Asia Bibi woke up earlier than usual that day. A farm worker, she was part of a falsa berry harvest taking place outside her village. It was the morning of June 14, 2009, a hot Sunday in Ittan Wali, close to Nankana Sahib in Pakistan’s Punjab province. Bibi left her husband and daughters sleeping and made her way to the fields to pick fruit. By the time she arrived, fifteen other women were already there, their backs arched in the bushes.

Bibi was handed a bucket to fill with berries. She would get 250 rupees ($1.2 in today’s terms) in return, money that would afford her family two kilos of flour, enough to make chapatis for a whole week. She noticed that her bucket was larger than the other women’s and wondered if it was meant to serve as a reminder that she was Christian, that she would have to work harder to get paid the same amount as the Muslim women beside her.

Pakistani Christians make up less than 2 percent of the country’s population, and many live in poverty. The Dalit Hindu ancestors of several of them were converted to Christianity by British missionaries under colonial rule, and the stigma of being “low caste” and “untouchable” stuck on in post-Partition Pakistan. The community is frequently subjected to discrimination and caste-based oppression. With few opportunities available, many Pakistani Christians are pushed into sanitation jobs. About 80 percent of the country’s sanitation workers are Christian, exposed to poor and at times deadly working environments. Others earn low wages in arduous conditions, like Bibi and her husband, Ashiq, who was employed in brickwork.

Before Bibi could finish filling up her bucket and get her day’s earnings, a spat broke out between her and the other women over a cup of water. While different versions of this argument later emerged, in her memoir—written with the French journalist Anne-Isabelle Tollet, while Bibi was still in prison, and first published in 2012 in the UK—Bibi narrates that, parched from working in the heat, it was when she grabbed an old metal cup and poured herself some water and was about to offer it to someone beside her that the altercation started. One of the women accused her, as a Christian, of having dirtied not only the cup by drinking from it but also the water in the well by dipping the cup back in several times. What ensued was a heated exchange between her and the other women over who was better, Jesus or the Prophet Muhammad, and eventually culminated in Bibi being accused of insulting the latter. When she returned to work a few days later, a charged mob, who had heard that she had allegedly insulted the Prophet, gathered around her, chanting, “Death! Death to the Christian!” She was beaten, spat upon, and thrown into prison. In 2010, Asia Bibi became the first woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy under section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code for contempt of the Prophet Muhammad.

Section 295-C is part of chapter XV (“Of Offences Relating to Religion”) of the Pakistan Penal Code and outlines blasphemy provisions, criminalizing insults or derogatory remarks of a religious nature. Other provisions include defiling or desecrating the Quran (295-B) and using derogatory remarks in regard to Muslim holy personages (298-A).

In the days that followed, Punjab’s governor, Salman Taseer, advocated for a presidential pardon for her on humanitarian grounds. Soon, though, extremist clerics accused him of blasphemy as well. Branded as an apostate for supporting a “blasphemer,” in early 2011, Taseer was shot twenty-seven times with an AK-47 assault rifle and killed by one of his bodyguards. Within two months, Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal minister for minority affairs and the only Christian in the Pakistani cabinet, was also shot dead by armed men in Islamabad. Bhatti had spoken out against the misuse of the blasphemy law. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for his death. According to an Al Jazeera report, pamphlets found at the site of his killing warned that those opposing the law would face the same fate, stifling criticism in the country.

For the next eight years, Bibi remained on death row. Despite the international spotlight the assassinations brought to her case, it was only in 2018 that she was acquitted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. But her release was met with countrywide violent protests, forcing her into hiding. For months, she remained in protective custody, confined to a room in a secret location, with no clarity on when she could leave. Her eventual exit from the country was reportedly secured through mediation by international human rights watchdogs and the European Union. In 2019, she fled to Canada, where she was granted asylum.

Bibi’s was an exceptional case. Back in Pakistan, many others continue to languish in jails or are violently targeted over blasphemy allegations. But this violence against minorities isn’t restricted to Pakistan alone. Emerging in different forms and intensities, from India, Kashmir, and Palestine to the UK and the US, there are chilling parallels in the persecution, scapegoating, and otherization of vulnerable communities. With populist leaders either at the helm or gaining clout, the world we live in is rife with state-sanctioned violence that is too often legitimated by either invoking laws or morality or by playing on majoritarian fears in the name of security.

Burnt pages of a school book lie in the midst of shards of broken utensils and charred clothing. A black upside-down slipper, deflated water bottles, and pieces of broken furniture are sprawled beside them. On some of the torn charcoaled pages, one can still make out the handwriting. Urdu letters written in neat lines by a child. The letter ق (quaaf), the letter ل (lam). Colourful English letters—U, V, W, X, Y, Z—printed on a notebook emerge from behind, the edges scorched. Where we stand, the floor tiles are still visible, but other parts of the house are full of ash, the walls covered in soot.

Zara (her name has been changed to protect her identity), a young woman, lives in this house in Jaranwala, located in Faisalabad tehsil, Punjab, Pakistan. A mother of three, she tells me she was asleep when she heard commotion outside. “It was around 6 a.m., and people were yelling: run away, run away, run away. We couldn’t understand what was happening. There was absolute panic everywhere. We ran outside without our shoes, without a dupatta, just in the clothes we were wearing,” she says, holding up her printed kameez. “We ran to save our lives.”

Around 5 a.m. on August 16, 2023, a woman a few doors from Zara’s house claimed to have found the pages of a desecrated Quran affixed to a gas meter outside her house. Two Christian brothers, residents of the same locality, were accused of the act. It was alleged that their names, addresses, and other identifying details were found next to the defiled pages. By 6:30 a.m., local leaders of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, a far-right religious party that draws its ideological support from its backing of Pakistan’s blasphemy law, alongside several other people, asked the police to register a case. Meanwhile, locals used mosque loudspeakers to announce that blasphemy had been committed. Zara was sleeping with her children on the roof of her house, a common practice to escape the heat in the humid summer months, when she heard the commotion.

Soon, according to a fact-finding report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, thousands of men gathered in response to the accusations of blasphemy blaring from the loudspeakers, and by the end of the day, at least twenty-four churches and several dozen smaller chapels and houses in eleven localities of Jaranwala were torched and looted. Even after the senior superintendent of police operations arrived and, a few hours later, reinforcements were called in to support the local police, the crowds continued to thicken and were not dispersed until late evening. Alongside churches, several pastors’ homes and over eighty houses were burnt.

By the time I get to Jaranwala, where over 5,000 Christians are said to reside, seven days have passed since the mob descended on the town. Zara and her family have returned home after hiding at her sister-in-law’s house in Lahore for three days. We stand in the rubble piled at our feet at the entrance of her small home. She tells me her husband, who is employed as a cleaner, had already left home for work by the time chaos ensued that day. When he saw people running and heard what had happened, he went straight home. “He told us to leave everything, to just run.” She tells me that when they finally returned, their daughter, who clings to her in silence as we speak, cried on seeing her school bag and books burnt. “How will I go to school now?” she asked.

Others tell a similar story. Amir (name changed), a young man who lives a few houses from Zara’s, also had his home burnt and belongings looted. He was at the factory where he was employed as a cleaner when he got a call from his sister. “She said someone had desecrated the Quran and everyone in the neighbourhood had run away. They [the mob] had given a warning that we had fifteen minutes to escape or they’d burn us. I told [my sisters] to leave everything and just flee.” But once people left their homes, there weren’t many safe places to turn to. Bus drivers refused to board Christians, afraid that their vehicles may be torched too. Many hid in the fields. Some with their newborn children.

As Amir and I speak, I notice writing on the walls behind us. “I love Jesus,” reads one. On another wall, someone has used white chalk to write, “You can destroy Bible, churches, but you can’t destroy our heart.”

I ask him to tell me more about this writing, but he seems reluctant to answer. When I repeat the question, I notice I am making him anxious. He tells me he cannot read or write. “Sister, none of us siblings have gone to school. Our house has been open the past few days; people have been coming and going. I don’t know who has written what. Does it say something wrong?”

It is then that I realize he is scared. Could I, a Pakistani Muslim, be accusing him, a Christian, of blasphemy too?

Before I leave Jaranwala, Muhammad Imran Qadri, a Muslim cleric who introduced me to Zara and Amir, takes me to see the burnt churches and homes, even a school and a desecrated Christian graveyard. He is a tall, bearded man, dressed in a cream-coloured shalwar kameez and wearing a skull cap. He is one of the Muslims who was there the day the mob attacked the locality. He, alongside some other Muslims from the neighbourhood, tried to turn the mob away. Some of them put up Islamic symbols outside Christian homes in an attempt to protect them, but significant damage was done regardless. In some of the homes I visit, pet birds were burned alive; their charred bodies still lie sprawled inside their cages. Zara, Amir, and the others I meet tell me that members of the mob uploaded videos of the destruction to social media. It was in these videos that some of them first saw footage of their homes being burned to the ground.

What happened in Jaranwala last year is the latest in a series of mob attacks on Christian neighbourhoods in Pakistan—from Shanti Nagar in 1997 to Sangla Hill in 2005, to Gorja and Korian in 2009, to Joseph Colony in 2013, and Jaranwala in 2023, all located in Punjab, where Christians form the largest religious minority. According to rights groups, each of these attacks, unleashed over a span of close to three decades, indicates a pattern: blasphemy accusations are levelled, announcements to gather crowds are made from mosques or centres run by Islamic religious groups, extremist religious parties fan sentiments, and police fail to act in time.

The controversial blasphemy law is rooted, in part, in British colonial rule. It was the British who first codified and later expanded offences related to religion, allegedly in an effort to curb religious violence. Sections 295 to 298 of the Indian Penal Code (1860) outlined a series of offences related to hurting religious sentiments, but they were at that time “religion-neutral” and not specific to Islam. When Pakistan was created, in 1947, it inherited these sections but seldom invoked them. It wasn’t until the military dictatorship of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, under whom Pakistan went through a period of rapid Islamization in the ’80s, that the issue of blasphemy garnered renewed interest and vigour. New clauses were added to the existing law, making the uttering of derogatory remarks against Islamic personages a punishable and jailable offence and imposing life imprisonment for the desecration of the Quran. In 1986, section 295-C was added to the Pakistan Penal Code, making defiling the name of the Prophet Muhammad punishable by death or life imprisonment. By 1991, though Zia-ul-Haq was no longer ruling Pakistan, the penal code was further amended, removing the possibility of imprisonment for life, in turn making the death penalty mandatory.

Since the 1980s, the blasphemy law has been exploited to target Muslims but also religious minorities. Often times, blasphemy is evoked to settle personal scores or vendettas. Other times, it is used to garner political support. The assassination of Salman Taseer saw the birth of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, which hinges its politics on its support for the blasphemy law and advocates for the beheading of blasphemers. In the 2018 national election, the party secured 2.2 million votes and rose to become the fifth largest countrywide. Though no one has been executed to date under the law, it can suffice to accuse someone of blasphemy. Crowds gather and vigilante mobs often lynch, burn, hang, or shoot victims even before they can be tried under law. According to Al Jazeera, at least eighty-five people have been murdered on blasphemy allegations since 1990, and lawyers willing to fight for the accused have been threatened, even killed. In 2014, human rights lawyer Rashid Rehman was shot dead; he had been representing Junaid Hafeez, a Muslim Fulbright scholar and lecturer who remains on death row on blasphemy charges. While the majority of people accused of committing blasphemy are Muslim, religious minorities are increasingly vulnerable to the law’s misuse. Christians, who are already politically, socially, and economically marginalized in the country, become particularly easy targets. The police, in most cases, remain bystanders, sometimes out of fear of themselves being labelled as blasphemers for stopping crowds from attacking those accused.

The weaponization of laws to target minorities and vulnerable populations is, of course, not limited to Pakistan alone. Amid the global surge in populism in recent years, minorities are increasingly demonized and scapegoated for political gain. When they are targeted, it is often under the guise of laws and policies meant to “protect” the majority. In Pakistan’s case, the blasphemy law is held sacred, meant to safeguard the religious sentiments and morality of the majority, and no government has managed to revoke it or prevent its misuse.

Next door to Pakistan, in India, human rights groups have been warning of laws and policies that similarly target religious minorities, especially Muslims. In December 2019, India passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, making religion the basis of citizenship for the first time, and in March 2024, weeks before a national election, announced rules to implement it. Critics argue that the law discriminates against Muslims: it allows refugees of different faiths—including Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Christians—who fled from nearby countries, like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, to acquire Indian citizenship but specifically excludes Muslims from the criteria. Earlier in 2019, India abrogated article 370 of the Constitution, revoking the partial autonomy the Muslim-majority Indian-administered Kashmir had.

Cows are held sacred in Hinduism. However, millions of Indians, including Dalits, Muslims, and Christians, have long consumed beef. Under the Narendra Modi regime, which has fanned anti-Muslim sentiment, beef consumption has become a political flashpoint. Laws against cow slaughter have been used to target Muslim cattle traders, and the lynching of Muslims and Dalits following accusations of trading or consuming beef has become more and more common. Muslims are often painted as savage cow slaughterers and meat consumers and punished with beatings, public humiliation, or lynching. Between May 2015 and December 2018, Human Rights Watch reported, at least forty-four murders by lynching had occurred in India, with most victims being Muslims, the country’s largest religious minority.

While violence hides under the cloak of moral legitimacy or sacred duty in some of these cases, elsewhere, the marginalization of minorities is justified by invoking dehumanizing tropes. In Kashmir, which remains sandwiched between Indian and Pakistani army posts, Kashmiris fighting for their rights are often branded terrorists by Indian officials. The ongoing imprisonment, torture, and killing of Kashmiris is in turn sought to be justified in the larger interests of fighting this terror and protecting Indian sovereignty. The invocation of the word “terrorism” post 9/11, and amid the global wave of Islamophobia, is especially powerful in dehumanizing, and thereby justifying violence upon, Muslim populations. In the process, it tries to delegitimize the movement for rights and freedom.

This has parallels in the Middle East too, as the world has seen in recent months. Israel has long framed Palestinian rights groups as terrorists or terrorist sympathizers and has more recently argued, in order to legitimize widespread violence in hospitals, schools, and refugee camps, that it’s allegedly targeting members of Hamas. In November last year, Israel’s parliament passed an amendment to its existing counterterrorism law, making the “consumption of terrorist materials” a criminal offence. Human rights groups have argued that the law is draconian, has no precedence, and is akin to thought policing. Under the law, pro-Palestinian sentiment can be conflated with terrorism or incitement to terror, warranting the arrest, punishment, and further marginalization of Palestinians. Other language has also been deployed by Israeli officials to dehumanize Palestinians and justify violence, propelling independent UN experts to term it a genocide in the making. Shortly after the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel, Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant announced a complete siege of Gaza and explained away the shutting down of electricity, food, and fuel supplies to Gaza by claiming that Israel was “fighting against human animals.” Israeli president Isaac Herzog claimed there are no innocent civilians in Gaza.

In Europe and the US, the targets are immigrants. Inflammatory anti-immigration rhetoric is instrumentalized to scapegoat and blame them for economic hardships and local tensions. Last December, Donald Trump alleged that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country,” adding that “drugs, criminals, gang members, and terrorist groups are pouring into our country at record levels.” This rhetoric previously translated into policy during his presidency, resulting in an exponential growth in the use of private prisons to detain immigrants and a rising number of children being detained at the border, split apart from their families. While Trump’s successor, President Joe Biden, vowed to reform immigration detention, critics argue that he has done little to reverse the trend. Detention centres continue to operate, while the percentage of detainees being held in private facilities has only increased, as has private prison revenue.

In 2022, the UK government made efforts to send asylum seekers off to Rwanda, a scheme termed unlawful by the country’s supreme court in November 2023. As part of the ruling, the court cited the poor human rights record in Rwanda and the lack of safety refugees may experience there. In response, earlier this year, the UK government introduced a new bill claiming that Rwanda is in fact a safe country. Earlier, then UK home secretary Suella Braverman raised the alarm that a “hurricane” of migrants was threatening to enter the country and claimed that mass immigration was an existential threat to the West.

The faces, the communities, the laws take a different shape in each of these places, but the demonization of minorities—the framing of them as the impious, the sacrilegious, the deviant, the troublemakers, the economic drain, the security threat, the terrorists—continues across geographies, in the process providing a moral and legal cover for state violence.

When large-scale violence occurs, as it did in Jaranwala, the media gaze is transfixed. The violence itself becomes a spectacle, witnessed, devoured, gaped at, at times grieved. But then the lens shifts, to another conflict, to another story. For survivors, however, even after the spectacle recedes from the media spotlight, the lived implications continue to unfold. Within Pakistan, the perpetrators of mob attacks are mostly acquitted, and the minority community continues to live in fear, each subsequent attack a reminder of what happened to them and what can recur. Those acquitted of blasphemy often remain in hiding, separated from their loved ones and community for their own safety. Their family members sometimes lose their source of livelihood—for no one wants to hire them—and at other times are subjected to threats.

For the rare ones who make it out of Pakistan—like Asia Bibi—the reality remains complex but seldom heard. While several mainstream global news platforms covered her escape from Pakistan and the story of Canada giving her refuge and reuniting her with her husband and two daughters, little attention was paid to her life afterward. Last year, in her first public interview since 2020, Bibi spoke to New Lines Magazine about her life of poverty in exile. Her husband is unable to work due to health reasons, while her two adolescent daughters live with disabilities. The support she was offered did not extend to her three other children, who remain separated from her, in Pakistan, as does her 100-year-old father, whom she was unable to meet before fleeing. Her mother passed away while she was in jail. “My biggest sorrow is that I could not get to meet my father before coming to Canada. I will carry this grief in my heart for the rest of my life,” she said at the time.

While Canada offers settlement services to newcomers and refugees, they can be difficult to navigate. Neither Bibi nor her husband or children have gone to school, making it even more challenging and overwhelming to access available services. Support is also often limited or timebound. The little financial aid she got from the Canadian government expired a year after her arrival in the country. Today, Bibi reportedly works over fourteen hours a day, just to cover rent and basic expenses. Despite everything she experienced in Pakistan, and despite the threats she continues to face there, she says she holds on to the hope of returning one day to what, for her, is still home.

Anam Zakaria
Anam Zakaria is an oral historian and author. Her work has been published by the CBC, the Toronto Star, Al Jazeera, and the New York Times, among other outlets. She is based in Toronto.