On December 21, Junaid Hafeez, a Pakistani academic, was sentenced to “be hanged by neck till his death” for blasphemy.
After returning to Pakistan from Mississippi, where he was a Fulbright scholar, Hafeez wanted to bring back his passion for literature and social justice to his students. Hafeez was charged with blasphemy after inviting and teaching the works of women’s rights activists; after one lecture, with a female novelist, he was accused of having made blasphemous remarks. This sparked protests by religiously-conservative students, leading the authorities to claim that he had defiled the Prophet Muhammad on social-media.
Hafeez was arrested in 2013 and has been held in solitary confinement ever since. His lawyer, Rashid Rehman, was murdered in his chambers in 2014 for taking up the case.
Hafeez and I are both alumni of the Fulbright program. As a fellow Fulbrighter, his case hit close to home. Days before I learned of his death sentence, I had published a piece on blasphemy in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s penal code prescribes death to “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).” Since the introduction of the death penalty for blasphemy in the late 1980s, there have been approximately 1500 blasphemy charges. A blasphemy accusation in Pakistan is equivalent to a death sentence, as extremist mobs take it upon themselves to carry out the law. Lawyers, judges and politicians who criticize the law face death threats and murder. The governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was murdered in 2011 by his bodyguard for speaking out against the law.
Asia Bibi, a woman who spent ten years on death row before being acquitted in 2018, galvanized the international community to push for her release. This social outcry put pressure on the Pakistani Supreme Court, which acquitted her at serious risk to themselves. Asia Bibi herself has been forced into exile.
While the Bibi acquittal was a step in the right direction, Hafeez’s conviction shows that there is still a long way to go. His case will undoubtedly be appealed, but he risks assassination between now and then, as do those associated with him. There is no guarantee that his conviction will be overturned.
It is imperative that the global community speak out against this appalling human rights abuse. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are a weapon that can be used against anyone at any time. The laws prevent individuals from speaking out not only against religion, but also on issues related to women’s rights, curtailing challenges to Pakistan’s conservative status quo and silencing women’s rights campaigners, human rights activists, journalists, academics and everyday citizens. While religious minorities, political dissidents, free thinkers and intellectuals are frequently targeted, the most common victims of the laws are Muslims themselves.
Pakistan has the largest Fulbright program in the world and thus, one of the largest alumni networks. While many Pakistanis have spoken out on social media about Hafeez’s case, at great personal risk, the vast majority cannot. If they do, they could face his death sentence. As an international community, we must stand with the brave Pakistanis calling for justice, and be the voices for those who remain silenced.