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Blasphemy Is a Crime in Pakistan. Mobs Are Delivering the Verdicts.

WorldAsiaBlasphemy Is a Crime in Pakistan. Mobs Are Delivering the Verdicts.

Late last month, hundreds of people protested in major Pakistani cities over a blasphemy ruling by a top judge, who also faced an online backlash and threats. Two days later, a police officer in Punjab Province rescued a woman from attack by people who had mistaken Arabic script on her dress for Quranic verses.

Later that week, a group in Karachi demolished the minarets on a house of worship used by the Ahmadi sect, a long-persecuted minority declared heretical under Pakistan’s Constitution, amid accusations that their faith insults Islam.

These are only the most recent of many such episodes in Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim country where faith holds immense sway. Blasphemy is taken seriously in the country, and a conviction could mean death.

But so can an accusation: Mobs sometimes take matters into their own hands, lynching people before their cases can even go to trial. A political climate that has given cover to extremism and a police force that is sometimes unable or unwilling to intervene have helped enable such violence.

Last Sunday, the police in Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s most populous province, got a call from a shopkeeper in a local market: A crowd had gathered around a woman, accusing her of blasphemy.

The woman, whose identity the police withheld for her safety, wore a dress inscribed with the word “Halwa” in Arabic script, meaning “sweet” or “beautiful.” Bystanders, not knowing the meaning in Arabic, mistook the writing for Quranic verses.

Video circulated on social media showed a woman seeking refuge inside a shop as a large crowd surrounded her, chanting. Among the cacophony of voices in one of the videos can be heard: “Punishment of the blasphemer is beheading.”

Syeda Shehrbano Naqvi, a police officer who arrived at the scene, escorted the woman to a safe location and then began negotiating with the mob. “Through dialogue, we were able to secure a written apology from them,” Officer Naqvi said in a telephone interview. “They acknowledged that the dress did not contain any Quranic verses and admitted their mistake, expressing regret for their actions.”

Her actions won widespread praise, including from Syed Asim Munir, the military’s chief, who commended her “selfless devotion to duty and professionalism in diffusing a volatile situation.”

But that Officer Naqvi’s action was even necessary highlights the troubling situation in Pakistan.

The country inherited 19th-century British laws outlining punishments for blasphemy-related offenses. In the 1980s, the government revamped these laws to add harsh penalties, even a death sentence, for those who insult Islam.

Last year, the nation passed a law to increase the punishment for derogatory remarks against revered personalities — including the Prophet Muhammad’s family, wives and companions, and the four caliphs — to at least 10 years of imprisonment, up from three. At least 330 people, mostly Muslims, were charged in 180 blasphemy cases last year.

Although Pakistan has never executed anyone for blasphemy, extrajudicial killings are another matter.

Last year, eight people accused of blasphemy died this way, mostly killed by mobs, with insufficient intervention from the police and other authorities, according to the Center for Social Justice, a Lahore-based minority rights group.

In recent years mobs have stormed police stations to get to people accused of blasphemy, or set the stations on fire after officers declined to hand over the accused.

In confronting such violence, the police face several challenges. They might be outnumbered or lack the resources to control a large, angry group. They might fear that protecting someone accused of blasphemy will lead to being accused themselves. Or they might be complicit, said Zoha Waseem, an expert on Pakistani policing at the University of Warwick in Britain: “Some police officers may support the blasphemy law and refuse to intervene based on their religious beliefs.”

Last August, a mob attacked several churches and homes in a Christian neighborhood in Jaranwala, a town roughly 70 miles from Lahore, after two Christians were accused of desecrating the Quran.

In May, a local cleric in the Mardan district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province was lynched by a mob after making what was said to be a blasphemous reference during a political rally. And in April, the police in the Kohistan district of the same province rescued a Chinese engineer accused of blasphemy before a mob reached him.

In February, a man accused of blasphemy in Nankana Sahib, Punjab Province, was snatched from police custody and lynched.

Experts and activists link the surge in such violence to the rise of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, an Islamist party initially formed to seek the release of Mumtaz Qadri, a police guard who in 2011 assassinated Salman Taseer, a governor of Punjab who was seeking to overhaul blasphemy laws.

Although this effort failed — Mr. Qadri was sentenced to death and hanged in 2016 — the group later shaped itself into a political party, contesting elections and unsettling governments.

In April 2021, the party organized violent nationwide protests to demand the expulsion of the French ambassador after President Emmanuel Macron of France eulogized a teacher murdered for showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a French classroom.

Although the T.L.P. did not win a single Parliament seat in the national elections in February, it emerged as the fourth-largest party, securing 2.8 million out of 59.2 million cast votes, according to a recent Gallup report.

“The dangerous consequences of glorifying extremist groups and overlooking the misuse of blasphemy laws have created a crisis,” said Peter Jacob, the head of the Center for Social Justice in Lahore, “escalating the threat of religion-based violence to alarming levels.”

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