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Latest Mob Lynching Spurs Action By Pakistani Authorities, But Blasphemy Laws Stand Strong

A mosque custodian briefs police officers about the mob lynching attack on Muhammad Mushtaq in Khanewal, eastern Pakistan.
A mosque custodian briefs police officers about the mob lynching attack on Muhammad Mushtaq in Khanewal, eastern Pakistan.

Muhammad Mushtaq, a middle-aged man in Pakistan's eastern province of Punjab, became the latest victim of a lynch mob in the country. His family says he suffered from mental health issues that rendered him unstable and unpredictable.

Diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia, Mushtaq abandoned his wife and their two children, according to his relatives, who say he would often disappear for weeks or months after the family gave up on his treatment. His siblings sold their farmland to pay for his treatment for 17 years, the family says, but nothing seemed to help him.

On February 12, he was attacked by an angry mob soon after the son of a local prayer leader in his native rural district of Khanewal accused him of burning pages of the Muslim holy book, Koran.

"The villagers -- armed with batons, axes, and iron rods -- killed him and hanged him," Munawar Hussain, a local police official, told Reuters. He said the mob was so agitated that a group of police officers were unable to save Mushtaq, who was unconscious and tied to a tree when they arrived at the scene.

Relatives and locals carry a coffin containing the body of Muhammad Mushtaq for his funeral at Khanewal district on February 13.
Relatives and locals carry a coffin containing the body of Muhammad Mushtaq for his funeral at Khanewal district on February 13.

The lynching made headlines and came nearly two months after a similar incident in Sialkot, another city in Punjab. On December 3, an angry mob killed a Sri Lankan factory manager and set his corpse on fire. Priyantha Kumara was reportedly attacked after allegedly ordering the removal of posters of a far-right Islamist party.

Settling Scores And Targeting Minorities

Mushtaq and Kumara are the latest victims of vigilante attacks that have claimed the lives of 90 civilians accused of blasphemy over the past seven decades, according to the Centre for Research and Security Studies, a think tank in Islamabad. In a report issued last month, the organization noted that more than 1,400 people had faced blasphemy accusations both in courts and from angry street mobs since Pakistan's independence as a homeland for South Asia's Muslims in 1947. More than 1,200 of these cases and incidents were documented during the past decade, marking a notable increase.

Pakistan inherited some 19th-century British laws that outlined punishments for offenses related to religion. As part of an "Islamization" drive in the 1980s, Islamabad revamped these laws with new clauses that added severe penalties and even a death sentence for anyone who insults Islam. Critics say these laws are often used to settle scores or target members of the country's small religious minorities. They say Islamabad reacts to lynching incidents but is reluctant to repeal these laws or add protections to prevent their abuse.

The issue looms large over Pakistan's image internationally and is a critical human rights and rule of law issue in the Muslim nation of 220 million people. After Mushtaq's murder was widely condemned, the country's government took a tough stand.

"We have zero tolerance for anyone taking the law into their own hands," Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted on February 13. "Mob lynching will be dealt with full severity of the law."

Police have arrested more than 100 people from among the members of the mob. Tahir Ashrafi, an Islamic cleric and Khan's adviser, maintains that Pakistanis are united against mob lynching.

"All the Muslim scholars agree that a mob shouldn't have punished him. We have laws, and people are punished for violating them," he added, alluding to Pakistan's laws that state blasphemy is a crime punishable by death.

"What they did has brought notoriety to Islam and Pakistan," he told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal.

Ashrafi says the government is launching a mass awareness campaign against vigilante attacks. He added that Islamabad would push to turn a code of conduct unanimously adopted by various Islamist political parties and sects in 2018 into law.

"We are forming committees at all federal and provincial [administrative] levels to promote tolerance and inter-faith harmony," he said. "The aim will be to resolve problems locally."

Relatives, locals, and police officers stand near the Mushtaq's coffin on February 13.
Relatives, locals, and police officers stand near the Mushtaq's coffin on February 13.

But independent observers and human rights campaigners are not convinced. They point to Pakistan's failure to rein in hard-line Islamist factions and repeal or reform the blasphemy laws enacted in the 1980s as part of a push to "Islamize" the country under a military dictatorship.

Journalist Sabookh Syed reports on religious affairs in Pakistan. He says that years of campaigning to preserve the blasphemy laws by conservative Islamic clerics has created a new reality.

"The Islamic clergy have formed a narrative that justifies compulsory punishment for blasphemy accusations," he told Radio Mashaal. "In their view, an accused hanged by a court or killed by a mob are the same," he added. "They preach this view from the mosque's pulpit and in religious gatherings, which encourages people to participate in such acts."

Fahimuddin Shaikh, an Islamic cleric, disagrees. He says the government needs to establish rule of law to prevent mob attacks and lynching.

"We have always advocated that we have a state, and the state has laws that must be followed," he told Radio Mashaal.

Growing Religious Radicalization

Zohra Yousuf, former head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent watchdog, says recent statements from government leaders amount to nothing because they fail to address the real issues of growing religious radicalization and repealing or reforming the blasphemy laws.

She pointed to how Khan's administration gave in to the Tehrik-e Labaik Pakistan (TLP), a far-right group campaigning on blasphemy issues. After weeks of violent clashes and protests, Islamabad banned the group and freed its leader from prison in November.

"Everyone knows that blasphemy laws are abused in settling scores. This is what happened with the Sri Lankan manager," she told Radio Mashaal. "If we must have such laws, they should be reformed in ways that are not abused."

Yousaf says that merely criticizing the blasphemy laws could invite murder and threats. In 2011 Salam Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was assassinated by his police guard after he criticized the blasphemy laws.

"The government needs to show some courage on this issue," she added.

Asad Jamal, a legal expert, says Islamabad's strategy to tackle the issue after a new incident of lynching is unlikely to work.

"Nothing will change as long as it is not dealt with as a national emergency requiring far-reaching reforms," he told Radio Mashaal.

Jamal says that some improvement will require the government to overhaul the current curriculum. Jamal says the current syllabus is laced with hard-line Islamic teachings and aims to indoctrinate students into fundamentalism. He says the judiciary, too, will need to treat blasphemy with utmost caution to make sure that the courts do not hear specious cases and those wrongfully accused of blasphemy can get justice.

"Both the current government and the state are not ready to move in that direction," he said.

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    Abdul Hai Kakar

    Abdul Hai Kakar is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal.

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.