Blasphemy was weaponised in Pakistan due to social and political divisions: How did this happen, and can the country find a way to heal? [Image via SAT Creatives]

From Tolerance to Tragedy: Blasphemy Weaponised in Pakistan

On the night of June 20th, 2024, Pakistan witnessed yet another tragic and horrifying episode that will etch another dark chapter to the annals of Pakistan’s history. In the town of Madain, Swat, an enraged mob lynched a tourist to death and set his body on fire, all while the police struggled in vain to control the masses who had also set the police station ablaze.

The supposed crime? An unproven allegation of desecrating the Holy Quran. This provided fodder to the Islamphobic factories spewing hate with numerous articles written within hours all with the tagline of “Islamist” vigilantism.

Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. Just a month earlier, a similar event unfolded in Sargodha. The polarization in Pakistani society is stark.

How was Blasphemy Weaponised in Pakistan?

From 1947 to 1978, only 11 blasphemy cases were recorded. However, from 1987 to 2021, these incidents surged by a staggering 1300%.

So What Went Wrong?

In the decades following the 1970s, the world witnessed populist movements challenging the status quo around the globe. Some of these movements were based on just causes while others used radical interpretations of religion to amass power. Some of these movements also aimed to spread their ideologies globally, while others turned anarchists. The 1979 Iranian Revolution and the Afghan Jihad epitomize these anti-status quo movements leading to a more radicalized world with Pakistan also becoming the battleground of these competing ideologies.

Historical Context: A Shift from Tolerance

Secondly, the blasphemy issue began to be weaponized in Pakistan around 2009 with an irresponsible attitude adopted by both the secular elements in government provoking the public and the clerics instigating them, leading to a rise in the menace.

This required the effective deradicalization of the society. Pakistan started its Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program following the War on Terror (WoT). Counter-narrative lies at the heart of these strategies to address extremism along individual, organizational, and environmental levels. Counter-narratives can weaken ideological, affective, and pragmatic commitment to extremism, thus acting as a potent force to deconstruct and challenge militant ideologies.

Blasphemy Weaponised in Pakistan: Social and Political Factors at Play

As per Aristotle, the credibility and character of the messenger are the most potent rhetorical tools. Pakistan’s public narrative has all the necessary elements of persuasion except credible messengers, who should ideally come from the peer group of the target audience.

However, following the Army Public School (APS) incident 2014, the counter-narrative came from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR). This narrative could not achieve the intended effect due to its military patronage. Fatwas by religious scholars like Dr. Tahir ul Qadri and the Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC) also emerged. Although they denounced terrorism and specific organizations, they failed to gain traction. Unfortunately, these efforts could not be popularized as the leaders had questionable and partisan character in the public eye.

Challenges and Potential Solutions

Paigham-e-Pakistan (PeP), a comprehensive fatwa endorsed by religious scholars from all sects, refuting violent extremism and clarifying the concept of jihad, serves as an ideal with greater appeal in this regard.

However, this DDR and its constitutive counter-narrative were only concerned with dealing with the Jihadist radicals with anti-state elements. Focus on religious extremism particularly blasphemy which propped up with the mainstreaming of Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) as well as secular extremist movements like the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) has been absent in state narrative and policy. Even PeP was silent on the issue. Therefore, a shift from DDR towards CVE (counter-violent extremism) is crucial. At its heart will again be the counter-narrative with credible Ulema spearheading the reconstruction of religious interpretations.

Also See: Chinese National Accused of Blasphemy Is Another Test for China-Pakistan Ties

This, however, is one side of the coin. Rene Girad, a French sociologist also explains the structural factors behind mob violence in his book “The Scapegoat”. During a social crisis evoked by terrorism, economic collapse, or calamity, society picks a scapegoat to blame to let out their frustrations, which is often someone from a minority or weak social status.

Pakistan’s divided, politically polarized, and economically crippled landscape serves as an ideal breeding ground for the phenomenon, thus demanding a complete structural “overhaul”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the South Asia Times.

Simran Saeed Janjua | Author at South Asia Times (SAT)

Simran Saeed Janjua is an International Relations Researcher from National Defense University Islamabad, currently serving as research intern at South Asia Times (SAT). Her areas of research interest include traditional and non traditional security issues and foreign policy analysis. She can be reached at and on X (formerly Twitter) @i_simranjanjua.

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