Taimoor Raza was just another young man listening to his music too loudly on the bus.
It turns out, in Pakistan, that sort of thing can get a person the death penalty.
On April 5, Raza was arrested at a bus stop after fellow riders complained his music was blasphemous. A police search of his phone turned up yet more questionable material on Facebook, which was then turned over to a series of Pakistani Islamic studies professors. It included images and chats via Facebook Messenger.
Normally, one might get off with a ticket or a strongly worded warning for bothering people on the bus with offensive music. Instead, Raza was arrested, tried, and now is awaiting death, after the professors found him to have committed the capital offense of blasphemy.
Blasphemy laws are relatively new in the Muslim world, especially in Pakistan, where they were introduced during a military dictatorship in the 1980s. But in the age of social media, they are being used increasingly to silence regime critics, batter opposition parties, and, yes, get people to stop sharing posts on Facebook others don’t want to see.
Twitter reacted with horror, with users calling out Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg for how his platform was used by Pakistan’s courts. These critics included people within Pakistan, where the blasphemy laws are seen as oppressive relics of a bygone era, popular only with those who sympathize with terror groups like the Taliban and ISIS.
Other users drew connections between the blasphemy laws and the anti-cartoons protests of years past when protestors throughout the Muslim world demanded that Western newspapers stop publishing images of the Prophet Mohammed. Some of the backlash from that included the terrorist murders at Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine.
Some users pointed out that Facebook doesn’t have the same incentives to do anything about the verdict since to challenge the Pakistani government might get the company banned.
It hasn’t just been Westerners that abhorred the verdict. Even al-Jazeera, based in Qatar, which also has strict blasphemy laws on its books, has run articles critical of Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws. While Pakistan’s laws are regularly used and abused, Qatar has not had a blasphemy case in recent memory.
Additionally, Imam Tawhidi sought to raise awareness and draw attention to the case, calling on Mr. Zuckerberg to respond to the verdict and share the al-Jazeera article on it. Tawhidi is an Australian-based imam whose profile states, “One day the news will say the Imam of Peace was shot dead. Probably even slaughtered.”
Considering how many Pakistani journalists and students have been caught up in these laws or in religion-based honor killings, he might be right.
[Featured image by K.M. Chaudary/AP Images]