On Sunday evening, a grandmother and her two young granddaughters (7 years old and 8 months old) were burned to death in their homes during a mob attack on their village. A picture posted on Facebook reportedly sparked the attack.
The city of Gujranwala is primarily populated by the Ahmadi Muslim sect, a minority religion that differs with tenets of Islam, including the belief in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. As Pakistani law dictates, Ahmadi members are not permitted to identify themselves as Muslim and have been subjected to violent persecution for blasphemy in the past.
In fact, it is written in the Pakistan Penal Code that anyone who “defiles the The Holy Prophet Muhammad” is subject to life in jail or punishment by death.
But the blasphemy accusation wasn’t even leveled at Bushra Bibi, the grandmother mentioned above. The trouble began when an 18-year-old Ahmadi man named Aqib Saleem allegedly uploaded a picture of a shrine in Mecca with a partially naked woman on top. A friend of his alerted authorities in the neighborhood, after which a mob of nearly 1,000 people burned down property in the town. According to police, the fire killed Bibi and the two young members of her family.
“The police and the courts respond to the reports of citizens of alleged violations of the blasphemy law,” Phelim Kine, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told The Daily Beast in an interview. “There’s a proven willingness by the Pakistani police and the courts to pursue these charges. And there is a proven willingness of individuals in Pakistani society who are willing to report on what they perceive as, justifiably or not, violations of this dangerously ambiguous law, that they detect through social media or personal interactions.”
Kine described Pakistani social media as “the new town square” where ideas are more frequently discussed and shared than ever before.
“There are credible reports in the media that Pakistani police stood by and did not intervene to protect those Ahmadiyya who were being targeted by this mob violence,” Kine said, referring to Sunday’s tragic incident. “It reflects on this rising religious intolerance that we’re seeing in Pakistan that is now being broadcast and amplified through social media both by extremists and religious minorities who wish to communicate the beliefs and principles of their own faith.”
Human-rights organizations like Kine’s have pushed for reform of blasphemy laws for years. But as the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Network noted, a death penalty sentence has not been carried out in a blasphemy case in Pakistan yet. That hasn’t stopped individuals from being killed, in situations like this most recent event, prior to the conclusion of federal trials. And between 1986 and 2010, over 1,200 had been charged with violations of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
The government has also kept close tabs on the spread of perceived blasphemy online, initiating monitoring services for sites like Google and Yahoo in 2010. Facebook was also temporarily banned that year in advance of an event called “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” which was a response to censorship of a South Park episode in which the Prophet Muhammad was visually obscured by a black box.
The recent violence was condemned by a spokesman for the Ahmadi community, who alleged that the accused individual in question had his Facebook password stolen, which resulted in the image being posted. A representative of the Ahmadi Muslim community did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast. Nor did the Embassy of Pakistan in the United States.
Taha Siddiqui, the Pakistan correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, told me that he spoke with other members of the Ahmadi faith who had been targeted with violence as well.
“So I spent an evening with some Ahmadis tonight in Karachi where I’m visiting my own family for Eid,” Siddiqui said in an email, referring to the ceremonial breaking of the fast after Ramadan. “Met a guy who was shot thrice and survived. He says he was targeted because of his faith.”
This is by no means an isolated incident, according to Pakistani lawyer Yasser Latif Hamdani, who also suggested that anything that goes online could draw the unwanted attention of extremists.
“Ahmadis have been persecuted by the Sunni majority increasingly over the past few years,” Hamdani, known for his advocacy for the Ahmadi community in Pakistan, told The Daily Beast. “As a lawyer I would say that there is no protection for content produced on social media. Pretty much any content produced can land you in trouble and it has in the past.”
The rise in Islamic extremism has been widely reported in Pakistan, creating a situation so dangerous in recent years that even those who choose to defend individuals charged with blasphemy are putting their lives at risk. Rashid Rehman was assassinated in his office this year after defending a university lecturer accused of blasphemy.
“It just tells you how deeply felt and how dangerous this law can be in terms of motivating people towards extrajudicial violence,” Kine said.
In 2011, then-Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani asserted that there would be no changes to the controversial blasphemy law, even after another politician and governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was killed for denouncing the strict legal code.
With social media being increasingly used as a method of discussing and protesting religious beliefs, it seems like there is no discernable end in sight for prosecution of blasphemy in Pakistan.
“The immediate aftermath has been shock and expressions of outrage, but soon it will die down and be forgotten as inevitably any tragedy in recent years has in this country,” Hamdani said. “For the Ahmadi Muslim community it has been another incident in a long list of violent outrages against them in the last four years.”
And despite persistent efforts from human-rights groups, the law doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.
“The key is the state stepping up, the Pakistani government stepping up and realizing that this law is facilitating some of the extremely negative and extremely violent tendencies of a very small minority,” Kine said. “All I can tell you is, it’s a very, very uphill fight.”