A recent murder has cast a “fresh spotlight on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws”: on July 29, 2020, Tahir Naseem, 57, a U.S. citizen, was shot dead in a Pakistani courtroom, during a bail hearing for the charge of blasphemy, which included “denigrating the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad,” Reuters reported. Although his teenage slayer was apprehended and is being charged with murder, among the people of Pakistan, he is a great hero:
Faisal Khan, a 15-year-old Pakistani, beams for selfies with lawyers and police. Thousands hail him in the streets as a ‘holy warrior.’ His claim to adulation? Allegedly gunning down in open court an American accused of blasphemy, a capital crime in this Islamic republic. Khan is charged with murder, which also carries a death sentence. But while lawyers line up to defend him, the attorney for Tahir Naseem, the U.S. citizen, has gone into hiding.
The report goes on to say that “everyone wants to be his lawyer”; that all across Pakistan professional lawyers have offered to “defend Khan for free, to support what they see as the justified killing of a heretic.” Moreover, “[t]housands rallied, calling for Khan’s release. Delegations of well-wishers – lawyers, clerics, local politicians – have visited the Khan family home in Peshawar to congratulate the family. He has received messages of support from the Pakistani Taliban.”
Even the elite police forces escorting Khan to court took and shared on social media selfies of themselves and the murderer: “Wearing all white, the teen grins broadly, the report explains. Several officers smile, one gives a thumbs-up” (see image above).
The U.S. State Department responded by expressing its “outrage” at the murder in a statement:
We are shocked, saddened, and outraged that American citizen Tahir Naseem was killed yesterday inside a Pakistani courtroom. Mr. Naseem had been lured to Pakistan from his home in Illinois by individuals who then used Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to entrap him. The U.S. Government has … called the attention of senior Pakistani officials to his case to prevent the type of shameful tragedy that eventually occurred. We grieve with the family of Mr. Naseem. We urge Pakistan to immediately reform its often abused blasphemy laws and its court system, which allow such abuses to occur, and to ensure that the suspect is prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
International observers have characterized this statement as “unusually blunt.” This is an understatement, particularly in comparison to the previous administration’s responses, or lack thereof, to horrific instances of blasphemy vigilantism in Pakistan. For example, in November 2014:
A mob accused of burning alive a Christian couple in an industrial kiln in Pakistan allegedly wrapped a pregnant mother in cotton so she would catch fire more easily… Sajjad Maseeh, 27, and his wife Shama Bibi, 24, were set upon by at least 1,200 people after rumors circulated that they had burned verses from the Quran…. Their legs were also broken so they couldn’t run away. ‘They picked them up by their arms and legs and held them over the brick furnace until their clothes caught fire,’ a family representative said. ‘And then they threw them inside the furnace.’ Bibi, a mother of four who was four months pregnant, was wearing an outfit that initially didn’t burn… The mob removed her from over the kiln and wrapped her up in cotton to make sure the garments would be set alight.
Two days after the burning of this Christian couple, a policeman in Pakistan hacked a man to death for allegedly making blasphemous remarks against Islam; and two months before that, an elderly British man with severe mental illness who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy was shot by a prison guard in Pakistan.
Discussing these late 2014 blasphemy killings, Dr. Nazir S. Bhatti, President of the Pakistan Christian Congress, had written a letter to President Obama expressing shock that the U.S. did not even bother to offer any condemnations:
It is surprising that neither US Administration under your honor nor US State Department even bothered to condemn this horrific crime of burning live of Christian couple by a mob living in country named Islamic Republic of Pakistan which is receiving billions of aid of US taxpayers. I would appeal your honor to put pressure on government of Pakistan to end misuse of blasphemy laws against Christian, Ahamadiyyia and other religious minorities and condition US Aid to Pakistan on human rights and repeal of blasphemy laws.
More often than not, “Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are often used against religious minorities and others who are the target of false accusations,” Amnesty International reports. Not only is this underscored by the aforementioned burning of a Christian couple but by the fact that Pakistan’s most notorious blasphemy laws also concerns a Christian, Asia Bibi: she spent nearly a decade on death row, separated from her husband and children, after her coworkers—disgusted that she, an “infidel,” had drunk from the same cup during a scorching day of fieldwork—had falsely accused her of blasphemy.
Two of Bibi’s advocates, Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti and Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, were both assassinated in 2011. Taseer was shot twenty-seven times by Mumtaz Qadri, his own bodyguard. After the murder, more than 500 Muslim clerics voiced support for Qadri, who was further showered with rose petals.
Another case that made international headlines was that of Rimsha Masih, a mentally disabled Christian girl (then aged between 11 and 14) who was falsely accused of burning the Koran in 2012. Throngs of rioting Muslims destroyed Christian homes, churches, and crosses, and Bibles; they called for her death and dislocated hundreds of Christian minorities from their homes. Two weeks after the young girl’s incarceration, it was discovered that Muhammad Khalid, a learned Muslim cleric, had planted the charred Koran in her backpack “in order to get rid of Christians in the area.” (See here for several more examples of mentally disabled Christian minorities attacked and/or imprisoned on the (often false) charge of blasphemy in Pakistan.)
Although the Trump administration is criticizing Pakistan’s blasphemy law in connection to the recent killing of Tahir Naseem, and although Pakistan’s foreign ministry responded by saying the case “will be dealt with in accordance with the law,” in reality, “prosecuting Khan and any potential accomplices will be an immense challenge,” says Reuters.
The reason revolves around Pakistan’s own laws. Section 295-C of Pakistan’s penal code states:
Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.
Section 295-B of Pakistan’s penal code states:
Whoever wilfully [sic] defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur’an or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.
In other words, by recently killing the American blasphemer Naseem in court, all that the 15-year-old Khan did is execute Pakistan’s own laws, particularly as stated in Section 295. His actions are seen as a reflection of the zealous love he bore for Islam; rather than be punished, then, he should only be praised, or so most Pakistanis seem to think.