By Tyler Arnold
Pakistani lawmakers passed legislation that could land someone a life sentence in prison for insulting any wife, family member, or companion of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.
The Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act, 2023, which would set a maximum penalty of life in prison for such offenses with a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison, has now passed both houses of Parliament. Under current law, blasphemy violations are only punishable by up to three years in prison, a fine, or both.
To become law, the bill still needs the president’s signature.
Pakistan’s lower legislative chamber, the National Assembly, passed the bill in January and the country’s upper chamber, the Senate, passed it last week on Aug. 7. The goal of this bill, based on its statement of objectives, is to crack down on “blasphemy on the internet and social media,” which has led to “terrorism” and “disruption in the country,” according to the Pakistani English-language newspaper Dawn.
The anti-blasphemy law would apply to any person who directly or indirectly “defiles the sacred name” of any wife, family member, or companion of Muhammad through written word, spoken word, visible representation, imputation, innuendo, or insinuation. The companions of Muhammad refer to Muslims who personally met him during his life.
Pakistan already punishes those who defile or insult the Qur’an with life imprisonment. Those who defile the name of Muhammad or other Muslim prophets are punished with death. The Muslim prophets include Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and other biblical figures.
Human rights groups have raised concerns that the laws could be used to target religious minorities in Pakistan. More than 95% of Pakistan is Muslim, and more than 75% of the country follows Sunni Islam.
From 1987 through the beginning of 2021, more than 1,800 people were charged with blasphemy under the country’s various anti-blasphemy laws. As of March of this year, there were about 40 people who were either serving life sentences or on death row for blasphemy convictions. Since 1990, more than 80 people have been murdered for alleged blasphemy.
In one high-profile case, a Christian woman named Asia Bibi was convicted of blasphemy in 2010, but her conviction was overturned by the Pakistani Supreme Court in 2018. She denied the allegation that she violated the blasphemy law and ultimately sought refuge in Canada.
“Pakistani governments usually turn to the blasphemy laws when there is a political crisis, and to deflect attention from the country’s continuing economic and social woes,” Paul Marshall, the head of the South and Southeast Asian Action Team at the Religious Freedom Institute, told CNA. “The current push to strengthen the laws continues this trend.”
“While half the victims are Muslim, the blasphemy laws disproportionately victimize religious minorities, and repeated studies have shown that they are used as a means of intimidation or score-settling in private disputes,” Marshall said. “The proposed increase in such laws will increase the climate of religious fear that already grips minorities.”
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a human rights group that advocates for religious freedom and against the persecution of Christians, has also come out strongly against the legislation.
Mervyn Thomas, president of CSW, said the organization is “deeply disappointed” in the passing of the legislation and warned that there is “overwhelming evidence of how the existing blasphemy legislation has resulted in extra-judicial killings and countless incidents of mob violence based on false accusations.”
“Making the blasphemy laws more stringent could inflame the situation further and is the opposite of what is needed,” Thomas said in his statement.
Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws have been used against Christians and Hindus, who make up less than 5% of the country’s population. The laws related to insulting the companions of Muhammad and some other anti-blasphemy laws have also been used to target minority sects of Islam in the country, such as Shia Muslims, who make up about 15% of the population, and Ahmadi Muslims, who make up less than 3% of the population.
One of the key disagreements that separates Shia Islam from Sunni Islam rests on beliefs about who was the legitimate successor of Muhammad, which leads to accusations against Shia Muslims that they are insulting the companions of Muhammad when they voice their disagreements. The Sunnis recognize Abu Bakr, a companion of Muhammad, as Muhammad’s successor. Many Shia Muslims view him as an illegitimate leader and believe that Muhammad appointed Ali ibn Abi Talib, another companion of Muhammad, as his successor.