Facebook should stay out of Pakistan’s crackdown on ‘blasphemy’

Priya Virmani says the government’s attempt to rid social media of ‘blasphemous content’ is a cover to suppress dissent and curb freedoms, and Facebook should have nothing to do with it

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 April, 2017, 5:27pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 April, 2017, 5:56pm

Facebook’s team has been in Pakistan working with the government to remove “blasphemous content” on social media. Among all the Muslim-majority countries, Pakistan arguably has the most stringent blasphemy laws, which include the death penalty.

Between 1987 and 2014, over 1,300 people were accused of blasphemy. Since 1990, unofficial figures suggest at least 68 have been killed over allegations of blasphemy. Last week, three bloggers were put behind bars on charges of blasphemy and 40 people are on death row or serving life sentences for profanity towards the state religion.

Some prominent people who dared to voice their dissent about the laws have paid with their lives.

The disappeared: why Pakistan is feeling spooked over missing social media activists

There are good reasons to argue that the blasphemy laws are employed to further marginalise minorities, to suppress dissent and compromise freedom of expression.

An Amnesty International report, published last December, found evidence that the laws are being employed as a cover for human rights violations. Moreover, it said that, once accused, people have no real recourse to defend themselves. The umbrella-like wording of the laws and a far from fair or robust justice system are some of the challenges that leave the laws open to becoming a euphuism for intolerance and abuse, especially towards minorities.

Six years ago, a provincial governor was shot dead by a police guard who accused him of blasphemy after he defended a Christian woman who had insulted the Prophet Mohammed.

Watch: Qandeel Baloch – Why was she killed?

Last year, a young, exuberant and attractive Karachi girl, Qandeel Baloch was killed by her brother in an apparent “honour killing”. Her crime – posting glamorous selfies on social media which challenged the way woman are required to present and “contain” themselves in Pakistan. While sections of Pakistan’s youth, together with the international community, were outraged, the governmental and institutional response was marked by an eerie silence.

While Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif calls blasphemy an “unpardonable offence”, why is a similarly deafening noise not made about other egregious injustices? In the practice of religion, should we not ensure the equal preciousness of life – of both men and women? Shouldn’t snuffing out a life for something as banal as taking glamourous selfies not be seen as “blasphemous”? How can a country and government understand religion without comprehending the sacredness of all life? Where is more, and urgent, action needed? Facebook, for starters, has much to answer here.

Dr Priya Virmani is a political and economic analyst