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Lawmakers’ Statements Against ‘Blasphemers’ May Lead To Mob Violence

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A day after the Senate Standing Committee on Interior ordered FIA to report ‘blasphemous’ content on social media, the Punjab Assembly on Wednesday passed a resolution asking the federal government to set up a screening system to filter online blasphemous content in line with the model followed by Saudi Arabia. The resolution also demanded strengthening of Pakistan Penal Code to make sure all ‘blasphemers’ are punished.

The state appears to have started a fresh drive against ‘blasphemers’, which is concerning because such campaigns have had disastrous consequences in the past.

In a country where mere allegations of blasphemy result in killings and lynching, nothing can be scarier than lawmakers trying to encourage the same violence through such pronouncements.

Punjab Assembly’s resolution and Senate committee’s orders go to show Pakistan’s public officer holders have learned no lessons from our violent record when it comes to blasphemy accusations. Such official statements seeking punishments for ‘blasphemers’ under the controversial blasphemy law are problematic because they may end up enabling further violence and riots. Lawmakers ought to prevent the misuse of blasphemy law are instead peddling the same dangerous rhetoric that puts lives at risk.

Blasphemy law is frequently misused against minority communities, and the hapless accused are left at the mercy of a justice system which is often held hostage by religious fanatics. Truth be told – no trial in a blasphemy case can be fair given that the judges hearing such cases are coerced by extremists into convicting the accused. What is worse is that the extremists who threaten judges and lawyers defending blasphemy accused enjoy complete impunity.

The Senate committee’s orders about blasphemy on social media came after a little known Twitter account @AneelaAhsan with some 5,000 followers posted a series of tweets that were deemed blasphemous and a campaign demanding blockade of the account began on Twitter. It is ironic that the Senate committee on Interior which should ideally be concerned about the rising extremism in Pakistan and incidents of faith-based persecution busied itself in discussing a non-issue.

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Pakistan’s recent history is testament to the fact that the consequences of state officials singling individuals out for blasphemy are dangerous.

In 2017, Islamabad High Court (IHC) ordered the government to act against blasphemy on social media and sought blockade of online platforms hosting blasphemous content. 5 social media bloggers critical of state’s policies, who went mysteriously missing at the time, were accused of online blasphemy. The then Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar suggested that the missing bloggers were involved in blasphemy on social media and hinted that they might be tried under the blasphemy law. The FIA at the time began sending out public messages asking people to report blasphemous content on social media. And these public announcements by the state encouraging citizens to make use of the blasphemy law created a conducive environment for mob violence against those accused of blasphemy. As an apparent consequence of the drive, 22-year-old Mardan university student Mashal Khan was lynched to death by fellow students over false allegations of posting blasphemous material on social media.

Therefore, Punjab’s MPAs who are eager to set up a Saudi Arabia-like mechanism to teach blasphemers a lesson should be mindful of the dangerous results the move may have. Senate committee members would also do well to realize that their job is to oversee the state of law and order in the country and not to stir up public emotions over a sensitive matter.

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Naya Daur