The murder of a Sri Lankan Christian man in Pakistan has sparked a national conversation around controversial blasphemy laws and the surrounding culture, which leads many religious extremists to take the law into their own hands.
Mob lynching: Priyantha Kumara Diyawadana, the victim of a recent lynching last Friday, was a factory worker in Sialkot, Pakistan. Diyawadana was attacked by a mob of hundreds of people, including some of his coworkers, who accused him of tearing down posters at the factory, thus disrespecting the Muslim prophet Muhammad.
- The attack has been primarily attributed to the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party, a far-right religious group, by netizens, though the party released a statement condemning the attack, Dawn reported.
- The news of the horrific incident immediately sparked outrage across the subcontinent as well among South Asian diaspora communities.
- Though it seemed that the incident might strain relations between Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Imran Khan has promised Sri Lankan officials that justice would be done.
The horrific vigilante attack on factory in Sialkot & the burning alive of Sri Lankan manager is a day of shame for Pakistan. I am overseeing the investigations & let there be no mistake all those responsible will be punished with full severity of the law. Arrests are in progress
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) December 3, 2021
Spoke to Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa today in UAE to convey our nation’s anger & shame to people of Sri Lanka at vigilante killing of Priyantha Diyawadana in Sialkot. I informed him 100+ ppl arrested & assured him they would be prosecuted with full severity of the law
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) December 4, 2021
- Since Friday, over 100 suspects have been arrested. Officials have promised that all involved will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
- Diyawadana’s remains have been sent to Sri Lanka for proper funeral arrangements. He leaves behind a wife and two children.
- The victim’s wife rejects the accusations of blasphemy made against her late husband. “He was an innocent man,” she told BBC News.
Recurring violence: Many see the lynching as a part of a dangerous pattern in Pakistan, rather than a standalone case.
- Earlier this year, an 8-year-old Hindu boy was arrested for blasphemy after urinating in a religious library, though the charges against him were dropped after media outrage.
- In 2010, a Christian woman named Aasiya Noreen (also known as Asia Bibi) was sentenced to death on blasphemy accusations, though was able to leave the country after being acquitted in 2019.
- Accusations of blasphemy often inspire vigilante violence, as in the Diyawadana case, regardless of evidence.
- Last year, a man on trial for blasphemy was shot dead in court by a vigilante during a hearing.
- Pakistan is often considered to have the harshest blasphemy laws of any Muslim-majority country, even compared to more authoritarian countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran.
- Though the majority of those accused of blasphemy in Pakistan are Muslim, the laws are frequently used to target non-Muslim minorities, such as Hindus and Christians, as well as non-majority Muslim sects such as Shias and Ahmadis. Women are also frequent targets of the laws.
- Though Prime Minister Imran Khan condemned the attack, many see his comments as insufficient in light of accusations that he is soft on religious extremist groups.
- Just a month ago, Khan helped remove the TLP from a list of terrorist groups. Since August, he has also been noticeably unconcerned with the human rights abuses of neighboring Afghanistan under the Taliban, even celebrating what he views as their freedom from United States forces.
Antiquated laws: Pakistani’s modern blasphemy laws stem from the period of “Shariazation” under leader Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s, during which the country adopted many conservative religious laws.
- Zia seized power in 1977 through a military coup and subsequent declaration of martial law. He served as the unelected head of state for ten years.
- His reign is generally thought of as being the historical point at which Pakistan began turning away from its prior liberal secularism towards contemporary religious conservatism.
- Though no other Pakistani leader since Zia has been as zealously religious or conservative, his additions to the penal code, known as the Hudood Ordinances, have largely remained.
- The Hudood Ordinances criminalized acts like adultery and added traditional Islamic punishments for these acts, namely whipping and stoning to death. The changes to the penal code included expanded punishments for blasphemy and controversial rape laws.
- The 2006 Women’s Protection Bill is one of the few notable reforms to the Hudood Ordinances, though human rights groups still view the reforms as insufficient since it does not entirely undo all of Zia’s laws. The bill does allow for forensic evidence to be used in rape cases and reduces punishments for adultery.
Feature Image via CRUX