In April, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan denounced the West, particularly France, and called for a coalition of Muslim countries to use economic power to force the West to pass blasphemy laws protecting Muslim sentiments. At the same time, Pakistan’s uptick in cases of blasphemy against religious minorities has led to the European Parliament calling for a review of Pakistan’s GSP+ trade status. Without losing the irony of the situation, Pakistan has squarely positioned itself for economic loss.
The situation escalated mid-April when Pakistani police arrested Saad Husain Rizvi, the leader of an extremist Islamist political party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), after he announced a protest against the government over its failure to kick the French envoy out of Pakistan. TLP had been advocating for its removal since September of last year after the French magazine Charlie Hebdo again reprinted caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. In response to Rizvi’s arrest, widespread rioting throughout the nation (organized by TLP over WhatsApp) resulted in hundreds of police injuries, some deaths, and a number held hostage and tortured. The government quickly banned TLP and ordered for the seizure of its assets, which arguably will only strengthen the TLP’s power.
However, TLP’s strength remains. Negotiations between TLP and Khan’s government resulted in talks of the National Assembly about voting on whether to expel the French embassy. Conflicting reports about Rizvi’s release also emerged. Khan himself responded that, while he denounced TLP’s methods, he held the same goals, notably to end Islamophobia globally. To do so, he pledged to create a coalition of Muslim nations that would jointly work together to stop blasphemy of the Prophet Muhammad by using threats of trade boycotts. Ideally for them, such blasphemy laws would carry the same consequence as denying the Holocaust in some European countries, which for Germany and France is punishable with imprisonment. Incidentally, the Holocaust is not a part of school curriculum in Pakistan, with many only learning about the mass murder of Jews during World War II after leaving the country.
Khan’s approach to the negotiations with the TLP is commendable insofar as he backed up his strategy with democratic principles: “In democracy everybody [has] his viewpoint but no one could be allowed to ‘blackmail the state by use of force’ or any other means.” However, within Pakistan itself, many, religious minorities in particular, cannot express their “viewpoints” without being accused of blasphemy. An estimated 200 people were arrested on blasphemy charges in 2020, a sharp increase from 2019, and as of March 2021, at least nine Christians were arrested on blasphemy charges, let alone other religious minorities. In all cases, those accused allege the charges were unfounded. Most recently, two nurses were arrested after one co-worker accused them of desecrating a sticker with a Muslim prayer written on it (after being instructed to do so by their supervisor), and in another mental hospital, a mob of Muslim nurses stormed a chapel within the hospital, alleging blasphemy by one of the nurses. Many of the accusations are against Shia and Ahmadi Muslims. Even Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) reports an increase in online blasphemy reports.
While the blasphemy law carries the death penalty, most cases wind through the court system for years. As of the end of 2019, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) knew of at least 80 individuals in such a situation. Rarely, as in the case of Asia Bibi, the court rules against the blasphemy accusation, but the result is usually mob violence (led by the TLP in Bibi’s case). Shafqat Masih, a paralyzed and mentally disabled Christian, and his wife have four children, yet they awaited the result of their trials for alleged blasphemy since 2013. They were accused of sending derogatory texts about the Prophet Muhammad in English, though neither can speak the language. Only in the beginning of June were they acquitted, and now they and their lawyer are the target of multiple death threats.
In response to this uptick in accusations, the EU has voted for an inquiry into Pakistan’s GSP+ trade status, which allows Pakistan to import duty-free into the EU, conditional on its adherence to 27 conventions pertaining to human rights standards including forced labor, treatment of women, torture, environmental standards, and civil and political rights. Pakistan has expressed its regret at the decision, stating that it will not compromise on the blasphemy law. The Foreign Office even claimed that minorities “enjoy equal rights and complete protection of fundamental freedoms.” However, this claim seems unfounded as religious minorities have strongly protested the statement, and the US recently has designated Pakistan as a Country of Particular Concern for religious freedom.
That Pakistan has announced it will not budge on the blasphemy law, especially with a lot to lose, shows the strength of TLP and Islamist influence. Pakistan utilized 97 percent of its over $8 billion tariff-free import allowance under the GSP+ status. Pakistan will lose an annual $3 billion if the GSP+ status is revoked. It’s also unclear whether Pakistan could sufficiently form a Muslim coalition strong enough to enforce a trade boycott of the West. Pakistan would most likely have to have the full cooperation of Muslim OPEC nations as well as the manufacturing powers Indonesia and Malaysia, and even if they formed such a coalition, the economic impact would cripple most of them. In addition, Pakistan has for some time been trying to get off the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) “grey list,” which places the nation under heightened scrutiny for money laundering and terror financing.
Pakistan’s current steps to seize assets and trace bank accounts associated with the TLP are on the right track. However, Khan’s government must be careful to curb the sway of the TLP’s mob violence in favor of the blasphemy law. Such a law completely undermines the democratic principles behind both Khan, whose government has been seeking to maintain a reliable rule of law, and the TLP, whose very protests are admissible only in a democratic environment. Of course, the argument for democratic principles is often thrown back in the face of the West with fingers pointed at France’s proposed hijab ban for minors, Switzerland’s burqa ban, and the US’s treatment of minorities. However, for the most part in the West, debate over these issues is free, and dissenting thought, particularly about religion, is not met with a mob at your doorstep and a de facto life imprisonment.
Some scholars, such as Muhammad Khalid Masud, a high-profile judge in Pakistan, have committed much time and research to challenging blasphemy laws from within Islam. The arguments are nuanced and technical, clearly out of this article’s scope, but for the interested, Freedom of Expression in Islam: Challenging Apostasy and Blasphemy Laws is an excellent resource for the path forward to restoring freedom of expression within Islam. In the meantime, however, international pressure for religious freedom in the form of economic sanctions may be the best recourse.