Pakistan: When a blasphemy accusation is evidence; the sentence often death

A Lahore woman barely escaped with her life. But the problems run deeper than the mob that nearly lynched her.

Pakistan blasphemy accusation [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]
In Lahore, a woman was nearly lynched by a mob that was ignorant and bloodthirsty — and that then proceeded to blame the woman [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

The Pakistani city of Lahore is famous for a great many things: beautiful Mughal architecture, delicious street food, eye-pleasing greenery and, of late, air pollution that ranks amongst the worst in the world.

But as dangerous as that last distinction is, Lahore recently avoided being known for something far worse: mob lynching.

Here’s what happened: A married couple was out shopping, peacefully going about their day, when a passer-by spotted something that he found offensive – in this case, the woman’s garments.

It’s not that her clothes were revealing — something frowned upon in this culture — or otherwise morally offensive to this worthy gentleman. No, he became enraged because, to his eyes, the woman was wearing a dress covered with Quranic verses.

Except he clearly couldn’t read Arabic.

The woman’s clothing certainly carried Arabic writing, but these were not derived from the Quran or any holy scripture. The product of a Kuwaiti design company, the calligraphy on the dress repeated the Arabic word “Hilwa”, which simply means “good” or “beautiful”.

And even if her dress did carry Quranic text, I venture a guess that the majority of Muslims would not support what happened next.

Unfortunately, though, when it comes to blasphemy in Pakistan, accusation is evidence, and the sentence is almost always death.

This was blasphemy, the man screamed in his ignorant self-righteousness. Soon a crowd gathered, and the woman was trapped in the shop as the mob called for her to be beheaded. Knives were drawn and bloodshed was but a moment away. Luckily, the shopkeepers and some other members of the public intervened in numbers large enough to keep the mob from attacking the woman before the police arrived on the scene.

Leading the contingent was female Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Shehrbano Naqvi, who bravely rescued the girl and led her to safety at great personal risk.

In the past, we have seen no less a personage than Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab himself – of which Lahore is the capital city – gunned down by his own security guard because he opposed the flawed implementation of Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws.

The guard, Mumtaz Qadri, was lionised by religio-political parties and significant segments of the population and, after his execution by hanging, was virtually beatified by the same parties. His execution also launched the political career of Khadim Rizvi, whose ultra-right-wing political party, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, turned the persecution of purported blasphemers into a cause celebre. The TLP can often be found at the forefront of such mob frenzies.

Then there’s Mashal Khan, a bright young college student who was brutally beaten to death by his own fellow students over a Facebook post they found blasphemous. Later, it emerged that the actual cause was personal enmity. Priyantha Kumara, the Sri Lankan manager of a sporting company in the Punjabi town of Sialkot, was beaten to death by a mob numbering in the hundreds and then his broken body was set on fire, with members of the jubilant crowd stopping to take selfies in front of this human bonfire. Later, it emerged that Priyantha was only guilty of disciplining errant factory workers, who then used the excuse of blasphemy to get him out of the way.

Blasphemy is the blade, but those who swing it often have anything but religion on their minds.

Officer Naqvi will now be awarded honours for her courage, and while one could say that this was simply a case of the police doing their job – the bare minimum as some have said – the reality is that when faced with a charged crowd of this nature the police is often helpless and at risk of losing their own lives.

In 2020 a security guard murdered the manager of the bank he was employed at over a personal dispute in the town of Khushab and claimed that the manager had committed blasphemy. Without waiting for any kind of proof a jubilant mob led him through the streets in a triumphal procession that ended with them taking over the local police station and having the murderer address the mob from the roof of the police station itself.

There are also those who get entangled in the labyrinth of Pakistan’s judicial system. Lower courts, often out of fear of the mob and their allies in the legal community, impose strict sentences despite having only spurious evidence.

Wajih-ul Hasan spent 18 years on death row and was acquitted only when his appeal finally reached the Supreme Court. Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Masih were sentenced to death over a purportedly blasphemous text message exchanged between the married couple. They were released after seven years; Emmanuel’s imprisonment turned him into a paraplegic due to a spinal injury that remained untreated in jail.

The same goes for the famous case of Aasia Bibi whose conviction was overturned after eight years. In all these cases, the Supreme Court ruled that the evidence provided was either insufficient or entirely false, and that the accusers were motivated by greed or personal enmity. The false accusers were never punished.

So, in this dark and dangerous context, the woman is lucky to have escaped with her life, and officer Shehrbano, her team and those who tried to protect the woman are certainly heroes for having risked their lives.

But what does all of this say about Pakistan?

Even after it was revealed to the ringleaders of the mob that the woman’s dress did not carry any words from a scripture, they were not satisfied and demanded that the woman apologise on camera, which she did.

Visibly terrified and covered in a large shawl, the woman – flanked by grim-looking clerics on either side – had to reaffirm her credentials as a Muslim and beg for forgiveness. All for wearing a simple dress with Arabic writing on it.

Meanwhile, the men who threatened to kill her are sticking to their literal guns and in turn giving interviews in which they blame the woman for wearing a dress that could mislead (in their own words) the “ignorant” public. In another video, they are seen examining the dress, which is laid out on a table like a murder victim awaiting a post-mortem, and discussing how to file a police case against the woman. They also maintain that if any harm had befallen the woman, it would have been her own fault. In short, it’s her fault that they are bloodthirsty, and her fault that they are ignorant.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are a colonial construct imposed by the British which have, over the years, been made more dangerous by successive governments.

And so, while the outrage in Lahore has been roundly condemned in Pakistan’s parliament and in the media, the fact is that the culprits will walk away free and emboldened, able to further their agendas and increase their personal and political power at the expense of society and sanity itself.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.