Explained: Pakistan's emotive blasphemy laws

In recent years, a record number of cases have been filed under blasphemy law introduced during British colonial rule.

Rallies supporting blasphemy laws and protesting related acquittals are common in Pakistan [File: Reuters]

Islamabad, Pakistan - Bishop John Joseph, 65, one of Pakistan’s most prominent human rights activists, had been campaigning for decades to reform the country's strict blasphemy laws.

On the morning of May 6, 1998, he led a procession to the steps of the court in the central Pakistani town of Sahiwal, where a young man, Ayub Masih, had been convicted and sentenced to death for blasphemy days earlier.

Masih, an illiterate man, had been accused of quoting from Salman Rushdie's controversial book The Satanic Verses in an argument with a Muslim man. In a controversial trial, a judge found him guilty of having insulted Islam's prophet and sentenced him to the mandatory death penalty.

Joseph led prayers for Masih and walked protesters to the doors of the court. He then pulled out a pistol and shot himself in the head.

The bishop's suicide was a striking protest against Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws, initially a holdover from British colonial rule that were strengthened in independent Pakistan due to pressure from the religious right wing.

In recent years, record numbers of cases are being filed under the law, which can carry a death sentence, inside or outside the courtroom. Last month, several cases were filed against members of the country's Shia Muslim minority, who form roughly 20 percent of the country’s 207 million population.

Currently, there are about 80 convicts on death row or serving life imprisonment terms in Pakistan for committing "blasphemy", according to (PDF) the US Commission for International Religious Freedom.

In the last decade, the "offences" committed by those accused of blasphemy have been as absurd as throwing a business card into the rubbish (the man's name was Muhammad), a rural water dispute, spelling errors, the naming of a child, the design of a place of worship, burning a (non-religious) talisman or sharing a picture on Facebook.

Increasingly, cases are being settled with violence outside the courtroom, with mob and targeted attacks against those accused. In many cases, families and lawyers of the accused, and even judges who have acquitted defendants, have been targeted.

Since 1990, at least 77 people have been killed in connection with such accusations, the latest murder occurring in a courtroom last month.

What makes this issue so emotive in Pakistan?

'Religious identity tied to the authority of the state'

"There's no simple answer to this question," says Arsalan Khan, an anthropologist who studies Islamic revivalist movements.

"In a sense, all religious traditions have deep connections to specific sacred objects and would be hurt by perceived defilement of their religious traditions, but this has certainly taken heightened political significance in Pakistan."

Khan argues that the heightened significance of "blasphemy" in Pakistan, as opposed to other Muslim countries (including theocracies such as Saudi Arabia and Iran), is linked to the formation of the country in 1947 as a homeland for South Asia’s Muslims.

"Religious identity has been centred as one of the core bases for national belonging in Pakistan," he says. "When] the state has defined Islam as the ultimate source of sovereignty, such battles have taken on deeper political significance."

When religious identity and authenticity is tied to the authority of the state, "blasphemy" becomes a site for political contestation.