Why does the blasphemy law exist in Pakistan? One explanation might simply be that its formulation in its current form was part of a cynical and deliberate attempt by the Zia-ul-Haq regime, and the socio-political forces it spawned, to acquire legitimacy and burnish its religious credentials as part of its broader project of ‘Islamization’. This answer can be contrasted with the mainstream narrative propagated by the religious parties and their allies in government and society, namely that the law exists to protect the sanctity of Islam and the sensitivities of its followers in Pakistan.

For the purposes of this column, let us take this second explanation at face value and put aside, for the moment, some of the obvious problems that arise when taking such a position. Let us not ask, for example, how Islam could credibly be threatened in a country where it enjoys a prominent place in public life and where 97% of the population is Muslim. Let us ignore questions of interpretation and religious law, and the fact that there is a considerable body of Islamic scholarly opinion that disagrees with the blasphemy law as it is currently instituted. Let us also turn a blind eye to the myriad ways in which procedural loopholes within the law allow it to be misused and exploited to settle petty disputes and implicate innocent people. Instead, let us agree that the blasphemy law in Pakistan is both necessary and desirable in its current form. Distilled into its simplest form, the law simply empowers the state to act against alleged blasphemers, setting out a clear procedure through which those accused of heresy and other religious crimes can be arrested, tried, and punished for their transgressions. This empowers the state to act as the arbiter and enforcer of religious law, thereby obviating the need for individuals or actors in society to take any action on their own. For the proponents of the blasphemy law this is both just and fair, representing a viable means through which to deal with such a sensitive issue.

In this context, given that the blasphemy does exist in Pakistan and its likely to remain unchallenged for some time to come, how does one explain the incidents of blasphemy-related mob violence that appear to be occurring with increasing frequency? The tragic killing of Mashal Khan by an enraged mob in Mardan last month has been followed by two similar Incidents in two very different parts of the country; in Chitral, a mob attempted to lynch a man with mental health issues for alleged blasphemy two weeks ago, and the same happened in Hub earlier this week when hundreds gathered outside a police station to demand that a Hindu man accused of blasphemy be handed over to them. In both cases, the targets of these mobs managed to escape with their lives; in Chitral, the imam of the local mosque risked his own life and property to protect the accused and in Hub, the police itself managed to disperse the mob and arrest some of its leaders. Unfortunately, in this second instance, a young boy of ten lost his life during clashes with the police. He was just the latest innocent victim of the country’s rising intolerance and extremism.

What is important to remember with regards to what happened in Chitral and Hub is that in both cases, the men accused of blasphemy had already been arrested by the police, and the process of ascertaining their guilt had already begun as per the directives of the blasphemy law. Both incidents were examples of the law being used to do precisely what it was designed to do and yet, this did not quench the desire for mob justice. More disturbingly, as these events were unfolding, a rally involving politicians and workers from nearly all of Pakistan’s mainstream parties was taken out to defend the actions of those who had killed Mashal Khan, and statements of support were also issued for those who had tried to take matters into their own hands in Chitral and Hub. In the same breath, speakers at the rally defended the men who had lynched Mashal Khan while simultaneously promising to visit death and violence upon any who sought to modify or reform the blasphemy law. But again, the logical question that arises is this: If the blasphemy law in its current form is not open to negotiation and is seen by the religious right as an unproblematic piece of legislation, and if it enjoys popular support and is widely used to prosecute alleged blasphemers, why is there any mob violence at all? Why do religious leaders continue to inflame religious sentiments every time there is a perceived transgression or offence? If mob violence and lynching are legitimate expressions of religious fervour and appropriate responses to alleged heresy, why bother about the blasphemy law at all?

The answer provided by the religious right to this question is that people take the law into their own hands because they do not trust the state to deliver ‘justice’. That may very well be the case in a variety of contexts but when it comes to blasphemy, the state has, if anything, been overzealous in its attempts to placate those of an excitable religious disposition. Moreover, this glib explanation for mob violence ignores the role played by local religious and political leaders in inciting violence in the first place. Instead, it might make sense to recognize how the blasphemy law, and the discourse around it, has always primarily been about power. The religious right does not defend it out of some abstract commitment to the rule of law, it does so to retain the power to police belief, mobilize support in the name of religion, and cow the state into submission. In this sense, the most ardent and extreme proponents of the law are not very different from the neo-fascists parading as populists in Europe these days, hoping to win elections to dismantle the very institutional foundations of the democratic system that brings them to power. The bigoted extremists who continue to use allegations of blasphemy to persecute minorities and settle political scores are not interested in ensuring the rule of law and securing the writ of the state; they simply wish to impose the writ of their bigotry.