Priyantha Kumara, the Sri Lankan general manager of a garment factory in Pakistan’s eastern city of Sialkot, was bludgeoned to death by an Islamist mob on Friday. The crowds that gathered to carry out the murder then burned Kumara’s corpse on a main road, with graphic videos going viral on the same day. The police personnel were either bystanders, or arrived too late, before eventually arresting members of the mob, who proudly owned their act, which they claimed was a tribute to the Prophet Muhammad.
Kumara was lynched over allegations of blasphemy, after reportedly removing posters that had sections from the Quran written on them. Many people, including the president of the local chamber of commerce, maintain that Kumara was targeted by his factory’s workers over a personal vendetta and hadn’t actually done anything blasphemous. However, legal requirements notwithstanding, probing whether a victim of murder committed an intangible, victimless crime, inevitably bolsters the barbaric idea that sacrilege merits death.
This homicidal idea, which is at the core of Kumara’s ghastly murder, is codified in Pakistan’s penal code, which punishes blasphemy against Islam by death. Therefore, this law, that is often accused of being “misused” when mobs take it upon themselves to enforce it, is in fact regularly used to send individuals to the gallows for ideas that some people deem offensive, and to silence free thinkers and skeptics of Islam through murderous intimidation.
Even so, while Pakistan has never come close to approaching the blasphemy law from the free speech perspective, Kumara’s horrific murder might reopen the debate.
Pakistan is one of 12 Muslim-majority countries that allows capital punishment for blasphemy against Islam. However, while overt theocracies such as Saudi Arabia and Iran regularly top the lists for supposedly religiously mandated executions, Pakistan hasn’t judicially sentenced anyone to death for blasphemy. This is largely owing to its claims of being a democracy and its reliance on Western aid conditioned on human rights commitments; indeed, this encouraged Pakistan’s death penalty moratorium between 2008 and 2015.
But upholding capital punishment for blasphemy while refraining from state-sanctioned executions has emboldened mobs to carry out vigilante justice in Pakistan. A similar trend can also be witnessed in Nigeria, another flailing democracy struggling to rein in mob violence, which upholds capital punishment for blasphemy. (Since 1999, the state has executed only one person convicted of a death sentence by its Sharia courts.)
It is no coincidence that some of the goriest mob lynching incidents in Pakistan overlapped with the country’s moratorium on the death penalty, and the initiation of its longest sustained period as an official democracy 13 years ago. In 2009, a Christian locality was torched and six people burned alive in the city of Gojra; the minority community was similarly targeted in Lahore’s Joseph Colony four years later.
Mobs have regularly vandalized churches, temples, and even mosques belonging to the Ahmadiyya sect. Ahmadi Muslims, constitutionally excommunicated in Pakistan, are deemed sacrilegious by virtue of their existence, and are hence frequent targets of mob attacks, with even the government-affiliated Council of Islamic Ideology pushing for the community’s elimination.
At least 260 Ahmadis and 78 people accused of blasphemy have been killed extrajudicially since 1984; hundreds have also been arrested over accusations of sacrilege against Islam. This was a natural corollary of Pakistan Islamizing its penal code under military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.
That meant that the blasphemy law (sections 295 and 295-A of the Pakistan Penal Code, rooted in the Indian Penal Code of 1860), which had hitherto been equally applicable to all religions, saw the insertion of Islam-specific clauses 295-B and C, in 1982 and 1986 respectively. These two clauses imposed harsher penalties for desecration of the Quran and defiling the name of the Prophet Muhammad; for the latter, death is an option.
The causal relation between Islamization of the penal code and persecution of minorities can be seen in the jump in blasphemy accusations. Seven blasphemy cases had been registered in the country between 1927 and 1986, whereas at least 1,855 people have been accused of sacrilege since then.
But even as students are being lynched, acclaimed academics sentenced to death, and Nobel laureates disowned as a direct result of the state’s endorsement of murder for supposed sacrilege against Islam, even those ostensibly seeking solutions to Islamist mob violence have preferred to circumvent the actual problem: the Islam-specific clauses of the blasphemy law and the capital punishment associated with them. The reluctance to address this cause is rooted in fear that criticism of the blasphemy law itself could be deemed blasphemous in Pakistan.
When Punjab governor Salman Taseer dared to confront Pakistan’s blasphemy law head-on, dubbing it a “black law,” he was gunned down by his bodyguard in 2011; he remains the law’s most high-profile victim. Taseer’s murderer, hanged on terrorism charges in 2016, now has a shrine devoted to him in Islamabad and has motivated the rise of the latest in a long line of radical Islamist groups to hold the country hostage: the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP).
Formed as a pressure group against the execution of Taseer’s killer, the TLP has equipped itself with the already weaponized blasphemy law, frequently choking off the capital with massive crowds or instigating mob violence in the name of “love for Prophet Muhammad.”
Over the past four years, the TLP has forced the government to retract bills, remove an economic advisor, ban an award-winning film, and has even claimed credit for the cancellation of a cartoon contest in the Netherlands—the latter expanding the TLP’s global ambitions. And so, when French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo republished its caricatures of Muhammad in September 2020, a TLP-inspired immigrant launched a terrorist attack in Paris, while the group itself demanded the Pakistani government drop a nuclear bomb on France.
Over the past 15 months, France has been at the heart of the TLP’s tussle with the Pakistani government, which agreed, among other things, to consider the expulsion of the French ambassador last year. When the TLP’s violent protests resurfaced in April, the group was proscribed as a terror organization, but the ban was revoked last month. The volte-face was hardly surprising given Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s vocal ideological support for the outfit that his government had denounced for terrorism.
Following the TLP’s banning, Khan reassured the group that he shared their goals. Instead of addressing the blasphemy laws in his own country, Khan maintained he wanted to export them globally, saying days after banning the TLP that he wanted people in the West to be “scared of blaspheming against our prophet.” Khan has similarly looked to woo the Ahle Sunnat, or Barelvi, Islamic sect by setting up “spiritual science” centers and announcing extravagant celebrations for festivities associated with the sect. Barelvi Islam, of which the TLP is a radical manifestation, is followed by a majority of Muslims across South Asia.
Even so, Kumara’s murder prompted a strong reaction from Khan, who called it a “day of shame for Pakistan,” a term he hasn’t used when discussing any of the country’s own victims of Islamist mob violence. While Khan might lack the self-awareness to connect his narrative or politics with Islamist radicalism, he might be able to see the diplomatic cost.
In April, days after Khan had expressed hope to intimidate the West into embracing Islamic blasphemy laws, the European Union passed a joint motion asking Pakistan to repeal certain sections of its blasphemy law to continue to benefit from the Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP+) status. The GSP+ status gives Pakistan tax relief and a cost advantage by allowing the country to sell its goods with lower tariffs.
EU parliamentarians have since continued to criticize Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, with many demanding the removal of Pakistan’s GSP+ status, in one instance citing 47 then-current cases of people held on blasphemy charges in the country. The case of Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel, the Christian couple on death row for “sending blasphemous texts,” became the focus of the EU parliament’s motion, and the couple was duly released a month after the resolution was passed.
Khan and his government may have initially hoped that they could stoke hatred against France and still receive over 500 million euros in aid from Paris, and hundreds of millions more from the EU, as they have managed to do with the United States. But whereas the European Union’s resolution might have given Islamabad financial jitters, especially amid the country’s growing economic crisis, Kumara’s killing could lead to a graver reality check.
Not only is Sri Lanka one of the few countries in the region with which Islamabad enjoys warm ties (meaning the murder’s consequences may be felt more deeply), the killing of a foreign national over blasphemy could significantly harm Pakistan’s investment climate, which had only recently begun to recover from decades of terrorism-inflicted economic crises. Although terrorist attacks had been ravaging the country for years, it was the jihadist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in 2009 that isolated Pakistan in sport, entertainment, tourism, and most forms of people-to-people exchanges for over a decade.
If the Sialkot murder doesn’t enlighten Pakistan’s rulers, a call to action from China likely will. Beijing is already concerned about a wide array of militants targeting its investments and workers in Pakistan, with attacks on the Chinese ambassador and a fatal bus explosion killing a group of Chinese engineers occuring this year. Jihadists angered by China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims, and Baloch militants who see Beijing as the latest colonial master in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, are now targeting China.
The number of Chinese workers in Pakistan is expected to reach 5 million by 2025, largely in connection with bilateral projects between the two countries spearheaded by the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Beijing’s highest ever overseas investment and Islamabad’s self-touted “lifeline.”
While Pakistan can crack down on individual Uyghurs on China’s orders, it would need a more comprehensive strategy to rein in Islamist mobs. It was in anticipation of the CPEC’s inauguration that Pakistan launched its Zarb-e-Azb military operation in 2014, significantly reducing jihadist terror attacks in the country.
The Pakistani military, the effective ruler of the country, also has much at stake. With the erstwhile guaranteed billions from Washington no longer available following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the military now needs a domestic economy strong enough to generate resources to be appropriated.
The military also controls the Islamist groups, sustaining them as tools to exercise domestic and regional clout, and can hence regulate radical backlash to unpopular moves. (Potential moves already in the pipeline include establishing diplomatic ties with Israel and formally incorporating the Pakistan-administered section of the disputed Kashmir region, thereby effectively abandoning Pakistan’s formal claim to the Indian-controlled parts.)
On the blasphemy front, although it might not necessarily mean repealing the law itself, some legal reform coupled with the already mulled-over clampdown on vigilantism might provide some cover to halt Islamist mobs, even if temporarily. However, jihadist ideology and the radical Islamism it has spawned is unlikely to be uprooted altogether—for it is the sole source of domestic and regional leverage for Pakistan’s rulers. (Foreign Policy)