This month, the State Department announced it had designated Pakistan as the first (and only) country on its newly created “Special Watch List” for severe violators of religious freedom. Although Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should have gone further and designated Pakistan a “country of particular concern” (CPC), a category in which he placed 10 other notorious violators, this is a step in the right direction in holding that government accountable.
Pakistan is a country that enshrines in its constitution official intolerance against a religious minority. The government provides fertile ground for such intolerance and outright hatred through policies that restrict religious freedom. It possesses an army in which leaders tell Islamist protesters that the army is with them while a senior officer hands out cash to pay for protesters’ travels home.
We traveled to Pakistan in May as a delegation from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Since 2002, USCIRF has called for Pakistan to be designated a CPC because of its severe, ongoing and egregious religious freedom violations. Since our recommendation in April, the situation in Pakistan has gotten worse, particularly with regard to blasphemy laws and their deadly consequences.
Blasphemy laws have no place in the 21st century and must be repealed. That is one reason one of us, as part of USCIRF members’ adoption of religious prisoners of conscience, is an advocate for Abdul Shakoor, an Ahmadi jailed for blasphemy.
Recent street protests demonstrated the growing intolerance for religious minorities in the country. Islamist protesters were able to shut down the capital city of Islamabad for several days and caused serious injuries to over 200 people, including several police officers.
How did the army and government react to a protest movement that threatened the existence of the nation’s religious minorities? They accepted the protesters’ demands, including dismissing the federal law minister; releasing, without charge, protesters who had been arrested for criminal acts during the protests, and potentially easing the process to file blasphemy cases in court.
Freedom of religion or belief, which encompasses free expression of those beliefs and equal rights for all believers, should be fiercely protected by any government. The Pakistani government's reactions to these protests are an ominous sign for all religious minorities that the government will not dare to defend them.
This episode proves how unelected fundamentalist leaders have learned that, with the army's tacit agreement, they can exert control over the policymaking functions of the state through violent coercion.
Pakistan's constitution, in fact, enshrines intolerance against one religious minority, the Ahmadis. The country's blasphemy laws are used disproportionately against religious minorities in general, including Ahmadis and Christians. For example, Aasia Bibi is an innocent Christian woman who lives under a “suspended” death sentence for blasphemy.
Moreover, this official stigmatizing gives license to vigilante attacks, including lynchings. Mashal Khan, a Muslim university student, was murdered by a mob in April after being accused of blasphemy. No one has been prosecuted for this crime.
In October, Pakistan's Interior Ministry even took the extraordinary step of taking out advertisements in newspapers to remind one religious group — the Ahmadis — that they need not apply for passports or political office unless they explicitly renounce their faith. And on the floor of Pakistan’s National Assembly, Captain Muhammad Safdar, son-in-law of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, said: "These people (Ahmadis) are a threat to this country, its Constitution and ideology … theirs is a false religion.”
Now the long-standing problem in Pakistan with blasphemy laws has taken on a unique 21st-century twist: One can report a “blasphemous” webpage through a special site hosted and promoted by the government-owned Pakistan Telecommunication Authority. All it takes to accuse is a click.
The critical point is that laws against blasphemy are detrimental to religious freedom. No one can claim a right under the law to suppress another’s religious beliefs just because they are unpopular.
USCIRF’s recent report "Respecting Rights? Measuring the World’s Blasphemy Laws" shows there are a shocking number of countries that still maintain such provisions. In some nations, blasphemy laws are not often enforced, but in other nations, death sentences or life imprisonment are not uncommon.6 comments on this story
Some progress has been made. In the past several years, countries such as Denmark, Iceland and Malta have repealed their laws. Others — including Canada, Finland, Germany, Ireland and Italy — should follow suit. Enforced or not, blasphemy laws have no place in the world, and the West should lead by example.
In the meantime, the United States must lead. Placing Pakistan on the State Department’s Special Watch List for severe religious freedom violators is a first step. Let’s hope Pakistan gets the message.