Between 1927, the year blasphemy was defined as a criminal offence under the Indian Penal Code, and 1986, there were only seven reported incidents of blasphemy in the area that is now Pakistan. However, between 1986 and 2010, 1274 cases of blasphemy were recorded, and the total number of such cases has only increased since then. When looking at these figures, it becomes immediately apparent that something is amiss. After all, how else can you go from having a handful of blasphemy cases in sixty years to over a thousand in the space of just two decades? One possible explanation is that people changed after 1986 and suddenly decided to become much more sacrilegious and profane. This could potentially have been the result of several different factors; perhaps there is a global conspiracy, involving shadowy ‘foreign hands’, aimed at defaming Islam and Pakistan (since the two are obviously synonymous), or maybe this is what happens when you allow the internet and the media to provide the ‘youth’ with access to the decadent, godless, and morally corrupt cultural products of the West (and India). It may also be the case that chemical changes to the water supply have led people to become more blasphemous, or that alien visitors to this country have taken it upon themselves to brainwash people and strip them of their respect for Islam as part of preparations for a massive invasion aimed at colonizing the entire planet. Anything is possible.

There is, however, a second, more plausible explanation for the sharp rise in blasphemy cases since the 1980s. Maybe, just maybe, the increasing incidence of blasphemy might have something to do with the legal changes introduced by the Zia-ul-Haq regime as part of its Islamization drive. Basically, by expanding the definition of blasphemy to include even perceived attacks on Islam, by eliminating the need to produce any evidence in support of blasphemy accusations, and by ensuring that those accused of the act would immediately be subject to formal incarceration and potentially violent social backlash, the Zia regime made it possible to make use of the blasphemy law as a tool for persecution and victimization. Following this logic, the mushrooming of ‘blasphemy’ across Pakistan has more to do with the use of the law as a means through which to settle scores, and less (if anything) to do with addressing allegedly irreligious acts.

Earlier this week the Lahore High Court took time out from banning websites like YouTube and Facebook to uphold the death sentence awarded to Aasia Bibi, a 43 year old mother of five, who was convicted of blasphemy by a lower court in 2010. From the very beginning, it has been clear that there is good reason to question the logic underpinning this conviction; it has repeatedly been pointed out that the ‘evidence’ used in the case is incredibly flimsy, and that the proceedings initiated against Aasia Bibi were borne out of personal enmity rather than the perpetration of any actual offence. For her part, Aasia Bibi has steadfastly maintained her innocence, and her defence team has vowed to take the case to the Supreme Court in an attempt to clear her name.

While it can only be hoped that the intervention of the Supreme Court will see Aasia Bibi’s vindication after almost five years of imprisonment and legal struggle, there are considerable grounds for skepticism. For one, the entire process through which blasphemy cases are investigated and then tried in court is one that is rife with problems that all but ensure the impossibility of a fair trial. In addition to the ridiculously low standards of evidence used to support blasphemy allegations, there is the simple fact that police officers, lawyers, and judges involved with these cases are subject to a tremendous amount of pressure and even outright coercion. More often than not, those accused of blasphemy are arrested in the presence of enraged mobs baying for their blood, and those brave enough to defend them, in court and elsewhere, are subjected to death threats and violence. Indeed, it was for the crime of defending Aasia Bibi that both Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti were killed, and Sherry Rehman was forced to go into exile. Since 1990, at least 52 people accused of blasphemy have been killed in an extra-judicial fashion, with the latest such case taking place last month when a policeman attempted to kill Mohammad Asghar, a 70 year old paranoid schizophrenic currently in jail for blasphemy. In such circumstances, where even powerful politicians cannot be kept safe, and the police itself abets and facilitates violence against those accused of blasphemy, it is wishful thinking to believe that better sense might prevail, or that justice will be done.

What makes all of this worse is the fact that the misuse of the blasphemy law is so evident and transparently obvious, the question of introducing reforms, if only at the procedural level, should not even be controversial. Across Pakistan, it is clear that allegations of blasphemy have been used to score personal points, attack rivals, and acquire property. When eight people were killed and 100 houses were burnt in Gojra after blasphemy allegations were leveled against the Christian community there in 2009, it soon became apparent that there were powerful individuals involved who had an interest in getting the Christians to vacate the area. The same was true in Badami Bagh in Lahore in 2013, when a similar sequence of events unfolded. In 2012, the Rimsha Masih case exposed the farcical nature of many blasphemy proceedings when incontrovertible proof emerged that she, a teenager suffering from mental illness, had been framed in order to inflame sentiments against the Christians living in Meherabadi. Yet, despite the presence of obvious evidence demonstrating how material, rather than religious, motives tend to underpin blasphemy allegations, there have been no attempts to seriously prosecute or punish those involved in generating these false charges. The report of the inquiry into the Gojra massacre has not been made public by the Punjab government, little or no progress has been made in investigating other similar incidents, and no-one has been convicted for attacking alleged blasphemers, their families, or those who defend them.

The blasphemy law in Pakistan is a product of the state’s attempts to legitimize itself through the use of Islam. It has been employed by the powerful to prey upon the weak, and it has served to entrench and justify religious discrimination. It is often forgotten that Aasia Bibi’s ‘real’ crime, the one that prompted the lodging of a case against her, was the fact that she dared to share water with the women she was working with in her village. These women believed that sharing utensils and water with a Christian was unclean and unacceptable. In Pakistan, these everyday forms of prejudice and religious intolerance continue unabated and unquestioned; indeed, different organizations across the country openly incite their followers to violence against minority communities without anyone even batting an eye. Those who frothily call for the blood of ‘blasphemers’ would do well to first reflect on their own contradictions.

 The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.

hassan.javid@lums.edu.pk