Pakistan's political parties capitalise on blasphemy laws

SWABI (Pakistan) • Three police officers stand daily guard at the tomb of Pakistani student Mashal Khan to prevent religious hardliners from fulfilling threats to blow up the grave of the 23-year-old who was beaten to death over rumours that he blasphemed against Islam.

His grieving family, also under police protection, have little hope the shocking campus killing will lead to a re-examination of blasphemy laws that carry a death penalty, or action against the mob justice that often erupts in such cases.

On Friday, there was more evidence the opposite is happening.

A new political party that has made punishing blasphemers its main rallying cry won a surprisingly strong 7.6 per cent of the vote in a by-election in Peshawar, 60km from where Mr Khan was killed six months ago.

The Tehrik-e-Labaik's relatively strong showing - and a separate outcry over a proposed change to an election law that outraged the religious right - has elevated blasphemy into a potent political issue in the run-up to a general election next year.

While Tehrik-e-Labaik (Movement of the Prophet's Followers) is unlikely to break out of single digits in coming votes, its rapid rise, along with another ultra-religious party, could create an additional challenge for the ruling Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif was ousted as prime minister in July by the Supreme Court, and opposition leader Imran Khan - who spearheaded the legal case that removed him over unreported income - is seeking to press the advantage.

While Mr Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party retained the parliamentary seat on Friday with 34.8 per cent of the vote, the gains by Tehrik-e-Labaik - formed just last year - have grabbed attention.

Blasphemy is an effective wedge issue in Pakistan because there is almost no defence against an accusation. For that reason, say critics, blasphemy laws are often invoked to settle personal scores and to intimidate liberal journalists, lawyers and politicians.

Even before the Labaik party's political debut, politicians found promising swift action against blasphemers an easy way to appeal to conservative voters.

In March, then-Prime Minister Sharif issued a public order to prosecute anyone posting blasphemous content online.

The next month, Mr Mashal Khan was accused of online blasphemy and beaten to death by fellow students and religious activists as onlookers filmed the scene.

Mr Khan's father, Iqbal, said his son was the victim of false rumours.

Learning of the Labaik party's gains only made him more pessimistic about the government's ability to stop abuse of blasphemy claims. "I know very well, I'm not going to get my son back," he said. "But this only adds to my pain."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 29, 2017, with the headline 'Pakistan's political parties capitalise on blasphemy laws'. Print Edition | Subscribe