In recent years, a record number of cases have been filed under blasphemy law introduced during British colonial rule.
Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has called for Muslim-majority countries to band together to lobby Western governments to criminalise the insulting of Islam’s prophet, as negotiations between his government and a far-right anti-blasphemy religious group continue.
In a televised address to the nation from the capital, Islamabad, on Monday, Khan said he would lead a campaign of Muslim-majority countries to “convince” Western countries on the issue of blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad.
“We need to explain why this hurts us, when in the name of freedom of speech they insult the honour of the prophet,” Khan said.
“When 50 Muslim countries will unite and say this, and say that if something like this happens in any country, then we will launch a trade boycott on them and not buy their goods, that will have an effect.”
Khan likened the issue to that of the Holocaust, saying the Western nations had understood that questioning the Holocaust hurt the sentiments of the Jewish community, and that it needed to treat the issue of insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in a similar manner.
Khan’s address came as his government continued to negotiate on Monday with the far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) group, which held days of violent protests last week and abducted several police officers on Sunday as they continued their agitations on the issue of perceived “blasphemy” by the French President Emmanuel Macron.
Since November, the TLP has demanded that Pakistan expel the French ambassador over comments by Macron where he defended a publication’s right to republish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, an act considered “blasphemous” by some Muslims.
Blasphemy is a sensitive subject in Pakistan, where certain forms of the crime can carry a mandatory death sentence. Since 1990, at least 78 people have been murdered in mob violence and targeted attacks related to blasphemy accusations, according to an Al Jazeera tally.
Khan denounced the TLP’s violent protests over the last week, which have seen at least four policemen killed and more than 800 wounded, as being damaging to the country.
“My question is: by sending the French ambassador back and cutting all ties, will this stop [this blasphemy]?” said Pakistani PM Khan on Monday. “Is there a guarantee that people will stop insulting the prophet?
“I guarantee that if we do this, if Pakistan does this, then this same thing will happen in another European country on the issue of freedom of expression.”
On Sunday, TLP activists raided a police station in Lahore, Pakistan’s second city, abducting several policemen and prompting a fresh crackdown that saw police fire water cannon and tear gas as they attempted to recover the officers.
Early on Monday, the 11 abducted police officers were released by the TLP, as negotiations between the provincial government in Punjab, of which Lahore is the capital, and a TLP delegation began, the Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed said.
Pir Ijaz Ashrafi, a central leader of the TLP, told Al Jazeera that four TLP activists had also been killed in Sunday’s violence, but Al Jazeera was unable to independently confirm the death toll.
Last week, Pakistan’s government designated the TLP a “terrorist” organisation under anti-terrorism legislation, and said it would begin the process of delisting the group as a political party recognised by the country’s Election Commission.
On Monday, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said a second round of negotiations with the group had concluded, and that a third round would begin on Monday evening.
The next stage of talks would include Interior Minister Rasheed and Religious Affairs Minister Noor-ul-Haq Qadri, he said.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.