LAHORE, Pakistan — Harsh laws forbidding blasphemy against Islam are dividing Pakistani society and driving a deeper wedge between Islamabad and Washington during a bitter feud over the war in neighboring Afghanistan.
The State Department announced this month that it was adding Pakistan to its watch list for severe violations of religious freedom. It cited abuses of Christians, Hindus, Ahmadi Muslims and other religious minorities in the heavily Sunni Muslim country.
Central to that abuse are the country’s blasphemy laws, said Daniel Mark, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “Pakistan continues to harass its religious minorities, has state-sanctioned discrimination against groups such as the Ahmadis, and tolerates extra-judicial violence in the guise of opposing blasphemy,” Mr. Mark said in a statement.
The State Department announced the designation on Jan. 4, the same day President Trump froze over $200 million in security aid to Pakistan. The administration said Islamabad had failed to crack down on Islamist terrorist networks operating in the country and was supporting, among others, the Taliban movement battling the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan.
Critics also say the draconian blasphemy laws reflect how Pakistani leaders have permitted radical Islamic beliefs to infiltrate the judiciary.
“Why is Pakistan’s establishment mainstreaming jihadists?” asked Pervez Hoodbhoy, a political analyst based in Islamabad. “For three decades, Pakistan’s military establishment has stoutly denied supporting violent religious groups, but today the military’s attitude is more ambivalent.”
Controversies over blasphemy laws boiled over in November when protesters, led by firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, brought the Pakistani capital to a standstill after lawmakers altered their parliamentary oath in a manner that Mr. Rizvi said undermined the sanctity of the Prophet Muhammad and would undermine the power of the blasphemy statutes.
Lawmakers restored the original wording of the oath, but the protesters demanded the resignation of Law Minister Zahid Hamid. He resigned, and the Pakistani military negotiated an end to the blockade of the main highway into Islamabad. Six died in the protests.
Now Mr. Rizvi’s political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah, which advocates for strict Islam-based Shariah law, is widely expected to gain seats in parliament in July’s general election.
His party has been growing since 2016, when authorities executed Mumtaz Qadri, a former police officer who assassinated Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in 2011 for his opposition to the country’s blasphemy laws. Qadri and Mr. Rizvi are both adherents of the Barelvi movement, which holds mystical beliefs about Mohammad.
“The execution of Mumtaz Qadri has revived the blasphemy issue and reinvigorated Barelvi activism,” said Mr. Hoodbhoy.
As Islamist parties gain strength in the legislature, the government is increasingly reluctant to challenge them on the issue directly.
Pressed about the blasphemy laws in September at a Council on Foreign Relations event in New York, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi suggested that the issue was out of his hands.
“[I]t’s only up to the parliament to amend the laws,” said Mr. Abbasi, who was attending the U.N. General Assembly. “The job of the government is to make sure that the laws are not abused and innocent people are not prosecuted or persecuted.”
Introduced under British rule, the blasphemy laws originally carried a maximum sentence of two years in prison. But in the mid-1980s, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, a military dictator who pushed a national campaign of Islamization, revised the legislation to include strict punishments for an array of infringements, including desecration of the Quran.
The issue has particular resonance given Pakistan’s founding as a modern nation in 1947, specifically as a homeland for hundreds of millions of Muslims in the chaotic separation from India following the end of British colonial rule on the subcontinent.
“Pakistan was made in the name of Islam and its prophet, and we should uphold a law like blasphemy which protects our religion,” said Khadim Hussain Rizvi, leader of the Pakistani Taliban. “Why should Muslims be apologetic about it?”
Mr. Rizvi noted that Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of modern Pakistan, was a lawyer who defended Ilm-ud-din, a 19-year-old Muslim man who stabbed Hindu publisher Mahashe Rajpal for publishing a book that the young man felt was offensive to Muslims.
Doomed for life
Today, the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a Catholic group, said 633 Muslims, 494 Ahmadis, 187 Christians and 21 Hindus have been charged under the blasphemy rules since 1987. No one has been executed, but 40 people are on death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The most prominent death row convict is Asia Bibi, a Christian woman found guilty in 2010 after having an argument a year earlier about drinking Muslim women’s water as she was harvesting berries.
“Once someone is even accused of blasphemy, they are doomed,” said Farzana Bari, a Pakistani human rights activist and director of the gender studies department at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. “Violence against minorities is on the rise, and people are now encouraged to commit such acts with impunity.”
At least 10 high-profile blasphemy cases garnered headlines in Pakistan last year. Many of the cases suggested that blasphemy laws were being abused or employed as retaliation in nonreligious disputes, often in the form of vigilante killings.
“Blasphemy has become the tool of choice for Pakistan’s resurgent Islamists, one that rarely fails,” said Mr. Hoodbhoy. “Point your finger at someone — possibly someone whose business you covet or a political opponent — and scream that he defiled Prophet Muhammad. Before you know it, a lynch crowd will have assembled.”
In September, a judge in the eastern city of Gujrat sentenced Nadeem James, 35, to death after a friend accused him of sharing anti-Islamic material on the internet message service WhatsApp.
In June, police charged 28-year-old mechanic Ashfaq Masih, a Christian, with blasphemy after he became engaged in a verbal spat for asking a customer for 36 cents as payment for a car repair. He was booked under the blasphemy law and is awaiting trial.
In May, a mentally disabled man accused of uttering blasphemous remarks following Friday prayers was beat brutally by a mob inside a mosque in Chitral in northern Pakistan. No one was charged in the incident, but prosecutors filed blasphemy and terrorism charges against the man.
In spite of occasional talk about rescinding blasphemy rules, Pakistani officials have used them for their own ends. A year ago, authorities apprehended five bloggers who had been critical of Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies. They were released but charged with blasphemy.
The Federal Investigation Agency later told a judge in Islamabad that it had found no evidence against the bloggers. However, their lives will never be the same.
“Blasphemy accusations against us were never about prosecution,” said Ahmad Waqass Goraya, 35, one of the activists who was abducted last year. “The purpose was to disgrace us and our families in public and set examples for others. They wanted to suppress our voices.”
The bloggers either have moved or kept a low-profile in their communities.
“The counterintelligence agency’s statement doesn’t change anything for us,” Mr. Goraya said. “The fear of being lynched … remains the same. Our families live under constant fear from Islamic extremists and the state alike.”