Taimoor Reza, a 30-year old Pakistani man from the Punjab region, has been sentenced to death by a Pakstani court for “blasphemous” posts on social media.
Reza, part of the country’s Shiite Muslim minority, was arrested in 2016 for posting “derogatory content about Sunni Muslim religious leaders and the wives of the Prophet Mohammed on Facebook,” according to the Associated Press.
Pakistan, despite being a parliamentary democracy, is governed by Islamic Sharia law. Anyone found guilty of insulting religious leaders or Islam can receive the death sentence, although no-one has ever been executed under the law.
However, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who leads a party made up of conservative and Islamist politicians, recently announced a nationwide crackdown on internet “blasphemy.” Sharif has ordered his country’s authorities to seek to scrub social media of “blasphemous” content by Pakistanis, as well as track down and arrest those responsible for posting the content.
Facebook has reportedly complied with Pakistan’s demands to censor “blasphemy” within the country. According to Pakistani government officials, “almost 85 percent” of “blasphemous” material on Facebook had been taken down at the request of the government.
Facebook – which claims to be “founded” on “principles of free expression,” dispatched a delegation to Pakistan to address the government’s demand for religious censorship in March this year.
The government has also demanded that social networks help them identify Pakistanis around the world who post allegedly “blasphemous” content.
In Pakistan, pressure to execute “blasphemers” frequently comes from the grassroots of society, not just from the government. In 2011, a liberal governor of Punjab and critic of the country’s blasphemy laws was shot dead by an Islamist. When the assassin was himself sentenced to death, ordinary Pakistani citizens staged protests in his defence. After his execution, more than 100,000 Pakistanis attended his funeral.
Ordinary Muslims in Pakistan have also agitated for the execution of Ayaz Nizami, another citizen recently arrested for “blasphemy.” Pakistanis on Twitter trended the hashtag “#HangAyazNizami” in March this year.
Pakistan does not merely have a problem of Sharia law and an Islamist government — it also has the problem of a radicalized population.