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Mob justice in Pakistan

Blasphemy cases show an absence of the rule of law

The mother of Priyantha Kumara Diyawadana mourns her son in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Associated Press/Photo by Eranga Jayawardena

Mob justice in Pakistan

Pakistan continues to fail in its responsibility to protect its non-Muslim minorities against radical Islamic “justice.”

The first week of December witnessed a tragic massacre in Punjab, the most populous and industrialized province in Pakistan. A crowd of Muslim zealots set a Hindu man named Priyantha Kumara Diyawadana on fire, after they accused him of blasphemy against Muhammad.

Horrific videos then emerged on social media, showing hundreds of Muslims shouting religious phrases as they threw Diyawadana on the floor, tore his clothes, beat, tortured, and killed him, before setting his slaughtered body on fire. In these videos, some in the mob made certain to take selfies with the dead body, as they praised Muhammad’s name declaring Islamic salutation on him.

Pakistan is an Islamic state, where over 96 percent of the population claim to follow Sunni Islam. The country is well known for adopting and enforcing severe laws against blasphemy. Any blasphemy against Muhammad is punishable by death.

Mr. Diyawadana was a Sri Lankan Hindu, who worked as a manager in a small factory. He was in charge of renovating a room in the factory—a process that required that he remove a poster that contained verses from the Quran and phrases about Muhammad.

For the Muslim zealots, removing the poster was blasphemy against Muhammad, and such a crime is punishable by death.

The news of his “offense” spread quickly. By early morning the next day, Muslim enthusiasts gathered, demanding Diyawadana to be delivered to their hands for immediate punishment. Once caught, the crowed declared him as a kafir (infidel), accused him of blasphemy, and sentenced him to death.

The man was not judged, accused, or charged by a Pakistani court, but by an angry mob. In Pakistan, Muslim zealots—not lawful authorities—often rule, accuse, and charge minorities, especially in cases of blasphemy. They seem to operate freely and unchallenged, and their victims are almost always non-Muslim minorities.

This tragedy demonstrates the huge problem of anti-blasphemy laws in Pakistan. These laws are designed to silence and target non-Muslim minorities, but they are also deeply rooted in Islamic theology.

Even judges reportedly fear the mob and agree to charge anyone accused of blasphemy, in order to avoid retaliation by extremists. A week before the massacre of Diyawadana, the Muslim mob demanded the police hand over a person they accused of blasphemy. When the police refused, the mob burned down the police station and its vehicles.

However, the government of Pakistan often takes the lead in prosecuting blasphemy cases. In 2010, the most infamous blasphemy case in recent Pakistan history erupted when a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death on accusation of questioning the character of Muhammad among her co-workers. After fighting the charge for at least ten years, she was acquitted due to international demands. She then had to flee Pakistan to Canada as a refugee.

In 2018, a Pakistani man from the minority Ahmadiyya sect, was placed in prison on charges of blasphemy. He remained in jail for two years before his trial in 2020. During his trial, a Muslim zealot successfully smuggled a gun to the courtroom, and shot him dead on the spot.

The stories of people accused of blasphemy in Pakistan are numerous. The tragedies establish a culture of fear among minorities, creating a halo around Islam, shielding it against criticism, and declaring it untouchable. The message for non-Muslims is clear: Do not even try to question anything related to the majority’s religion.

But Pakistan is not alone. In 2014, a Pew Research Center analysis conveys that more than a quarter of the world (26 percent) enforces anti-blasphemy policies. The vast majority of the restrictions are in the Arab World, where Islam is the dominant religion.

This is not merely a problem in Pakistan. It is a problem endemic to Islam and goes back to sacred Muslim texts. Islam is an honor religion and the Muslim mobs believe they are defending that honor. They claim the example of Muhammad himself, whom Islamic authorities claim sanctioned such violence.

But Christianity is not an honor religion. We believe that blasphemy, biblically defined, is a sin that will surely be punished by God. But that punishment must come from God, not from a mob.

A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.

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