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Pakistani Religious Parties Increase Calls For Violence Against ‘Blasphemers’  

The grave of Mashal Khan, who was murdered by a mob earlier this year after being accused of online blasphemy.
The grave of Mashal Khan, who was murdered by a mob earlier this year after being accused of online blasphemy.

The tomb of Pakistani student Mashal Khan is guarded daily by three police officers in response to threats by religious hard-liners who say they would blow up the grave of the 23-year-old, who was beaten to death by a mob over rumors he blasphemed against Islam.

According to his heartbroken family, who are also under police protection, there is little hope the shocking campus killing will lead to a reassessment of blasphemy laws, which involve the death penalty, or punishment for the mobs who often claim to be taking justice into their own hands.

On October 27, a new political party called Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan won a surprisingly strong 7.6 percent of the vote in a by-election in Peshawar, 60 kilometers from where Mashal Khan was killed six months ago. The party has made punishing blasphemers its main rallying cry.

"Death to blasphemers! Death to blasphemers!" Tehrik-e-Labaik supporters chanted at campaign rallies in the conservative northwestern city.

The relatively strong showing of the party -- along with a separate outcry from the religious right over a proposed amendment to an election law – has made blasphemy a powerful political issue in the run-up to next year’s general election.

While Tehrik-e-Labaik, which means Movement of the Prophet's Followers, is unlikely to move beyond the single digits in upcoming votes, its rise in popularity along with that of another ultra-religious party could pose a challenge for the ruling Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif was ousted as prime minister in July by the Supreme Court, and opposition leader Imran Khan -- who spearheaded the legal case kicking him out of office over unreported income -- is trying to press the advantage.

In Peshawar’s by-election this week, former cricket star Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) party secured a comfortable victory to keep hold of its parliamentary seat with 34.8 percent of the vote.

The PML-N got 18.9 percent, a narrow third behind the regionally strong Awami National Party, which won 40 more votes.

The Protest Movement

Labaik’s gains are noteworthy for a party founded just last year.

The party draws most of its support from the Barelvi branch of Sunni Islam, Pakistan’s largest and traditionally moderate sect. Although the party hasn’t publicly disclosed its financing, the Barelvis have a network of mosques and madrasah religious schools that collect donations.

Labaik grew out of a protest movement against the state’s execution of Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard for Punjab Province's governor who gunned down his boss in 2011 over his call to reform Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which are among the world's harshest.

The party reveres Qadri as a hero, and Labaik's candidate in Peshawar, Muhammad Shafiq Ameeni, had expressed support for Mashal Khan's killers.

"It was the state's responsibility to punish a blasphemer, no two opinions, but when the state doesn't do its job and someone does kill, he shouldn't be punished as a murderer," Ameeni said in reference to the 57 people facing trial over the mob killing.

Most major political parties in Pakistan hold up allegiance to Islam as their official line, but until now ultra-religious had remained on the sidelines.

Labaik is one of two new ultra-religious parties formed in roughly the past year.

Labaik and the Milli Muslim League (MML) gained about 11 percent of the vote combined in Lahore’s by-election last month and 10.4 percent in Peshawar. In comparison, the established religious parties Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat Ulema-e-Islam had a combined 5.3 percent in 2013’s national election.

Blasphemy manages to be such an effective wedge issue in Pakistan because the accused have almost no defense. Critics maintain blasphemy laws are often used to settle personal feuds and intimidate liberals.

Pakistan’s death row is home to dozens of those convicted of insulting Islam’s prophet, a charge that carries a mandatory death sentence, though no execution has been carried out in recent decades.

Political parties could themselves face blasphemy accusations.

In early October, the PML-N voted through seemingly small changes to the nation's electoral law and then found itself in a firestorm.

Among other things, the changes turned a religious oath in the electoral laws stating that Mohammad was the last prophet of Muslims into a declaration using the words "I declare." The religious right cried blasphemy, and the government quickly retracted, deeming the change a "clerical" mistake and apologizing in the parliament.

Labaik has vowed to hold a mass rally on November 6 to demand those responsible be prosecuted for blasphemy.

Even before Labaik’s political debut, politicians were realizing that an easy way to appeal to conservative voters was to promise swift action against blasphemers.

In March, Sharif -- prime minister at the time -- issued a public order to prosecute anyone posting blasphemous content online.

Mashal Khan was accused of online blasphemy the following month and beaten to death by fellow students and religious activists as onlookers filmed the scene. Sharif responded by saying he was "shocked and saddened" by the "senseless display of mob justice."

Human rights groups say that at least 67 people have been killed over unsubstantiated blasphemy allegations since 1990.

Mashal Khan's father, Iqbal, said his son was the victim of false rumors. The family has received death threats from hard-liners and Mashal's sisters had to drop out of school.

"The snakes our country nurtured are now biting us," he said, two days before the by-election as he stood by his son's grave, which was strewn with flowers, lace, and poetry.

After learning of Labaik's gains a few days later, he was even more pessimistic about the government's ability to stop abuse of blasphemy accusations.

"I know very well I'm not going to get my son back," he said. "But this only adds to my pain."

Reporting by Asif Shahzad for Reuters

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