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While the Coronavirus impacts universities, Pakistan’s old blasphemy law continues to be a historic threat to researchers and professors

In Pakistan, blasphemy laws imply a potential death sentence for anyone who insults Islam…and have increasingly been used as a justification for the killing or arrest of professors for many years now. The laws date from 1860 and were expanded in 1927, with Pakistan inheriting them after its separation from India. And, due to the pressure on judges, they often, If not always, convict accused blasphemers to avoid the risk of being themselves charged with the offense. Pakistan has the world’s second strictest blasphemy laws after Iran, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.


Many cases have been reported over the years. To mention just a few:

  • University professor Junaid Hafeez was sentenced to death this past December upon accusations of him insulting the Prophet Mohammed on Facebook and his lawyer was later murdered.
  • In March 2019, a student killed his professor on campus alleging blasphemy , Professor Khalid Hameed was, post mortem, accused of having committed blasphemy by planning a reception for new students involving the mixing of both genders.

Being acquitted (such as Wajih-ul-hassan after 18 years on death row) doesn’t help much either since the presumption goes to guilt in the public’s mind and people acquitted still have to live in hiding.

Abdul Khaliq Nadeem, president of Punjab Professors and Lecturers Association (PPLA), told University World News: "Academic freedom and protection is our right and we have staged many protests in the past to demand our rights. We are teachers and there might be a difference of opinion but that does not warrant killing any person. We demand justice; the murderer of the Bahawalpur professor must be made an example of so that such incidents do not take place in future."

And when it isn’t murder or assault, professors still risk arrest by authorities on the basis of this law : Sajid Soomro was arrested on charges of blasphemy in June 2020 after police officers and commandos raided his home. Colleagues defended him, arguing he had only ever advocated for equal rights between genders, however, Arfana Mallah a colleague at the University of Sindh in Jamshoro received murder threats and accusations of blasphemy after defending the professor.

“The Progressive Academics’ Collective, a body representing Pakistani educationists, had voiced its concern for the safety of Mallah and Soomro :

This is just the latest in an ongoing smear campaign against her and other activists for the past several months. Both cases are extremely troubling and are part of a wider campaign to silence critical voices within academia. We stand in solidarity with both professors,” the group said in a statement on June 11 (...) Both cases are part of a wider trend to use the charge of blasphemy as a political weapon to silence pro-people and critical voices, as was the case with the late Mashal Khan and with Junaid Hafeez, who is still languishing in prison.”

The Higher Education Commission (HEC) wrote a letter to all universities in September 2017 urging universities' management to institute measures to combat the growth of radicalisation on campuses. Radicalisation, coupled with blasphemy laws, is making an old issue even worse and the danger has been increasing in the recent years.