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UBC Theses and Dissertations

To kill or not to kill? : a discursive analysis of colonial and Islamic influences on blasphemy legislation in postcolonial Pakistan Nahri, Syed Ahmed Faisal


At the time of independence, Pakistan inherited certain blasphemy laws along with the Indian Penal Code instituted by the British in 1860. After independence, additional blasphemy laws were introduced under a military regime in the 1980s. The postcolonial laws mirrored the colonial blasphemy legislation in important ways, but also differed significantly. Like their colonial precursors, the postcolonial blasphemy laws are (a) capacious in terms of what constitutes the offense and (b) require complainants to demonstrate that their “feelings” have been injured, which entails incitement of religious passion and violence that does not subside in favor of the judicial process. The postcolonial laws were designed moreover to appease certain religious political actors and a segment of the population. By means of these laws, an autocratic regime coopted and legitimized social violence in exchange for legitimacy. In the years following their legislation, these laws have been used to punish dissent and target members of minority communities. The laws have engendered unhealthy social mobilization and vigilante justice. The present work investigates colonial, Islamic traditional and imperial, and contemporary discursive influences that have shaped the blasphemy laws instituted in the 1980s. The characterization of the discursive and political climate in contemporary Pakistan is based on analysis of (a) interviews and video statements appearing on news and social media, and (b) semi-scholarly articles appearing in journals of religiopolitical organizations. The discussion of Islamic traditional and imperial influences is based on an examination of the Qur’an and important Islamic juristic texts on the subject. The impressions concerning the colonial legacy derive mostly from secondary scholarly works. Based on engagement with numerous primary and secondary sources in Arabic, English and Urdu, it is contended that the blasphemy laws introduced in Pakistan in the 1980s mirror certain features of precursor colonial laws, but also bear distinctive features that issue from a postcolonial Islamic discursive matrix consisting of a tide of Salafism that began in the 1970s, preoccupation with a narrow set of moral concerns and top-down approach to Islamic reform, and the desire to antagonize perceived adversaries of Islam and Pakistan.

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