Condemnations by Pakistan’s top clerics and Islamist parties against the misuse of blasphemy laws could help reverse a rising tide of mob killings, according to one of the country’s leading rights activists.
A Christian couple accused of desecrating the Quran were beaten to death by a mob of 1,500 and their bodies thrown in a furnace this month in the latest in a spate of lynching in Pakistan. A day later, a policeman hacked a man who had been accused of blasphemy to death with an axe while he was in custody.
Pakistan’s tough blasphemy laws can include the death penalty for insulting Islam’s Prophet, but critics say they are often used to settle personal disputes. While there have been no civilian executions for any crime since 2008, anyone convicted, or even accused, of insulting Islam risks a bloody death at the hands of vigilantes. Such incidents have been met with general condemnation in the past, but little action has been taken against either the perpetrators or instigators—a factor, say activists, driving a rise in such crimes.
But for lawyer Asma Jahangir, recently given France’s highest civilian award and Sweden’s alternative to the Nobel Peace Prize for her decades of rights work, the response to the Christian couple’s killing offers hope for change.
“There is a positive development, that religious scholars and parties including Jamaat-e-Islami went there and came forward against the incident, which is a good omen,” she said at her offices in Lahore. “I think it is a very big change and we should appreciate and welcome it.”
Pakistan’s religious right has for decades used supposed threats to Islam to stoke up support in a country where 97 percent of the population is Muslim. But Jahangir said the mounting number of gruesome vigilante cases was now forcing even those who had traditionally been the law’s most vocal supporters to pause.
The All Pakistan Ulema Council, a leading clerical body, has chastised the government for failing to act and pledged that in the case of the Christian couple, justice for the victims must be served. It may sound like wishful thinking, but few Pakistani rights activists have achieved the credibility of Jahangir, a lawyer and daughter of a left-wing politician.
The former U.N. special rapporteur on religion has braved death threats, beatings and prison time to win landmark human rights cases and stand up to dictatorship. Pakistan still suffers terrible violence against women, discrimination against minorities and near-slavery for bonded laborers, but Jahangir insists human rights causes have made greater strides than it may appear.
“There was a time that human rights was not even an issue in this country. Then prisoners’ rights became an issue,” she said. “Women’s rights was thought of as a Western concept. Now people do talk about women’s rights—political parties talk about it, even religious parties talk about it.”
Jahangir can count a number of victories, from winning freedom for bonded laborers from their “owners” through pioneering litigation to a landmark court case that allowed women to marry of their own volition. She has also been an outspoken critic of the country’s military establishment, including during her stint as the first ever female leader of Pakistan’s bar association.
The 62-year-old was arrested in 2007 by the government of then military ruler Pervez Musharraf, and two years ago claimed her life was in danger from the ISI spy agency. She recently engaged in a war of words with cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, whose anti-government protest movement she says is backed by the military—a claim his party has denied.
Khan’s push to unseat Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has lost momentum since peaking in late August, but he plans a mass rally in Islamabad on Nov. 30.
Jahangir said it was clear that Khan and populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, who led a parallel protest, were being aided by the military. “I have lived in politics, I was born in a political house, it runs in my blood—so I know when certain faces are coming out, where they are coming from,” she said.