2023, she said: “Isn’t it strange that Imran Khan chose a man to fight his case internationally who represented Salman Rushdie, a blasphemer. This shows two faces of Imran Khan. In Pakistan, Khan makes a claim of striving for Riasat-i-Madina and outside the country, he seeks the help of an anti-Islam firm.”
A PTI spokesperson rejected all claims of hiring a foreign law firm clarifying that Imran never supported any such initiative even in the face of the worst state operation.
Rushdie was also used by the PTI to attack the PML-N.
PTI goes after PML-N
In September 2022, PTI claimed that Maryam’s post against Imran Khan was followed by over 65,000 posts targeting the PTI chairman. There were also posts critical of Maryam, telling her not to drag religion into politics, which could endanger one’s life.
Fawad Chaudhry, then a leader of the PTI, had declared that: “We will not let this matter go unnoticed. Legal action will be taken against Maryam Nawaz for using the tool of blasphemy to endanger the life of the PTI chairman.”
In September last year, then-prime minister Shehbaz Sharif had met French President Emmanuel Macron on the sidelines of the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. In August, he had also thanked the French president in a post for expressing solidarity with the flood-ravaged people of Pakistan.
In 2021, the TLP spearheaded a campaign to pressure Islamabad to expel French envoys from Pakistan over “blasphemous” comments by the French president and for allowing caricatures of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) to be drawn.
At the time, PTI leader Yasmin Rashid took to X to highlight how Imran Khan had penned a letter to leaders of Muslim states on how the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) honour was a “red line” for Muslims after Macron had defended the publication of blasphemous caricatures.
Rashid had railed against Shehbaz and Maryam, adding in the post that “uncle (Shehbaz) was making merry with an individual who had defended blasphemy the world over while his niece (Maryam) was using the blasphemy card against Imran Khan”.
Separately, in an address in April 2021, Imran claimed that Nawaz had been in power when Rushdie’s book was published in 1998. Imran questioned why Nawaz had not voiced his opposition to Rushdie’s book.
Blasphemy laws made more stringent
On August 7 this year, the Senate passed a bill to increase the punishment for using derogatory remarks against revered personalities – including the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) family, wives and companions, and the four Caliphs – from three to at least 10 years of imprisonment.
The bill, titled The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2023, was passed by the National Assembly in January in the presence of just 15 lawmakers.
The bill’s statement of objectives and reasons highlight that some individuals are involved in “blasphemy on the internet and social media”, and that acts of disrespect towards revered personalities, including the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) companions, were a cause of “terrorism”, “disruption in the country” and hurt to people from all walks of life.
It terms the current punishment for the offence “simple”, adding that it led to people punishing the suspects on their own, leading to an increase in violence.
Earlier, in February, then-human rights minister Riaz Hussain Pirzada had urged Shehbaz to undo the amendments, arguing that their purpose was to “please a specific group” and that they had been approved without “fulfilling the norms of parliamentary proceedings”.
In a letter to the premier, Pirzada had said the state had a duty to protect religious minorities as it was an Islamic injunction as well as a constitutional obligation.
“Minority groups have raised their eyebrows on ignoring a good practice in parliamentary business followed for amending a law to eliminate technical defects rather intending to persecute a specific group,” the letter said.
Six months later, the Senate passed the bill after PML-N Senator Hafiz Abdul Karim presented it. The Senate agenda also mentioned Jamaat-i-Islami’s Senator Mushtaq Ahmad as a mover of the bill.
In his argument in favour of the legislation, Ahmad maintained that acts of blasphemy were being witnessed on social media. He highlighted that the current law was somewhat “ineffective” and the bill aimed to fine-tune it to make it more effective.
“This bill should be passed unanimously,” he asserted.
Similarly, Religious Affairs Minister Senator Talha Mahmood maintained that the bill did not hurt anyone’s sentiments and that it should be passed unanimously.
However, some members of the House, prominently Pakistan Pepople’s Party’s Sherry Rehman, insisted that the bill should be referred to the relevant committee for review.
“There’s an inclination of passing bills in haste,” Rehman pointed out, adding that they – the lawmakers – had not even seen the bill. “We do care about the respect of all prophets … but a bill should not be passed without analysis, in the name of religion,” she said.
But Karim insisted that the bill be put to vote, and so it was. And it was passed.
For people like Furqan, who are languishing in their dark cells, their families wonder if lawmakers will ever go beyond empty promises and actually pass legislation to help them. Given the lawmakers’ track record this year, it seems like an impossible ask.
*The name of the accused has been changed due to security concerns.
This article was first published on Dawn.com.