In March 2013, a mob of 3000 rioting mostly young and middle aged men burned down dozens of Christian homes in Lahore. In July 2012, a mentally unstable man was torched alive for alleged blasphemy. In March 2011, a lunatic murdered a government minister who had criticized Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
Apparently, these tragic events would not have occurred if only there was no blasphemy law in Pakistan.
Or so we are told.
Amnesty International’s representative in Pakistan, Mustafa Qadri, claimed confidently in the Guardian that “[Pakistan’s] blasphemy laws…led to the murder of Salman Taseer.” Another Pakistani writer in the same paper wrote that a “girls’ school has been burned to the ground…because of this [law] of intolerance.” An op-ed in the Christian Post alleged that the blasphemy law “allows Islamists and others to justify killings.” Andrew Buncombe at the Independent also weighed in, commenting that “Pakistan’s minorities are under attack and the country’s blasphemy laws must share the blame.”
This omnipresent narrative is well-meaning, but wrong. It is based on questionable assumptions that over-estimate the exogenous influence of legislation in organizing culturally and religious sensitive conduct in Pakistan. It also reflects a West-centric understanding of how effective legislation can be in strengthening respect for human rights in the country.
We forget that ‘blasphemy’-related vigilantism far pre-dates Pakistan’s enactment of its current version of the blasphemy law–murders by individuals and mobs on an accusation of blasphemy have been an all too frequent occurrence in the region
In fact, the purpose of the British enacted blasphemy law was precisely to pre-empt such violence by bringing blasphemy punishment within prerogative of the state. That such a law has not succeeded in discouraging vigilantism a hundred years later is indicative of the point I am trying to make: how marginal the law is in some cases.
People in Pakistan do not generally refrain from blaspheming or punishing blasphemers because of the presence or absence of a blasphemy law. It is social norms, rather than weak, state backed law, that structure their behavior. As in many other developing countries, people internalize certain prevalent conceptions about the good and the bad, and treat those as the equilibrium from which deviation will not be accepted, and in some cases, sanctioned. Blasphemy is one of those things.
That is, blasphemers do not need a law to stop them from blaspheming. They know that there will be severe sanctions if they do and that is a good enough reason to refrain. Similarly, blasphemy vigilantes do not need a blasphemy law to justify violence; all they need is that it be considered socially legitimate to use violence to deter blasphemers; the law here thus becomes more or less ancillary in the grand scheme of things.
Let’s put it this way: Was Salman Taseer’s killer motivated to pull the trigger because of a law? Similarly, did the mob in Lahore get a legal opinion to ensure their compliance with the blasphemy law before burning down the homes?
The answer in both cases is assuredly no.
Thus, while the blasphemy law has, as Osama Siddique documented, many, many major flaws and design defects, being the cause of violence is surely not one of them.
The prevalence of this simplistic, law-based narrative also crowds out space for breeding alternate ideas about how to bring the violence to a halt. As the saying goes: “if the only tool you have is a hammer, then you will to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
It probably also explains a lot about the dismal failure to date of reform efforts to amend or repeal the blasphemy law.
Human rights groups and other activists (especially foreign ones) would do well to realize this. Myopically focusing on all their attention Pakistan’s blasphemy legislation, while neglecting the larger social and anthropological conditions that govern blasphemy related behavior, ensures that resources and energy is wasted in efforts that have to date resulted in disappointment.
Rather, these groups would do much better if they re-align their agenda by focusing on changing social norms through more subtle and effective forums — the media, schools, mosques and so forth.
Dawood I. Ahmed is an attorney and doctoral candidate in international and comparative law at the University of Chicago.