On the same day that Russian President Vladimir Putin began his brutal invasion of Ukraine, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan paid the Russian president a visit in Moscow.
It is apt that Khan would be so quick to associate with Putin, as he shares a similar vision for Pakistan as Putin appears to have for Russia and Ukraine where minority voices are systematically silenced. The most disturbing evidence of this is the increasing trend of mob violence against individuals accused of blasphemy under Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws.
In February, more than 80 people attacked and killed a mentally disabled man in Pakistan because of accusations of blasphemy. Local villagers accused Muhammad Mushtaq of burning pages from the Qur’an and assaulted him with axes and iron rods before hanging his body from a tree.
Prime Minister Khan said the case would be “dealt with [in accordance with] the full severity of the law,” and that his government had “zero tolerance for anyone taking the law into their own hands.” But given Khan’s failure to act on previous instances of mob violence, it is hard to believe his promise bears any weight.
Prime Minister Khan’s weak leadership has been costly for individual rights in Pakistan, especially those of religious minorities. Mushtaq and at least 89 others have been killed because of mob vigilantism since 1947.
Mob murder continues to target members of Pakistan’s religious minorities at soaring rates, including Christians, Ahmadis, Hindus, and Shia Muslims. One report estimates that over the past 30 years, blasphemy accusations have risen at least 1,300 percent.
Another recent case of mob murder occurred last December, when a Sri Lankan national was tortured and set on fire for accusations of blasphemy over allegedly removing posters with the Prophet Muhammad’s name. Hundreds of vigilantes violently attacked the man, only to follow the assault by taking selfies with his deceased body.
Along with mob murder are a number of other challenges that tell of gruesome religious freedom conditions in Pakistan. While cultural and religious tensions are in part to blame for these poor conditions, the attacks are implicitly encouraged by legal statutes that codify the lesser treatment of religious minorities.
Blasphemy laws systematically inhibit minorities from freely practicing their faith, while physical violence against religious minorities and the destruction of property continues to occur without reparation. According to experts, Christian women and girls also face an “epidemic of kidnappings, forced marriages, and forced conversions,” all on account of their faith.
In the recently released 2021 World Watch List, a ranking of the 50 most difficult places to be a Christian, Pakistan was placed eighth for its treatment of Christians as “second-class citizens.”
Blasphemy laws, as provided in Sections 295 and 298 of Pakistan’s Penal Code, prohibit insulting speech against a religion or belief, including that of Islam, the Qur’an, and the Prophet Muhammad. The punishment for blasphemy includes a death sentence, and although Pakistan has not yet executed anyone for the alleged crime, threatening capital punishment while refraining from state-sanctioned executions has inspired mob vigilantes to carry out justice on their own accord.
Younger generations seem particularly susceptible to mob violence, boding ill for Pakistan’s future. Inamullah Khan, Pakistan’s human rights secretary, recently noted that “in the ghastly murder of the Sri Lankan national in Sialkot, 120 out [of] the 130 suspects were between 18 and 20 years of age.”
Combatting the hostility toward religious minorities that is so widespread in Pakistan is a difficult task, but necessary for their protection. The international community, including the United States, should do whatever it can to encourage greater respect for religious pluralism in Pakistan.
International efforts have shown some success. Multilateral support from foreign governments and civil-society actors aided in the landmark overturning of a death sentence for Asia Bibi, a Christian woman in Pakistan who spent eight years on death row for blasphemy accusations.
The recent cases of Christian couple Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel also benefited from international pressure. Shagufta and Shafqat were sentenced to death over charges related to blasphemy from 2014 and were acquitted in 2021 after spending seven years on death row. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) was one of many voices who successfully called for the couple’s release.
The Biden administration must follow in USCIRF’s steps and lead in the global campaign to repeal blasphemy laws, as it aims to prioritize human rights at the core of its foreign policy. The administration’s recent appointment of Rashad Hussain as ambassador at large for international religious freedom, the first Muslim to hold the position and someone who has previously raised the plight of Christians in Muslim-majority countries, provides a particular opportunity to make real headway in Pakistan.
Without immediate action from the United States and other international actors, many more like Mushtaq will be subjected to the brutal assault of mob violence and grave human rights violations in Pakistan.