Last summer, Tahir Ahmad Naseem was at a bail hearing in a high-security courtroom in Pakistan when he was shot dead. His killer, a 15-year-old student named Faisal Khan who had sneaked a pistol into the courtroom, was arrested immediately. But rather than facing public opprobrium, Khan was hailed as a hero. Thousands took to the streets to defend him, chanting slogans in his support and rallying for his release from prison. Police officers clicked jubilant selfies with him as they ferried the teenager in and out of court.
Naseem, his victim, had been targeted both by the lawsuit and by Khan for allegedly committing an act most governments do not consider a crime: blasphemy. In Pakistan, however, insulting religion and, especially, insulting Islam’s Prophet Mohammad is punishable by death or life in prison, and accusations are often filed with minimal, if any, proof.
Despite international criticism of these laws, blasphemy accusations are on the rise in Pakistan. 2020 saw the highest number to date—200—but 2021 has already surpassed that record, according to the South Asian Media Research Institute, a civil society initiative that has counted 234 accusations as of mid-October. The offenses at issue have included seemingly minor indiscretions or misunderstandings, like forwarding a WhatsApp message or sharing a Facebook post critical of Islam. In one case, police arrested a shop owner for selling shoes that appeared to have Muhammad’s name on their soles. In another, a child was accused for misspelling a word on a test. In another, the organizers of a feminist protest march were brought in for allegedly insulting the prophet in a viral video they claim had been doctored.