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Blasphemy has been all the rage in Pakistan of late, if a stream of sacrilege accusations in recent months is any indication.The latest came on Monday, when a member of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat — a right-wing Sunni sectarian group — filed blasphemy charges with police against 68 lawyers in the Punjab district of Jhang. The lawyers participated in a public protest against the detention of an associate, during which they mocked senior police officer Umar Daraz.
Unfortunately for the lawyers, Umar is also the name of one of the Prophet Muhammad’s closest companions: Hazrat Umar, the second Islamic caliph. The complainant said he was offended by the use of the name in the lawyers’ chants. The local bar association has taken pains to explain the misunderstanding, even passing a resolution certifying that the caliph was not the target of the slogans.Pakistan’s blasphemy laws date back to Britain’s colonial rule of undivided India. While the gravest offenses can be punished with the death penalty, the maximum sentence the lawyers face in this case is three years. A death penalty for blasphemy has never been carried out in Pakistan, but the country has 14 people currently on death row and another 19 serving life sentences for the crime.Global jihadists in Pakistan's mountains are threatened by a possible peace. Read more here.A Christian man was sentenced to death in March after being convicted of insulting the prophet while talking to a Muslim friend in Lahore. The following month, a Christian couple in Punjab was sentenced to death for allegedly sending a blasphemous text message to a local imam.A protest on May 9 demanded better protection for human rights activists after the killing of Rashid Rehman, who had been representing a defendant accused of blasphemy.Just last week, a lawyer who had been defending a professor accused of blasphemy was murdered. The lawyer, Rashid Rehman, was shot five times at his office in the city of Multan by gunmen disguised as clients. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, where Rehman worked, has seen four of its defenders killed in the last three years.
Gabriela Knau, the UN’s special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, complained in 2012 that some lawyers in Pakistan refuse to take cases relating to blasphemy or religion because they fear reprisals.“I am especially concerned regarding cases brought under the so-called ‘blasphemy law,’ as it was reported to me that judges have been coerced to decide against the accused even without supporting evidence,” Knau said after returning from a visit to Pakistan.The year before her visit, two Pakistani politicians that had pushed for a reform of the blasphemy laws were assassinated.'Manjam murders' spotlight Pakistan's hidden, flourishing gay scene. Read more here.In some cases, blasphemy allegations have incited riots and mob violence. After the case in Lahore, more than 3,000 Muslims rioted in the Joseph Colony neighborhood, burning around 100 Christian homes. The spate of blasphemy charges has prompted growing concern about religious intolerance and human rights in Pakistan.Frederic Grare, director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told VICE News that the recent trend is largely due to the strain of various socio-economic issues on the country.“It’s true that the population is more conservative today,” he said. “It has a lot to do with a country constantly in crisis. You have to turn somewhere and you tend to turn to religion when everything fails.”
With a struggling economy and a median age of 22 years, many young Pakistanis are ready to be recruited by sectarian groups like Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat that use blasphemy accusations to silence dissenters and grow their support base.“Extremist groups are trying to build their base among the disaffected youth,” Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, told VICE News. He noted that blasphemy cases are often used to highlight threats against Islam, and said that they have proved successful in both recruiting and fundraising.Nawaz said that Pakistan’s government needs to reform and reshape blasphemy laws in order to rectify the situation, but it has been slow to do so. He wants to see the laws clarified and legislation passed that would criminalize false accusations. But the likelihood of swift action is slim.“In the face of economic and security issues, it will be hard to tackle this issue in the short run,” Nawaz said. “This is going to be an uphill battle.”Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB