Murder in the Name of Blasphemy Necessitates National Reform

On the 29th of March, a woman was killed by three former colleagues outside of a seminary in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan. All three of the murderers are female teachers. The District Police Officer said that the motivation for the murder was down to alleged religious differences and because the victim was said to have committed blasphemy in the dream of a 13-year-old girl who was related to the murderers. This shocking incident requires a response from the government through a concerted effort to reform the country’s educational institutions and its penal code, as well as end the legitimisation of political violence.

Let’s be clear; this is a reprehensible crime. There is no evidence that the victim committed any wrongdoing, and the cold-blooded murder of an innocent person is repugnant to humanity and to Islam. It is particularly worrying that the perpetrators are all teachers with access to children to whom they could have taught that extreme violence is an acceptable course of action. While the board of seminaries condemned the murder, they must ensure in the future that seminaries undertake their own due diligence to prevent such people from teaching Pakistan’s children as far as is feasibly possible. The government must also ensure that all schools are registered, monitored and inspected.

It has often been said that these cases in Pakistan are not guided by religion at all but by personal vendettas. Blasphemy can provide a convenient cover for personal disputes because of the stringent anti-blasphemy laws initially introduced by the British in pre-Partition India but made stricter in Pakistan under President Zia ul-Haq (1978-88). In 1986, 295-C was added to the penal code, which allocated the death penalty or life imprisonment as punishment for people convicted of using derogatory remarks against the Prophet (PBUH). This addition has exacerbated the mistreatment of religious minorities and also suggests to the people of Pakistan that death is an appropriate sentence for blasphemers, even if the state does not condone citizens taking justice into their own hands.

Blasphemy can provide a convenient cover for personal disputes because of the stringent anti-blasphemy laws.

The authorities must not be lenient when bringing extrajudicial murderers to justice. A court in Pakistan has decisively responded to the mob murder of Priyantha Kumara. It sentenced six people to death, nine to life sentences and over 70 others to shorter sentences. Investigations found that many of the perpetrators were associated with the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), despite the group condemning the murder. I had suggested before how the government’s pardoning of the TLP likely played a role in the lead up to the lynching because to pardon the strongly anti-blasphemy TLP, previously designated as a terrorist outfit, would embolden people who use violence to achieve their socio-political ends. While I do not personally agree with capital punishment, the government cannot pardon terrorists nor fail to prosecute murderers. Otherwise, terror and murder will be normalised.

Unfortunately, one devastating by-product of murder perpetrated in the name of Islam is the increase in Islamophobia. Some people believe that Islamophobia is understandable or even justifiable because, for them, these cases exemplify that Islam is violent, encouraging murder even when the victims are innocent. But this conclusion is completely illogical, not only because the acts of individuals cannot be used to justify discrimination against an entire religion but also because this case is not motivated by Islamic principles at all. Which part of the Qur’an tells Muslims to kill someone because they dreamed that individual committed blasphemy? Anyone who considers a dream to be grounds for murder lacks sound judgement.

The actions of the women should not be considered “Islamic” even if the victim had committed blasphemy because Muslims are not entitled by their faith to take justice into their own hands. Instead, these murderers appear to share a mindset with the mob who killed Kumara, that violence and murder are justifiable responses to disagreements and that they have the right to enact capital punishment. If this case was genuinely motivated by religious differences, all we know is that the murderers took exception to the victim’s support of Tariq Jamil, a scholar belonging to the Tablighi Jama’at. The murderers themselves are described as belonging to the Mehsud tribe of South Waziristan, a tribe which has produced several of the Tehreek-i-Taliban’s (TTP) most prominent emirs. But belonging to this tribe does not mean we can make assumptions about their worldview. Without a thorough knowledge of the individuals, it would be a stretch to claim at this stage that they adhere to the same ideology as the TTP or that they are in any way associated with the group.

What is clear is that a substantial problem lies in the belief that violence is an acceptable response to disagreement, not just in Pakistan but throughout the world. Any claims that Muslims have a monopoly over this mindset are dangerously wrong. History has shown that such violence has been carried out in the name of all of the world’s major religions. Therefore, every country has a responsibility to reform any aspect of its society which perpetuates this mindset. In the case of Pakistan, this will require greater scrutiny in the running of educational institutions, legal reform of the penal code and no leniency from the government towards those who use political violence as a means to an end, especially the TLP.

Mary Hunter

Mary Hunter is a Postgraduate Research Fellow at The Centre for Army Leadership and also at the London Institute of South Asia. She regularly writes articles on Pakistan and its diaspora in the UK and is currently undertaking a PhD on Islam in Pakistan.

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