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How Blasphemy Laws Influence Nationalism in Pakistan

When India gained its independence from the British in 1947 it was divided into two countries, Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan with large groups of people relocating to the country of their religious affiliation. During this migration, after the two countries split, violence occurred between the two groups, and they both believed that it would be impossible for them to peacefully live together.  This migration of the two religions started the idea of nationalism in Pakistan where communities were based on similarities they shared, including religion and political beliefs. Differences between the groups of people, especially religion, led to discrimination of minorities.  Discrimination and genocide against the Bengali-Hindu population led East Pakistan to rebel against West Pakistan in 1971. The rebellion of East Pakistan against West Pakistan led to war between the two and Pakistan surrendered. What was then East Pakistan gained independence from Pakistan and became Bangladesh. 

The war that occurred in 1971 is a selectively forgotten piece of Pakistan’s history. Textbooks barely mention their defeat, as a way to promote a positive and successful history. Little is taught about the military oppressions and events in East Pakistan, including the mistreatment of people that consisted of rape, torture, and killings. When it is mentioned, the history is edited to portray clearly anti-India and anti-Hindu beliefs. The war, however, had an impact on the country itself. Losing East Pakistan caused the development of a “never again” mentality leading to the increase in its military budget, as well as the development of nuclear weapons to create a stronger military so that something like the loss of the 1971 war could be prevented from happening again.

Today Pakistan is an Islamic country with strong feelings of nationalism surrounding it. Christians are a minority in the country, making up only 1.5% of the population. They face persecution in the country often caused by the strict blasphemy laws. These laws pose a direct threat to minority groups, specifically children, individuals with mental disabilities, members of religious minorities, and poorer people, artists, human rights defenders, and journalists. Punishments for the blasphemy laws are either life in prison or death. Human rights groups say these laws are used as a way to persecute minorities. However, a large percent of the population supports these laws and any accompanying punishments, creating a sense of nationalism in the county specifically around religion and the persecution of minorities. Islam is the religion of the majority of the country, and a sense of unity is felt through it. Other similarities include language and culture. The attention to the persecution faced by minorities has been heightened recently since the  Asia Bibi case.

 Asia Bibi, a Christian woman from Pakistan, spent eight years on death row for blasphemy charges. She had gotten into an argument with a group of women in June of 2009, was arrested and beaten, and became the first woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan. She was told if she changed her faith she could be freed. Her sentence caused an international backlash, and when taken to the Supreme Court was overruled.  She was then released and allowed to go to Canada. There were protests over this ruling with thousands of protesters demanding that she be put to death. Her story is similar to many other blasphemy cases. Asif Pervaiz, a Christian man has a similar story. He has been in custody since 2013 after sending “blasphemous” text messages to his supervisor. He was told to convert to Islam and when he refused, he was sentenced to death and fined 50,000 Pakistani rupees ($300).

When Pakistan’s Prime Minister was asked about Christian persecution for blasphemy, he said there was no trend, and each situation was case-specific, the same as in other countries. He said that “Christians are very welcome” and that the government is working to protect them. This tends to be untrue, the majority of the blasphemy charges are against Christians. The families of people who have been convicted live in constant fear that they will be attacked. Nationalism exists within Pakistan and there is mistreatment and persecution of minorities, especially religious minorities. People in these minority groups are easily targeted and they often work low paying jobs and have limited opportunities. The groups of nationalists support the persecution of minorities, especially through blasphemy laws. Blasphemy laws are only the latest problem that exists in a country like Pakistan where religion is tightly intertwined with the laws, and minority groups fall victim to false claims of sacrilegious hysteria. Until Pakistan changes these laws so they do not affect the population’s minorities disproportionately religious Nationalism will continue to be an issue for the country.