Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws Are Politically Toxic—and Often Lethal

Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws Are Politically Toxic—and Often Lethal
Supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik party rally against Asia Bibi in Karachi, Pakistan, Oct. 12, 2018 (AP photo by Fareed Khan).

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. 

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.