Although Islamabad did not launch these assaults, it did little to prevent or redress them. Even when scores or more are killed at a time there often is no response. Indeed, top government officials have been gunned down for defending freedom of conscience with no one arrested, let alone convicted. Explained State: “The government’s limited capacity and will to investigate or prosecute the perpetrators of increasing extremist attacks against religious minorities and on members of the Muslim majority promoting tolerance, allowed the climate of impunity to continue.”
The most common tool of persecution may be a charge of blasphemy. Said USCIRF: “The country’s blasphemy laws, used predominantly in Punjab province, but also nationwide, target members of religious minority communities and dissenting Muslims and frequently result in imprisonment.” Two years ago a mentally handicapped 12‐year‐old Christian girl was charged; after an international outcry even the authorities became embarrassed and the case was dismissed, an unusual outcome.
The blasphemy laws are made for abuse. Explained the Commission, “The so‐called crime carries the death penalty or life in prison, does not require proof of intent or evidence to be presented after allegations are made, and does not include penalties for false allegations.” In fact, courts hesitate to even hear evidence, lest doing so also be considered blasphemy. With evidence unnecessary, the charge has become a weapon routinely used in personal and business disputes, including a means to exact revenge for imagined offenses.
Between 1986 and 2006 695 people were charged with blasphemy. Today 16 people are on death row and another 20 are serving life sentences. Three Christians have been sentenced to death in the last few months. Many other Pakistanis are in prison waiting for trial, including English professor Junaid Hafeez, accused of blaspheming the Prophet Mohammed. Penalties are not limited to the law. Explained the group Freedom House: “Regardless of the motives behind their charges and the outcome of their cases, those accused of blasphemy are subject to job discrimination, ostracism from their communities and neighborhoods, and even physical violence and murder at the hands of angry mobs, forcing many to live in fear.” Since 1990 at least 52 people charged with blasphemy have been killed before reaching trial.
Judges who acquitted defendants and politicians who talked of reforming the blasphemy laws also have been assassinated. In May gunmen killed Rashid Rehman, a human rights lawyer who was defending Hafeez. Previously fellow attorneys threatened Rehman, “You will not come to court next time because you will not exist any more.” A pamphlet circulated after the murder asserting that Rehman met his “rightful end.” He was the first defense lawyer killed. He probably won’t be the last.
Pakistan has jailed more people for blasphemy than any other nation, but it is not the only country which religious free speech. An incredible 14 of 20 countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa criminalize blasphemy. Nine of 50 in the Asia Pacific, seven of 45 in Europe and three of 48 in SubSaharan Africa also do so. Eleven of 35 nations in the Americas have blasphemy laws. In the U.S. several states, including Massachusetts and Michigan, retain blasphemy laws, though they do not enforce them.
The group Freedom House published a detailed report on the detrimental impact of blasphemy laws on human rights. Put simply, these measures “impose undue restrictions on freedom of expression” and are “prone to arbitrary or overly broad application, particularly in settings where there are no checks and balances in place to prevent abuses.” Freedom House highlighted Algeria, Egypt, Greece, Indonesia, Malaysia and Poland, as well as Pakistan.
In March the Commission made much the same point, issuing a special report entitled “Prisoners of Belief: Individuals Jailed Under Blasphemy Laws.” Victims include three atheist bloggers in Bangladesh, numerous Iranian Bahai’s, Christians and Sufi and Sunni Muslims, 63 Sunnis and Christians in Egypt, an atheist writer in Kazakhstan, scores of Indonesians and a Saudi blogger. Even Greece and Turkey have charged people with blasphemy.
The Arab Spring was supposed to bring liberty to the Mideast, but it had the opposite effect in many countries. For instance, in Kuwait, perhaps the most liberal Gulf State, the Islamist‐dominated Assembly elected in early 2012 voted to impose the death penalty on Muslims convicted of blasphemy. The Emir blocked the law and later changed the election rules, resulting in a more moderate legislature.
Blasphemy prosecutions were initiated in post‐revolution Egypt and even Tunisia, viewed as the most successful participant in the Arab Spring. USCIRF commissioners Zuhdi Jasser and Katrina Lantos Swett wrote: “Rather than giving rise to greater individual liberty, this trend could turn the Arab Spring into a repressive winter, with forces of intolerance and tyranny dashing hopes for genuine freedom and liberal democracy.”
Nevertheless, Pakistan remains a particular problem. The country’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, emphasized the importance of religious liberty. But Pakistan became more Islamic over time, a process accelerated by dictator Mohammed Zia ul‐Haq. His government not only criminalized blasphemy, but, noted Freedom House, enacted new laws which imposed “harsh Shari’a punishments for extramarital sex, theft and violations of the prohibition of alcohol.”
The impact of such laws fell most heavily on religious minorities and liberals. Discrimination, intolerance and violence have become pervasive. Noted Freedom House: “it is clear that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are used politically and applied disproportionately to non‐Muslims. Although many other countries have laws against blasphemy, the situation in Pakistan is unique in its severity and its particular effects on religious minorities.” Intolerance has become the norm — in a strategically placed nation possessing nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately, there are spillover impacts from abusive blasphemy prosecutions. Warned Freedom House, in practice the blasphemy laws have led to “extended arbitrary detention.” The process also has undermined even limited due process, with convictions rendered on minimal to nonexistent evidence. Along the way defendants have suffered from official torture and private vigilante injustice.
Blasphemy laws threaten basic individual liberties around the globe. The measures are bad in Western nations. They are far worse in the Muslim world. The problem is particularly severe in Pakistan. Warned Freedom House: “Pakistan’s blasphemy laws foster an environment of intolerance and impunity, and lead to violations of a broad range of human rights, including the obvious rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion, as well as freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention; the right to due process and a fair trial; freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; and the right to life and security of the person.”
Obviously, there is little the U.S. can do directly about policy in Pakistan. However, the International Religious Freedom Act allows the State Department to designate countries as Countries of Particular Concern. Noted USCIRF: “Pakistan represents the worst situation in the world for religious freedom for countries not currently designated” as CPCs. Unfortunately, in its latest designation announced last month State continued to leave Islamabad off of the list. The Obama administration should remedy that lapse.
For some, religious liberty is but an afterthought, an esoteric principle with little practical impact. However, the willingness of foreign governments to respect freedom of conscience acts as the famed canary in the mine. A state which fails to protect the right of individuals to respond to their belief (or unbelief) in God is more likely to leave other essential liberties unprotected. And a society in which life and dignity of the human person is not respected is more likely to become a hothouse to ideas and beliefs hostile to America.
As we see in Pakistan today. Rising religious extremism, exemplified by abusive blasphemy prosecutions, threatens the integrity of the Pakistani state — and the security of its nuclear program. Although Americans cannot control policy in Pakistan, they can help highlight a problem that threatens people in that nation and ultimately this one as well.