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Religion-fueled mobs are on the rise again in Pakistan

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Religion-fueled mobs are on the rise again in Pakistan

KARACHI, Pakistan – Last month, a man named Muhammad Mushtaq was accused of burning pages of the Quran inside a mosque in central Pakistan. A mob armed with sticks, bricks and axes gathered at the mosque and dragged it out.

Mr. Mushtaq was tortured for hours and eventually murdered, his body hanging from a tree. A number of police officers were also among the spectators.

The murder on February 12 in Khanewal district was condemned across Pakistan. Prime Minister Imran Khan said the government has “zero tolerance” for such mob violence and promised that police officers would be punished.

But lynchings over Islam’s crimes, real or imagined, are not new in Pakistan, where blasphemy is punishable by death. Rights activists say lynching mobs take advantage of anti-blasphemy laws to take matters into their own hands.

These incidents have risen to alarming levels in recent years with increasing cases of deadly violence.

Critics and rights activists say the prime minister’s pledges are mere sham and Mr Khan’s government, like his predecessors, has taken no practical steps to stop the violence.

According to a report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, incidents of mob violence, and cases of state-enforced criminal blasphemy, occur more frequently in Pakistan than anywhere else.

Tahira Abdullah, an Islamabad-based rights activist, said, “Lack of political will and commitment has always been the biggest obstacle to blasphemy laws preventing abuse, abuse and exploitation.”

He said Mr Khan’s government was no different from its predecessors in its promise to tackle the menace of religious violence. But it is too cowardly to face influential religious parties in parliament, Ms Abdullah said, “and extremist groups outside parliament.”

Accusations of blasphemy have led to the vandalism of Hindu temples and neighborhoods, the burning of police stations by angry mobs, the lynching of a student on a university campus, and the murder of a provincial governor by his own security guard. was given. After Mustak’s murder, a senior police officer told a parliamentary committee that 90 percent of those involved in blasphemy violence were between the ages of 18 and 30.

Just two months ago, a Sri Lankan, Priyanta Diyawadnage, was lynched to death by workers at a factory in the eastern city of Sialkot. Mr. Diyavadange was accused of tearing stickers containing religious inscriptions from the walls of the factory. She was tortured for hours by an angry mob before her body was thrown from the roof of the factory, beaten and set on fire.

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In 2021, at least 84 people faced charges of blasphemy in courts and angry mobs, according to the Center for Social Justice, a Lahore-based minority rights group. Three people, including Mr. Diyavadnage, were murdered by the mob over such allegations.

In August, after a court released an eight-year-old Hindu boy on bail, mobs in Rahimyar Khan district, also in Punjab province, damaged idols and burnt the main door of a Hindu temple. He was charged with blasphemy for allegedly urinating in the library of a madrasa.

Defense lawyers are also in danger. In 2014, gunmen killed a Pakistani lawyer, Rashid Rehman, in the city of Multan to defend Junaid Hafeez, an academic accused of making derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad. Before agreeing to take up Mr Rahman’s case, Mr Hafeez was in jail for being unable to find a lawyer.

Two politicians were murdered in similar incidents in 2011. The then provincial governor, Salman Taseer, was killed by a bodyguard after protesting against blasphemy laws. Shahbaz Bhatti, a federal minister, was assassinated for protesting the death sentence imposed on Asiya Bibi, a Christian convicted of verbally insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Although Ms Bibi was acquitted in 2019, she fled to Pakistan and her lawyer was receiving death threats.

“Pakistan’s growing democratization and rising extremist extremism have made it very difficult for lawyers to defend alleged blasphemers,” Ms Abdullah said. “It takes a great deal of personal courage and professional integrity to face great open pressure and threats.”

Law enforcement agencies are not trained, or equipped to deal with frenzied vigilante crowds, and find themselves overwhelmed, Ms Abdullah said.

Pakistan has inherited British laws from the 19th century providing a framework for punishment for offenses related to blasphemy. But the government revamped these laws in the 1980s, introducing new clauses adding harsher punishments and even the death penalty for anyone who insults Islam.

Iran, Brunei and Mauritania are the other three countries that impose the death penalty for insulting religion.

Peter Jacob, executive director of the Center for Social Justice, said: “Since the death penalty, a mandatory punishment for blasphemy, was made into law, there have been several incidents of religion-based violence in Pakistan.”

Although no one has been hanged for this crime, violence against alleged blasphemers is hardly uncommon.

Rights activists link the current spike in blasphemy-related violence to Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, an emerging radical religious party. Islamist groups and terrorist groups in Pakistan have been encouraged by the Taliban’s coming to power in neighboring Afghanistan last year.

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“The government’s story about Islamophobia in the rest of the world” fuels religion-based violence, Mr. Jacob said.

“The story is based on anger among youth, which becomes ready-made ammunition for sporadic but large-scale violence, which is suspected of disrespecting religious persons, scriptures, places or writings,” he said. They said.

Tehreek-e-Labbaik, the radical religious party, first rose to prominence as an organized force when it demonstrated for the release of Mumtaz Qadri, the police bodyguard who fatally shot Governor Taseer in 2011. was given. Mr Qadri was eventually given the death penalty and hanged. in 2016. Since then, it has shaped itself into a political party, contesting elections and destabilizing governments.

In April last year, Tehreek-e-Labbaik organized violent, nationwide protests demanding the expulsion of the French ambassador following the murder of a French teacher who was killed by French President Emmanuel Macron for showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a classroom. Did it

The Pakistani Taliban has also declared support for anti-blasphemy operations, and has promoted an armed struggle to defend the honor of Islam.

Posters offering a reward of some $56,000 for killing a Pakistani Christian, Faraj Parvez, for posting anti-Islamic material on social media often appear in protests against blasphemy in the country.

Mr Parvez, 34, who is now living in self-exile in Thailand, said he began speaking up for the rights of non-Muslim communities on social media after a Muslim mob attacked a Christian neighborhood in Lahore in 2013 , set fire to more than 150 houses. and two churches following reports that a Christian sweeper had denounced the Prophet Muhammad.

“Even in Thailand, I feel unsafe,” he said in an interview, when a Pakistani Muslim refugee shared a video of him and his location on social media. He said Mr Parvez had left the country in 2014 after receiving threats.

Journalists in Pakistan have avoided reporting on blasphemy cases since the rise of extremist parties and their growing influence.

Covering an issue of blasphemy for a journalist and especially the Urdu language press can either kill you, or you will be fired for endangering the very existence of the organization you work for. Author of a recent report on the stifling media environment in the country.

Salman Masood reported from Islamabad. Zia ur-Rehman from Karachi, Pakistan.

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