BLASPHEMY ALLEGATIONS ARE A SENSITIVE ISSUE IN TODAY’S Pakistan. After describing the socioreligious history of such accusations, I will show how the increasing digitalization of Pakistan’s public spheres has exacerbated a situation in which an accusation of blasphemy has little or no possible response. The moment such accusations enter a public arena (online or offline), their verdictive force often leads to life-threatening consequences for the accused person. To analyze such accusations, I will provide some background on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. To explore accusations of blasphemy theoretically, I will locate them within the conceptual framework of extreme speech and then turn toward speech act theory to understand how such accusations unfold their force—and often with life-threatening effects.
Setting the Scene: Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws
The blasphemy laws continue to divide Pakistan’s society. Many religious scholars argue that the laws represent the Quran and the Sunna and, therefore, cannot be abolished or amended without committing blasphemy in the act (Sayālvī 2016; Turābi, n.d.; Qadrī 2012). More liberal interpretations maintain that the ambivalent nature of the laws make them prone to misuse and to being used as an instrument of personal animosity (Siddique and Hayat 2008; Abbas 2013). Studies show that blasphemy cases have steadily increased since the 1980s (Siddique and Hayat 2008, 322–327). Quoting the Center for Social Justice, a 2016 report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan states that at least 1,472 people were accused of blasphemy between 1987 and 2016. The biggest portion of this number is made up of Muslims (730) and Ahmadis (501), followed by Christians (205) and Hindus (26).1 Furthermore, the report points out that in 2015 alone, courts found fifteen of twenty-five acquitted cases to have been fabricated based on personal vendettas. The remaining cases were cleared on the basis of a lack of evidence or the accused person being declared insane (Human Rights Commission of Pakistan 2016, 96). Liberal Pakistanis take such reports as supporting their stance that the blasphemy laws represent a relic of the past and thus should be amended or abolished. A discussion of the blasphemy decrees and their advantages and disadvantages for Pakistani society, however, has so far been repeatedly thwarted by the united protests of the religious right.
The Islamic Republic’s contentious blasphemy laws are modeled on the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which was put in place by the British in 1860 (Ahmad 2009, 178). Chapter 15 of the IPC dealt with possible offenses to religion and was originally intended to curb tensions within South Asia’s multireligious social setting. Later, under the government of military dictator Zia ul-Haq (1977–1988), these decrees became the foundation for laws that were mainly intended to protect Islam and the honor of the Prophet Muhammad. Zia’s comprehensive constitutional changes touched all corners of Pakistani society, and the Islamization of Pakistan’s laws further marginalized women, Shias, and religious minorities.
The roots of this Islamization process were already visible in the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), a consortium of left, right, and center parties united through their common opposition to the Bhutto government in the mid-1970s. The PNA’s religious parties’ demand to implement the niz̤ām-i must̤afī (the law of the Prophet) and to create a society built on Islamic law was taken up by the new military regime. Pakistan’s strategic position in the Afghanistan war, which coincided with Zia’s rule, then brought the United States and international money into the country and cemented the military regime’s power. Zia’s crucial role in the US–Soviet war gave the dictator a free hand to change Pakistan’s society without fearing international protest against some of his severe human rights violations. These alterations included the installation of sharia courts, which aimed to ensure that the country’s laws were conforming to the Quran and the Sunna; the ḥudūd ordinances, which dictated severe punishment for crimes such as stealing or adultery; and changes in the school curriculum and textbooks to spread the ideology of Pakistan (Ispahani 2017, 118–132). The Saudi support for certain mujāhidīn groups fighting in Afghanistan further supported the spread of a distinct Wahabi interpretation of Islam and gave additional momentum to the Islamization of the country (Abbas 2013, 67). Zia’s amendments to the Pakistani Penal Code’s (PPC’s) chapter on religious offenses must be understood with consideration of the background of this general Islamization process.
Zia’s government added five additional clauses to the PPC over a period of several years. All the new amendments deal, in particular, with punishable offenses against Zia’s Sunni version of Islam. Even though PPC 295-A—an addition made previously by the British in the course of the Rangilā Rasūl incident—states that all “malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class” (emphasis added) are punishable, non-Muslims file blasphemy charges only rarely in Pakistan today.2 The addition of 298-B and -C are particularly designed to criminalize the rituals and practices of the Ahmadi community, which had been declared non-Muslim by the Bhutto government as early as 1974. Zia’s amendments also make any maltreatment of the Quran (295-B) and any derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad (295-C) and his family (298-A) punishable by law (Siddique and Hayat 2008, 338). The first amendment to the PPC from 1980, for example, reads, “298A. Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of holy personages. Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of any wife (Ummul-Mumineen), or members of the family (Ahle-bait), of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him), or any of the righteous Caliphs (Khulafa-e-Raashideen) or companions (Sahaaba) of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.”3
Although offenses disrespecting the Prophet’s family do not call for capital punishment, pejorative remarks about the Prophet’s wives can have serious consequences, as illustrated by the case of Junaid Jamshed in 2014. Jamshed originally rose to fame as a Pakistani pop singer with the band Vital Signs but later turned toward religion and became a television preacher for the Tablighi Jamaat, a proselytizing branch of the Deobandi school. In 2014, Jamshed spoke about the “frail female nature” in one of his TV sermons and used Ayesha, the Prophet’s wife, as an example. Following the broadcast, a leader of the Sunni Tehreek, a militarized Barelvi party, registered a First Investigation Report (FIR) under 298-A in response to Jamshed’s alleged derogatory remarks about Ayesha. Because an insult to the Prophet’s wife is also an insult to the Prophet Muhammad, Jamshed was also charged with blasphemy under 295-C, a clause that, when proven in court, calls for the death penalty. In a subsequent video published on social media, Junaid publicly begged for forgiveness for his remarks. Although his followers were willing to overlook his mistake, the Sunni Tehreek stated that there were no excuses for what Jamshed had done and that the only proper response to an act of blasphemy was the death of the blasphemer. Jamshed did not face any formal charges but died shortly thereafter in a plane crash in 2016. Many Barelvi communities interpreted his death as a stroke of divine justice. Their opinions can be found on social media and often describe the incident as the legitimate price Jamshed had to pay for his sacrilegious words about the Prophet’s wife.4
Within the scope of this chapter, Zia’s last addition to the PPC, 295-C, is of particular interest. This section punishes derogatory remarks about the Prophet and demands the death penalty for blasphemers. The clause is written in an enigmatic style that makes it prone to misuse. As the aforementioned case has shown, the absence of a definition for what counts as a “derogatory remark” makes it possible to attach 295-C to a variety of other accusations: “295-C. Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet. Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, *or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”5 In the 1990s, the Federal Sharia Court made the death penalty mandatory for blasphemy cases and removed the possibility of life imprisonment.6 The amendment followed a petition by an advocate and religious scholar named Muhammad Ismail Qureshy. According to his own statement, Qureshy had had a dream about the Prophet Muhammad that incentivized him to legally struggle for the removal of the imprisonment option (Qureshy 2008, 60). In 2005, the contentious clause was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court of Pakistan (Qureshy 2008, 61). Notwithstanding this harsh punishment, no one has so far been executed by the state of Pakistan for charges under 295-C. These laws illustrate that protection of religious sentiments of the majority population overrides secular systems of public justice and citizenship rights. Nevertheless, the fact that modern nation-states support the religious feelings of majoritarian groups is neither surprising nor limited to Pakistan (Saeed 2015).
This form of rationalizing and legalizing religious violence (Ahmad 2009, 183) is also legally ambivalent given the amendments’ vague linguistic style. Besides the crucial question of what actually counts as a derogatory remark, the omission of an intention clause is another contentious point. Although the aforementioned IPC from 1860 stresses intention as a necessary reason to bring blasphemy to court, this clause was left out in the later amendment of the PPC sections 295-B, 295-C, and 298-A (Siddique and Hayat 2008, 342).
The grave outcome of such neglect is seen in the following case. Dr. Younas Shaikh, a professor at a private medical college in Islamabad, was charged with blasphemy in October 2000. During a lecture on the pre-Islamic period, Shaikh had responded to a student’s question by saying that Muhammad was a non-Muslim until he turned forty years old and thus that the Prophet had not been circumcised. For such alleged derogatory remarks, a local religious leader, Maulana Abdul Rauf from the Organization of the Finality of Prophethood (Majlis-i Khatm-i Nabuvat), charged Shaikh with blasphemy under PPC 295-C (Abbas 2013, 76–77). Even though Shaikh had not intended to attack the Prophet, his answer was perceived as an affront by some of his students, and he was brought to court as a result. Shaikh could not seek bail and thus remained in jail for three years. Eventually, the college professor was acquitted, but he needed to leave Pakistan shortly thereafter given the danger of being assassinated by religious zealots (Abbas 2013, 78–79). The absence of an intention clause in 295-C rendered a FIR and a subsequent court case possible. The public attention following the case and the likelihood of vigilante justice ended Shaikh’s career in Pakistan and forced him to leave the country.
Another consequence following the eradication of the intention clause directly influenced the way evidence for an act of blasphemy is presented in court. The corpus delicti cannot actually be named by the witnesses without perpetrating yet another act of blasphemy. This was evident in the case of Salamat Masih and Another v. the State (Feb 23, 1995 PCRLJ 881). Salamat Masih was a 13-year-old Christian boy who, in 1993, was accused with two others—Rehmat Masih and Manzoor Masih—of having written blasphemous words on the wall of a mosque. During the court proceedings, when the witnesses were asked to confirm the crime and to prove that blasphemy had actually been committed, the bystanders could not repeat the words—as this would have recommitted the crime. According to Asma Jahangir, a human rights lawyer from Lahore and cofounder of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the prosecuting side’s core witness could not reproduce the blasphemy and thus could not prove that an actual crime had been committed. The court’s decision in the case, therefore, was mainly built on the witnesses’ personal impressions. The case was acquitted in February 1995. During the trial, however, the three Christian boys repeatedly received threats and, at one point, were attacked by an unknown gunman after leaving a court hearing. The attack left Manzoor dead and Salamat and Rehmat seriously injured. After the court declared their innocence in 1995, Germany granted them asylum (Siddique and Hayat 2008, 327–334).
The opaque formulation of the blasphemy laws, especially of 295-C, together with the absence of the intent requirement, makes the law a malleable means for personal revenge and vendetta. The decrees’ enigmatic rhetoric provides a legally ambivalent framework that allows for a variety of accusations to fall under their jurisdiction. Because any remarks may be understood as “derogatory”—particularly when detached from their context—the current blasphemy laws support an atmosphere of paranoia and a culture of denunciation. This does not imply that every allegation immediately leads to an FIR or a criminal conviction in court (Ahmad 2009, 189–197; Siddique and Hayat 2008, 348–350). Blasphemy charges, however, are a serious matter because they invite prosecution, mob violence, and vigilante justice. A blasphemy stigma is often more dangerous than the actual criminal conviction. So far, Pakistan has not executed anyone on the charge of blasphemy. However, many alleged blasphemers have been killed by raging mobs or lone assassins who took it upon themselves to defend the Prophet’s honor. How did this situation change with the ubiquitous digitalization of technology and culture in Pakistan in the past few years?
In August 2016, the Pakistani government passed the Prevention of Electronic Crime Act (PECA; also Prevention of Electronic Crime Bill), which covered online acts of blasphemy. The PECA marks a watershed moment in Pakistan’s engagement with blasphemy, from merely restricting its access to actively prosecuting those engaged in the (intentional and unintentional) distribution of blasphemy on the internet. Beginning in spring 2017, the government started to systematically search for and take down web pages that displayed content that was considered blasphemous. Chaudhary Nisar, the minister of the interior at that time, stated that the government had blocked 152 Facebook pages and had put eight people on an exit control list for the publication of transgressive material.7 By October 2018, around thirty-five thousand pages had been blocked because of sacrilegious content.8
Former blasphemy laws had not covered online content, whereas the PECA targets particular forms of speech on the internet. Section 34, for example, gives the authorities the power to remove anything that is against the “glory of Islam” (PECA 2016).9 This section helped the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) obtain the ability to block any kind of content deemed controversial. After the PECA was passed, arrests for online offenses rose from 49 in 2016 to 209 in 2018.10 Furthermore, the Pakistani government has requested companies such as Twitter and Facebook to help find blasphemous material shared on their platforms. In a personal interview, Farieha Aziz, a journalist and activist at Bolo Bhi, an organization working for digital security in Pakistan, criticized such measures and argued that a large number of activists were detained on the basis of the PECA. According to Aziz, PECA serves as an instrument of control.
Responding to a court order, the PTA sent out a text message to all mobile phones in Pakistan in May 2017 requesting that citizens report blasphemous content. The PTA told all citizens that “uploading [and] sharing of blasphemous content on [the] internet is a punishable offense under the law. Such content should be reported on info.pta.gov.pk for legal action.”11 The PTA’s home page also features a request to report blasphemous content. The text reads, “The public is requested to help the PTA to block blasphemy and other content against Islam present on Social Media and especially Facebook.”12 Such announcements put a spotlight on online communication and give the public the mandate to raise new forms of blasphemy allegations. In an environment where an accusation is often already a conviction, such encouragement exacerbates an already charged atmosphere.
These developments also have a significant influence on the nature of blasphemy accusations. In an interview with the blog Wired, Usama Khilji, also from the nonprofit Bolo Bhi, described the emergence of new forms of allegations involving blasphemy online. Accusations surface, for example, in the course of religious minorities and members of sectarian groups arguing about their own religion online. Accusations have also been made possible through fake social media accounts set up to frame (political or personal) opponents. In addition, the simple “liking” of certain online posts that may be considered sacrilegious can lead to accusations of blasphemy.13 This list is not exhaustive, and as I will show, new kinds of accusations have been made possible through sociotechnological developments. A few examples will help to clarify this point.
In June 2017, Taimur Raza became the first person in Pakistan sentenced to death based on an accusation of committing blasphemy online. Raza, a 31-year-old man from a lower middle-class Shia family, was arrested in 2016 and later charged with blasphemy in an antiterrorism court in Bahawalpur.14 Raza had engaged in a sectarian debate on Facebook with, what became later known, an agent of an antiterrorism force aiming to curb online blasphemy. Raza was arrested at a bus stop in Bahawalpur. According to the police, blasphemous material and clips featuring hate speech against the Deobandis, a religious sect in Pakistan, were found on his phone.15 The verdict in The State vs Taimur Raza (2017; Antiterrorism Court, Bahawalpur) states that “this is a purely case of technical and scientific evidence as the accused mobile phone and Face-book [sic] for spreading derogatory remarks about the Holy Prophet Hazrat Mohammad (PBUH) . . . and injured the feelings of true Muslims” (under bullet 9). Raza was charged with, among other things, violating 298-A and 295-C of the PPC and awaits execution by hanging.
On April 13, 2017, a 23-year-old a journalism student, Mashal Khan, was killed by an angry mob on a university campus after he had been accused of spreading blasphemous content on social media. The university administration had put an announcement online that three students were under investigation for blasphemy.16 Even though the accusations were not proven, a mob consisting of students and university staff attacked Khan in his room in the students’ dormitory. The men started beating him with fists and wooden planks. One of them drew a gun and shot him in the chest and in the head. After the shots, the group temporarily dispersed but then reassembled to beat Khan’s lifeless body. Some reports say that his corpse was thrown off a balcony from the second floor of the university building.17 Long after his death, students and university staff kept mishandling Khan’s body with the police standing by, not intervening.18 The murder was filmed on a mobile phone, which later led to the arrest of sixty-one people suspected of being involved.19 In an interview with one of the suspects, the BBC reported that the students initially had no intention of killing Mashal Khan but rather wanted to warn him. The man who shot Khan, however, stated that he had no regrets and believed that Khan deserved to die.20 A later report by the Joint Investigation Team revealed that the content had been posted in Khan’s name by the Pakhtun Students Federation, a secular student group, as a way to get rid of him.21 Apparently, the murder was semi-orchestrated to silence Khan’s popular criticism of corruption at Mardan University.22 An antiterrorism court in Haripur sentenced the shooter to death and five other people to life in prison. Twenty-five other participants were given jail sentences.23
In May 2017, a Hindu man, Prakash Kumar, from the city of Hub, Baluchistan, was accused of blasphemy.24 Different versions of the events were reported; however, all agree that during the tumultuous riots that followed, a ten-year-old boy was killed.25 The following version was provided by Kumar, who was understandably reluctant to talk about this issue and only agreed to be interviewed after an influential Hindu nongovernmental organization intervened on my behalf. The following is an excerpt of a phone conversation I had with him in March 2019:
Somebody sent me the image of the Kaaba to my phone. I knew that the picture was there, but I am not an idiot and would never share this with anyone. Someone framed me. Someone took my phone and said he wanted to make a call. He shared the picture of the Kaaba over WhatsApp. It was shared to all of my contacts, more than a hundred people. After that people started to call and asked me if I am a Muslim. I told them that I am not. So, they asked why I would share such an image if I am not a Muslim. They started to blackmail me. They asked for money and threatened me. I told them that I have no money to pay. Then a group of Muslims came and burned all the things in my shop. Everything I had is destroyed, my work, my shop, my house, everything is destroyed. There were no Mullahs involved in this incident. These were mainly young people. I told them, even if I had shared this picture then it would be OK, this is not a sin. We asked twenty-five or thirty lawyers to help, but they all turned us down.
They put me into jail for my own safety, so that the issue would cool down. Life in jail was good. People really took care of me. They gave me food, and no one harmed me. I was in my cell just as if I would be living at home in my own room. I was not a prisoner. I also got a guy who helped me with washing my clothes, doing the dishes, and with cleaning. They changed him all eight to ten days so that he would not come to know what the problem is. I stayed in jail for fourteen months and now live in a different village. What happened to me happened. I have no complaints with the people who did that. I have only problems with my own community. Because when I came out of jail, nobody wanted to have anything to do with me or gave me any support for my children or for me to start a new life. I have a lot of complaints about my own community.
This case is unique because it circles around the sharing of an image that, in itself, is not considered sacrilegious but, on the contrary, shows one of the holiest sites in Islam. The fact that the image of the Kaaba had been distributed by a non-Muslim was used to accuse Kumar of blasphemy.26
Such case studies are only a glimpse into the myriad ramifications of what happens when blasphemy accusations go online. In a June 2019 conversation with Asad Jamal, a Lahore-based lawyer who represents people charged with blasphemy, he pointed out that we currently lack the empirical data to completely understand the link between the digitalization of Pakistan’s daily life, the government’s attempts to actively persecute online blasphemy, and the rising number of online blasphemy accusations. However, cases such as those described, he states, are indications that stricter regulations of online speech have thus far not curbed incidents of (alleged) blasphemy but rather provide accusers with new planes for polarization.
Extreme Speech Acts
How can we theorize public accusations of blasphemy—both online and offline—on the basis of the significant impact they frequently have on the life of the accused person? What form of speech is a blasphemy accusation in Pakistan when a mere allegation may have life-threatening consequences? In an attempt to answer these questions, I will begin by engaging with the framework of extreme speech (Udupa and Pohjonen 2019). With the help of John L. Austin (1975) and Stanley Cavell (2006), I will argue that the concept of extreme speech may be differentiated by analyzing its performative character. Accusations of blasphemy are a special form of extreme speech acts, set apart by their illocutionary force and their perlocutionary effect.
Pohjonen and Udupa (2019) describe extreme speech as a range of practices marked mainly by three characteristics. First, they emphasize the concept’s contextuality, which aims at understanding “the cultural variations of speech acts.” In other words, what may count as an extreme utterance in one context may not trigger any kind of reaction in another. Pohjonen and Udupa’s second point pertains particularly to processes triggered through “sociotechnological” developments. While not all extreme speech is articulated online (Hervik, chap. 8), new forms of digital communication have encouraged the production of online vitriol. Third, they establish a link between extreme speech and violence. Forms of violence incited by extreme speech may be both exclusionary and emancipatory, depending on the politics involved.
The concept of extreme speech covers many of the things that matter when we speak about blasphemy accusations in this context. First, they are highly contextual and contingent on Pakistan’s particular history. Second, as we have seen, digitalization processes have provided new planes for accusations. Finally, they are linked to (often extreme) forms of violence. In short, accusations of blasphemy form an incitement to violence (state and vigilante violence) that is highly specific to Pakistani mass publics and has also moved recently to online spaces.
There is more to be said about what such accusations do when they are uttered in public. Certain accusations are not only a form of judgment but also force the accused person into a new reality. As we have seen, blasphemy is, first and foremost, conceived by the PPC as a severe transgression that is punishable by death. Although the Pakistani state has never executed anyone for blasphemy so far, public accusations often produce conditions with life-threatening consequences. Not every accusation will automatically lead to such extremes, but publicized under the right conditions, these accusatory speech acts have a strong force and uncontrollable effects. To analyze the power of such speech acts and the subjectivities they enunciate, I turn to the work of Austin (1975) and Cavell (2006).
Force and Effect: Illocutionary and Perlocutionary Speech Acts
In How to Do Things with Words, Austin (1975) shows how uttering certain sentences in particular environments can also mean to do them.27 Austin separates the locutionary, the illocutionary, and the perlocutionary speech acts. He writes, “We distinguished the locutionary act . . . which has a meaning; the illocutionary act which has a certain force in saying something; the perlocutionary act which is the achieving of certain effects by saying something” (Austin 1975, 120, emphasis in the original). While the locutionary act describes any semiotic plane and, thus, does not need to discern any further, the conceptualization of the illocutionary and the perlocutionary speech acts is important. We will look at illocution first.
For Austin (1975), illocutionary speech acts have the force to perform what they describe. One of Austin’s most famous examples in this regard is the “I do” when uttered during a marriage ceremony. In this instance, the sentence is not a description of what is happening (this would be the locutionary act) but rather does what it describes. For the performance to be successful, such speech acts need certain conditions. For a marriage ceremony—to stay with the initial example—a proper location, an authority with the power to wed someone, a few witnesses, and so forth are necessary. This also means that not all utterances evoke their performative power. Imagine, for example, the bride or the groom suddenly panicking after hearing their partner’s “I do” and leaving the church or registry. In such a situation, the wedding has not been performed and the performative potential of the “I do” is ineffective. Utterances need certain conventions to produce their illocutionary force (Butler 1997).
In contrast, the perlocutionary act produces effects that do not follow from the speech act’s illocutionary force. They are marked by the absence of any convention and are “not illocutionary in force and not meant to inform an addressee of something” (Norval 2009, 169). Nevertheless, perlocutionary speech acts have “consequential effects on the feelings, thoughts, and actions of others” (Austin 1975, 101). It is important to note that the distinction between the two speech acts also proceeds on a temporal axis. While the illocutionary produces simultaneously as it utters, the perlocution triggers—often uncontrollable—consequences that follow after the enunciation (Butler 1997, 17).
To differentiate between successful and unsuccessful performative speech acts, Austin (1975) introduces the distinction of “happy” and “unhappy” performatives. For illocutionary speech acts to be “happy” and obtain a certain force, they ought to peruse an “accepted conventional procedure . . . that includes the uttering of certain words by certain persons in certain circumstances” (Austin 1975, 14–15). Because there are no conventions for happy perlocutionaries, their conditions to produce effects are redefined in each and every speech act. Such distinctions invite us to think about the conditions that produce the force and effect of blasphemy accusations in today’s Pakistan.
Force and Effect of Blasphemy Accusations
As we have seen, accusations of blasphemy may have significant consequences for the accused person, including stigmatization, social expulsion, loss of wealth, imprisonment, necessary hiding or flight, and—at the most extreme—assassination. In such cases, to speak (to accuse) is to do something. This shows that we are in the realm of performative utterances. Accusations have both illocutionary forces and perlocutionary effects. While the illocutionary describes the fact that accusing someone of blasphemy is simultaneous to constituting the addressee as a blasphemer, often with little chance of redemption, the perlocutionary points at the accusation’s uncontrollable effects. Similar to Austin (1975) and Cavell (2006), we can now think of the conditions that need to apply for blasphemy accusations to be “happy” extreme speech acts.
Blasphemy accusations work with and through power structures that help to enact what they signify. Once an accusation is uttered, it is difficult for the accused person to redeem themselves of such an allegation. As we have seen, this illocutionary force builds on Pakistan’s Islamization period during and after the time of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, which produced moral economies circling around the honor of the Prophet Mohammad. Scholars have already pointed toward the history of this valorization and how sectarian conflicts about the ontological status of the Prophet inform this field (Gugler 2015; Blom 2008; Philippon 2014). Certain “hagiohistoric” media also add to a charged atmosphere in which accusations of blasphemy irredeemably stick to the accused person (Schaflechner 2019). Finally, the PTA’s text messages transfer the authority to notice and call out blasphemy to its citizens and narrow the space of negation for those accused. Although later court decisions may judge the actual blasphemy—and often declare the defendant innocent—public accusations often do not leave much space for advice. The case of Kumar shows how the mere sharing of an image of the Kaaba by a non-Muslim invited the label of “blasphemer” and unleashed uncontrollable effects, including the accused person’s loss of wealth, necessary protective custody, and flight to another village, as well as the death of a ten-year-old child.
The illocutionary force builds on conventions. Although traditional verdictive speech acts are produced in the court of law, the force of the blasphemy accusations emerges from the court of public opinion. A “happy” accusation is, therefore, a public accusation or an accusation that, in the words of William Mazzarella (2013), has crossed over the “open edge of mass publicity.” The uncontrollable perlocutionary effects are similarly produced on the basis of the accusation’s visibility, mediatization, and successful insertion into the public sphere. The larger the audience, the more uncontrollable the accusations become, often gaining the potential to irretrievably change the accused person’s life. This was shown in the interview of one of the perpetrators in Mashal Khan’s murder, who stated that initially he intended only to scare Khan. This link between force, effect, and visibility reveals the importance of studying the media practices leading to blasphemy accusations.
Both the illocutionary force and the perlocutionary effects of accusations are supported by a lack of protest against such (mis)uses of the blasphemy laws. In other words, accusations also gain their illocutionary force when accusations are not openly opposed. Imagine someone using a racial slur on a train. The bystanding passengers’ silence provides weight to this utterance and the absence of protest sanctions the term (Butler 1997). The assassination of public figures opposing the misuse of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan—such as Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab, or Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s former minority minister—silenced opposing voices speaking out against arbitrary accusations and their effects. This dynamic has exacerbated an atmosphere in which accusations of blasphemy flourish.
The accusations’ illocutionary force is also linked to an absence of blasphemy’s citationality (its ability to be quoted in different contexts). As some of the case studies have demonstrated, blasphemy does not become less blasphemous when it is used as a citation. As we have seen in the case of Salamat Masih and Another v. the State, the witnesses were not able to repeat the actual crime without committing blasphemy in the act. Although Butler (1997) emphasizes that a large variety of examples show counterappropriation of derogatory or transgressive speech—for example, terms such as queer, nigger, or, more recently, deplorable, used by Hillary Clinton for Trump supporters—blasphemy accusations in Pakistan cannot be appropriated. In other words, there is no gap between the original context and the effect of the speech act. This effect is exacerbated by the absence of the intent requirement in section 295-C of the PPC. Because blasphemy does not lose its transgressive impact when it travels through certain contexts, accusations of blasphemy also do not need to be context sensitive. This was revealed in the case of Dr. Younas Shaikh, among others.
Finally, the accuser needs to know about the conventions around blasphemy in Pakistan. In other words, he or she has to understand that blasphemy is a transgression of the norm. We need to assume that an accusation is done with the purpose of pointing out a transgression or even with the intention of putting the allegation’s uncontrollable perlocutionary effects into motion. This means that although there are unintentional acts of blasphemy, there are no unintentional accusations of blasphemy.
Social media has helped many marginalized communities in Pakistan make their voices and their demands heard. Digital communication has, however, brought new challenges for engaging with Pakistan’s contentious blasphemy laws. The absence of an intention clause, in particular, has disconnected allegedly transgressive speech from its context. The free flow and acceleration of videos, images, and texts with little or no context on the internet renders different forms of denunciation possible and permits new ways of charging people with blasphemy. Rumors were often sufficient for vigilantism before the advent of social media, but the ease with which fake accounts can be set up and used to besmirch people makes accusations of blasphemy especially easy online.
In this chapter, I tried to understand such blasphemy accusations as an extreme speech act with illocutionary forces and perlocutionary effects. In the same way as the sentence “I do” in Austin’s (1975) famous example is not used as a description but actually performs something, accusations of blasphemy in Pakistan are not simply descriptions of a certain state of being but rather a performative act producing a new reality for the accused person. Force and effects of such accusations depend on a large variety of conditions, including an environment in which the honor of the Prophet is at the center of religious and political debates, the accusation’s visibility, the (increasing) absence of voices protesting arbitrary accusations, the fact that blasphemy is dislocated from its context, and the intention of the accuser. Accusations of blasphemy constitute a special kind of extreme speech act that needs to be separated into illocutionary force and perlocutionary effect. Through the case studies provided, we see that digital communication often exacerbates the force and effect of blasphemy accusations.
1. This number needs to be brought into context regarding the comparatively small number of non-Muslims in the Islamic Republic. Although it is extremely difficult to rely on such demographic numbers, recent studies claim that only around 3% of Pakistan’s population falls into the category of “non-Muslims” (Ispahani 2017, 6).
4. See the following anonymous tweet: “A plane crash and the wrath of the God, Junaid Blasphemer, was not being punished by the Government, So now my Allah has killed him in a plane crash” [sic] taken from a presentation given by Bilal Rana (PhD student at the University of Erfurt at the 2. Mitteldeutscher Südasientag, June 2017).
6. Even though the court’s decision is binding, the clause was never changed in the PPC (Siddique and Hayat 2008, 379).
11. Text message from May 9, 2017. While this particular link (info.pta.gov.pk) was no longer accessible in June 2020, the site for complaints is still available at https://www.pta.gov.pk/en/report-blasphemous-url See also: https://tribune.com.pk/story/1406374/millions-pakistanis-receive-blasphemy-warning-texts/.
14. Antiterrorism courts were established in 1997 under the Sharif government.
25. https://www.samaa.tv/news/2017/05/angry-mob-clashes-with-police-demands-custody-of-blasphemy-accused/ also: https://thewire.in/external-affairs/lynching-arrest-minority-community-members-revive-debate-pakistan-blasphemy-law also: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/04/10-year-old-boy-killed-attempted-blasphemy-lynching-pakistan.
26. I am conscious that different versions exist about what actually constituted the transgressive act. Because I was able to interview one of the people involved, I decided to foreground his account instead of the version reported in the news media.
27. One of his famous examples is the phrase “I do,” as uttered during a wedding ceremony. Pronounced in the right environment, the sentence performs the action it describes and thus contracts a marriage (Austin 1975, 6).
Author note: All websites accessed in June 2020.
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