THE BLOG

An Allegation of Blasphemy Spells Death in Pakistan

10/11/2014 10:17 GMT | Updated 09/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Last week, Shahzad Masih and Shama Bibi, a Christian couple who had spent years in modern-day slavery in Punjab province in Pakistan, were brutally beaten and burned to death at the brick kiln where they work after they were accused of blasphemy for desecrating the Holy Qur'an.

While Pakistan does have a law against blasphemy, even the mere allegation of it is enough to provoke religious zealots to instigate a mob that acts as judge, jury and executioner, especially in the power vacuum that is rural Punjab. However, this case is also a window into a context where Pakistan's feudal lords can act with impunity and religious minorities are vulnerable to abuse, a context where Islamabad's laws don't reach - and in this case, where the label of blasphemy is also a distraction. There are reports that the blasphemy allegation was made against the couple after the clerks of the kiln tried to prevent them from leaving to work elsewhere, eventually killing them over an unpaid debt.

Brick kilns, like the ones where Shahzad and Shama were burned alive, are a common sight in Southern Punjab and a reminder of the estimated 4.5 million people, mostly from religious minorities, who are stuck in generational modern-day slavery, baking bricks or picking cotton. Most of Pakistan's nearly ten million minorities are mostly from Hindu and Christian communities from the lowest castes, known as Dalits, who couldn't afford migration to India in 1947 after independence. Christians are commonly derided as chuura, meaning 'sweeper,' mostly cleaning Pakistan's streets, sewers and outdoor toilets. Over half of these Dalit communities - like Shahzad and Shama - are indentured servants: modern-day slaves, always working to repay their owner. Subjugation and marginalization have also made religious minorities easy scapegoats for the military's failures in its conflicts against India, and since 9/11, Christians across Pakistan have faced an onslaught from extremists angry at the perceived 'Christian' Western war against Muslims going on in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond.

Modern Pakistan has veered away from the ideals of its founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who saw the new country as a place for all religions and the government having no business with people's faith. Instead, successive rulers have played communities against each other, leaving the weakest to be trampled upon. Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law is a case in point; a dysfunctional law that is often used to settle personal scores. Statistically, most of those accused of blasphemy in Pakistan are from Muslim backgrounds, although religious minorities such as Christians make up a disproportionate number of victims. Out of the approximately 1,200 in prison for blasphemy, over 200 of them are Christians and Hindus. The life of the accused is at risk from sympathisers of the accuser as soon as the allegation is publically known, and even after acquittal. And while blasphemy accusations do affect Pakistanis of all faiths, cases against minorities also routinely lead to the violent targeting of the wider community of the accused. In many cases a charge isn't even registered with the police, as mob violence settles the score. Even if the accused is acquitted or the case is dropped, the stigma follows them and a life is ruined.

The state has long been silent on the issue and many sections of civil society currently consider it too volatile a subject to tackle through public channels. Well-organised extremist groups target moderate voices for peace every year; in May, Rashid Rehman, a well-known human rights defender in Multan was gunned down. A similar fate befell Professor Muhammad Shakeel Auj, Dean of Islamic Studies at Karachi University, in September.

In an unprecedented move, the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has condemned Shahzad and Shama's murder, while his brother and Chief Minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, has visited the family of the victims, promising them compensation of 5 million rupees (approximately £30,806) and 10 acres of land.

However, there is no word of how this unending cycle of violence and impunity is going to end. Anyone who invokes the blasphemy law as an excuse for violence is not resisted. In recent days a Shi'a Muslim man was killed by a policeman for blasphemy. Compensation for the dead will go some way to help the families who have lost loved ones; Shahzad and Shama are survived by their three young children - though no sum could ever make up for the lives lost. Compensation alone is not going to save Pakistan from extremism; concerted action by those in power to tackle impunity and religious intolerance just might.

This article was co-authored by CSW's Pakistan Advocacy Officer