In a shocking development, a Pakistani man from the country's minority Shia community was sentenced to death by a local court in Bahawalpur, Punjab province, for allegedly sharing blasphemous content about Islam on social media. Taimoor Raza was arrested last April for posting content against Sunni Muslim religious leaders and the wives of Prophet Mohammed on Facebook. Although Pakistan's blasphemy laws allow for death sentences, this is reportedly the first time that someone on social media has suffered this fate. Several others are on death row for alleged blasphemy in public, among them a certain Asia Bibi, the Christian woman convicted in 2010 after a row with two women in a village in Punjab province. With a long-awaited final appeal adjourned, Bibi is still in solitary confinement. Former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer had spoken out in support of Bibi and challenged the blasphemy law. His bodyguard assassinated him for his troubles in 2011. In Raza's case, he was arrested by counter-terrorism department officials. He had reportedly gotten into an argument about Islam with a person on Facebook, who apparently was a counter-terrorism official. As per figures published by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the government arrested 10 Muslims and five non-Muslims on blasphemy charges. Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which is popularly known as the blasphemy law, has been used to target religious and sectarian minorities.
"Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine," reads Section 295-C. It was under the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s when Pakistan passed down a series of orders to create and sharpen blasphemy laws. It was under General Zia that narrow and bigoted religiosity became state policy. What began during Zia's tenure did not end with him. The vicious attack on minorities, their place of worship, and subjecting people to incarceration on the mere suspicion of blasphemy, are regular occurrences in Pakistan today. One is not surprised at how an Islamic State-like ideology has made its way into mainstream public discourse. There are serious concerns that sectarian violence could further intensify in an already strife-ridden Pakistan. According to Hussain Haqqani, the former ambassador of Pakistan to the United States and a leading South Asia expert, there is already broad support for such an ideology. "While many Pakistanis might be troubled by the violent ramifications of global jihad within the country, broad sympathy in Pakistani society for jihadis remains a reality," he writes in an academic paper titled, Pakistan and the Threat of Global Jihadism: Implications for Regional Security. "Most Pakistanis support Sharia rule, an Islamic caliphate, and an Islamic state, even if they disagree on the definition of those concepts." Post the 1970s, Pakistan saw an increasing acceptance of blasphemy among the Muslim community, allowing the enshrinement of religious ideas into law. The result of these machinations is there for everyone to see with vigilante groups and militant elements using religion as their authority to challenge the very state itself. On the subject of blasphemy, however, social media has become the new battleground. In an Orwellian move, authorities in Pakistan have asked social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to help identify users who share blasphemous material, while distributing text messages asking Pakistanis to report fellow citizens. The burden of proof in most of these cases lies with the accused and not the one framing these allegations, which completely goes against a central principle in jurisprudence—innocent until proven guilty.
These laws and the desire of authorities to implement them zealously has provided a tool for individuals to carry out personal vendettas, considering nobody is ever punished for making false accusations. In a report published by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan last year, Justice Ibadur Rehman Lodhi said: "A majority of blasphemy cases were based on false accusations, stemming from property disputes or other personal or family vendettas rather than genuine instances of blasphemy." The mere mention of blasphemy, even if these allegations are unfounded, is capable of igniting vicious mobs. Earlier this year, a vigilante mob in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province thrashed and then killed a university student and seriously injured another for alleged blasphemy. Both students of mass communication at the Abdul Wali Khan University were accused of promoting the Ahmadi faith on social media. The incident occurred in the presence of local police, who were outnumbered by the vicious mob. The mob allegedly forced one of the students to recite verses from the Quran before they began beating him. When the police intervened and saved him, the crowd went after the other student. After a vicious thrashing, someone in the mob shot him in the head and chest. Not satiated by the cold-blooded murder, the mob continued to beat the dead student's body. For nearly a century, members of Ahmadiyya community have suffered ostracisation for an interpretation of Islam that differs from traditional orthodox positions of the majority Sunni community. There are tragic consequences for a country that fails to maintain the separation between religion and governance.