Pakistan's Dark Days

Terrorism and the Blasphemy Laws

A boy in an army uniform weeps for victims in front of Army Public School in Peshawar, December 19, 2014. Fayaz Aziz / Courtesy Reuters

Last week’s massacre of 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was horrific. It sparked a wave of sympathy—world leaders expressed their solidarity with the country—and also criticism—for years, Pakistan has given safe haven to terrorist groups. 

TTP’s ghastly attack in Peshawar was hardly surprising. In the spring of 2010, Faisal Shahzad, a TTP-trained American, attempted to bomb Times Square in New York. Just weeks later, TTP operatives massacred 86 Ahmadi worshippers during Friday prayers at mosques in Lahore. (Ahmadis are a persecuted minority Muslim sect.) In 2013, TTP was linked to the killing of 127 Christians in Peshawar. 

Yet despite overwhelming evidence of the threat presented by TTP, Pakistan has been utterly deficient in dismantling it.

Neither a lack of resources nor a lack of international support is the problem. Pakistan has spent billions of dollars on its counterterrorism efforts, the bulk of which has come directly from the United States. U.S. drone attacks, meanwhile, have aided in the fight against TTP. And although Pakistan does, at the very least, turn a blind eye toward some terrorist groups that target India, that does not really figure into this case; the TTP mostly murders within Pakistan.

Rather, the problem is a group of draconian laws that a military dictator, Zia ul-Haq, enacted decades ago and a dangerous culture of impunity the laws have engendered. Known as the blasphemy laws, these provisions punish any “spoken, written, or visible representation,” including offense by “imputation, innuendo, or insinuation,” that “directly or indirectly defiles the sacred name of Prophet Muhammad” and thus outrages the religious sentiments of Muslims. The accused can face capital punishment. The codes thus provide legal cover for terrorists to commit atrocities in the name of protecting Islam’s integrity based on their warped view of the faith. 

Since 1984, Pakistan has permitted the arrest and prosecution of several thousand of its citizens—both Muslim and non-Muslim­—on trivial and often trumped-up charges of blasphemy. These include wearing an Islamic

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