Born an Islamic republic out of the 1949 partition with India, Pakistan and particularly its religious laws are taken for granted by some. As in many Muslim majority countries, Islam is not just the state religion but the state law. Much of this stems from the Hadith, and whilst Pakistan’s laws are not based directly on Sharia, the introduction of the Hudood Ordinance in 1979 largely ‘Islamised’ the Pakistani legal system. Throughout the country there is broad support for this kind of religious conservatism, with 89% of Pakistani Muslims favouring stoning for female adulterers, and 76% believing that the death penalty should be applied to those who leave the faith, according to a 2013 Pew Poll.
Recently however, it has been Pakistan’s blasphemy laws that have been the object of debate and discontent. Violence erupted last month in the port city of Karachi as demonstrators attacked police, demanding that five human rights activists declared missing in the country be charged with blaspheming Islam; the punishment for which is death. Last October, the case of a Christian woman sentenced to death for insulting Mohamed had her hearing before the supreme court adjourned. Her family now live in hiding, unable to return to their previous lives.
Although the governor of Punjab supported her, claiming that the laws have become a weapon with which local scores are settled, he was murdered by his own bodyguard last year. Indeed, those accused of blasphemy have as much if not more to fear from Pakistan’s powerful, vocal and violent fundamentalist community than the government. The governor’s murderer, Mumtaz Qadri now has a shrine and mosque erected in his honour. The entire site – costing nearly a million dollars – has been funded through donations, some of which came from the tens of thousands who attended his funeral. Whilst there are liberals in Pakistan who oppose blasphemy killings, open opposition is a dangerous game, and likely to find them accused of the very crimes they oppose being criminalised.
Whilst President Musharraf attempted to loosen some of Pakistan’s more extreme religious laws in the 2000s, he had little success. The reality for most Pakistanis is one of strict religious adherence, regardless of de jure changes to the country’s constitution. With a growing number of Saudi backed Madrassas in Pakistan preaching Wahhabism, (a particularly extreme sect of Islam), and the crumbling state education system, grass roots change seems improbable. As such, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws may well become more austere, before they begin to relax.