THE killing and incarceration of people on flimsy accusations of insulting Islam has long shamed Pakistan. Hundreds, often members of religious minorities, have been ensnared by blasphemy laws that leave victims with little chance of defending themselves against malicious claims. Cowed judges are unwilling to examine evidence for fear of profanities being repeated in their courtrooms. Outside the courts, mobs can be quickly incited to acts of murder by fire-breathing mullahs.
Accusations of blasphemy soar: just one in 2011; over 100 in 2014. More than half of the 62 people murdered in the wake of blasphemy allegations since 1990 were killed in the past five years, according to figures collated by a Pakistani human-rights group that fears even to be identified. “Blasphemy” can now include spelling errors by children or throwing away a visiting-card bearing the name “Muhammad”.
On November 25th a judge in Gilgit-Baltistan sentenced the owner of Geo, Pakistan’s biggest private television channel, to 26 years in jail for broadcasting a popular Sufi song about the prophet during a light-entertainment show. (The court does not have nationwide jurisdiction, so the mogul is unlikely to ever be thrown behind bars.) The law encourages depraved vigilante attacks. In the latest, a pregnant Christian woman was beaten to death by an enraged mob.
Liberal Pakistanis blame the country’s blasphemy craze on Zia ul-Haq, an Islamist dictator who died in a plane crash in 1988. He hardened British-era blasphemy laws. Derogatory remarks about the prophet Muhammad became a capital offence. But it was his “secular” predecessor, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who amended the constitution to declare members of the Ahmedi minority non-Muslims even though they consider themselves such. Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, once served as the defence lawyer for a carpenter who had murdered the publisher of a book said to be blasphemous.
No politician has been prepared to confront blasphemy since Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, was killed by one of his own bodyguards in 2011. He had sparked outrage by calling for mercy for a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who had fallen foul of what he called a “black law”. Blasphemy cases are often thrown out by higher courts, but it can take years, during which time the accused is at great risk. On November 24th Ms Bibi filed an appeal with the Supreme Court.
The police are also prey to the radicalising forces that are eating away at Pakistan. In November a man arrested for alleged blasphemy was killed by an axe-wielding policeman. The legal profession is also tainted. Lawyers greeted Taseer’s assassin at court with a shower of rose petals. It takes considerable bravery to defend someone accused of blasphemy. In May a lawyer, Rashid Rehman, was shot dead in the city of Multan for representing a man who was accused of insulting the prophet.
The country’s clerics are united in defending the existing laws. The most vociferous opponents of reform are not the Saudi-style extremists empowered during the Zia era, but Barelvis, a school of Islam that some once looked to as a moderate bulwark against extremism.
Unsurprisingly, many conclude they can cry blasphemy with impunity. In poor villages and urban slums countless vendettas can be settled in a blasphemy allegation. Almost two years after mobs burned down 100 Christian homes in Lahore the only person behind bars is the man whose alleged blasphemy triggered the riots.