Pakistan elects former cricketer, supporter of blasphemy laws

Tehreek-e-Insaf Chairman Imarn Khan. Credit: Awais Khan_Shutterstock
Tehreek-e-Insaf Chairman Imarn Khan. Credit: Awais Khan_Shutterstock

.- Imran Khan has emerged as the victor in a general election held in Pakistan Wednesday, July 25. The professional cricket player-turned-politician has previously voiced support for the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.

While votes are still being tallied in some areas, Khan’s centrist Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) have won 115 seats so far, becoming the largest party in the National Assembly.

Khan, who ran as a populist reforming candidate, has publicly supported laws imposing strict penalties for blasphemy against Islam – including desecrating a Quran or insulting Mohammed. Penalties for insulting Islam’s chief prophet include fines, prison, and even the death penalty.

While no one has been formally executed for the crime in Pakistan, mob violence and killings have accompanied public accusations of blasphemy. This includes the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the Muslim governor of the Punjab province and a critic of the blasphemy laws, and Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic and Pakistan’s only Christian cabinet member. Bhatti's cause for beatification was opened by the Diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi in 2016.

In his 2011 autobiography, Khan spoke out against a lack of government action against religious leaders who used the issue of blasphemy “arguably [to] incite murder.”

Coming just weeks before the election, his public backing for the controversial laws was seen by many observers as a concession to hardliners in the country ahead of the vote.

Parties running on an explicitly anti-blasphemy platform did poorly at the polls, with Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, which campaigns under the rallying cry “Death to Blasphemers” failing to win a single seat, despite a garnering a large following in the province of Punjab.

As CNA has previous reported, accusations of blasphemy are disproportionately leveled against religious minorities, and the laws are seen as a vehicle for religious intolerance or persecution.  While Pakistan is 97 percent Muslim, 14 percent of blasphemy cases are brought against non-Muslims.

Cardinal Joseph Coutts, Archbishop of Karachi, has spoken about the religious climate in Pakistan, which he says is getting more dangerous for Christians. In an interview with CNA in June, he raised the risks increasing posed by radicalization and foreign influences.

While saying that the majority of Pakistani Muslims are moderate and support democracy, he noted that some extremists do not.

“[They] don't accept democracy, they don't accept the international declaration of human rights, they say it's not Islamic.”

While saying that Islamic hard-liners are a small minority, Coutts cautioned that they are now becoming a more prominent force in the life of the country.

“We’ve always had these kinds of people on the fringes, but they weren't dominant,” he added. “Now they are becoming more assertive.”

While he will need to form a coalition to formally take power, Khan is widely expected to become Prime Minister. He has pledged to create 10 million new jobs in five years and promised in his acceptance speech to prioritize the rule of law and end institutional discrimination.

"We will not do any kind of political victimizing. We will establish the supremacy of the law; whoever violates the law, we will act against them.

"We will set an example of how the law is the same for everyone. If the West is ahead of us today, it is because their laws are not discriminatory; this will be our biggest guiding principle.”

Although pledging to end corruption, the victory comes with allegations of vote-rigging. Every party apart from Khan’s Movement for Justice have complained about the way the vote was conducted. European Union observers characterized the campaign as having a “lack of equality” among the parties.

Despite this, the second largest party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), has accepted the result. Hamza Shahbaz Sharif, a senior party official said that despite "reservations" over the way the election was held, they were accepting the result to "strengthen democracy in the country".

"Even if democracy is flawed,” he said, “its solution is more democracy, and then more democracy."

If Khan becomes Prime Minister, it will be only the second democratic transition of power in Pakistan’s history.

Tags: Blasphemy Laws, Pakistan, Joseph Coutts, Imran Kan