A Review of ‘Blasphemy Law and Violence’ by Menaal Munshey

In its second session, the South Asia Law Discussion Group hosted Menaal Munshey, PhD candidate in Criminology at the University of Cambridge. Her work explores the nexus of blasphemy, law and violence in Pakistan. Mariyam Kamil, a DPhil candidate at the Law Faculty, University of Oxford, was the primary discussant.


Time to read

2 Minutes

Munshey provided a clear overview of the manner in which societal structures in Pakistan support the enforcement of laws that criminalise blasphemy (‘blasphemy laws’) through vigilantism and violence. Her findings were based on qualitative interviews and focus groups conducted with police officers, as well as members of Hindu, Muslim and Christian communities in Sukkur, a city in the province of Sindh in Pakistan.

I will provide a brief account of her research, followed by a critical comment on her methodology. The three broad questions that Munshey frames are : first, why do citizens commit blasphemy related-violence in Pakistan; second, what insight does this give us into the criminal justice system; and finally, how does blasphemy law and associated violence affect communities? Notably, all the interviewees underscored the importance of the existence of blasphemy laws, though for different reasons. For instance, police officers highlighted the moral element of blasphemy laws, in opposition to other laws which they considered a foreign imposition. Some Muslim participants saw blasphemy laws as the means through which their religious beliefs were protected by the state.

It follows from the accounts provided, that there exists a trust deficit in the criminal justice system in Pakistan, which was understood by many participants as leading to the extralegal violence. Some Muslim participants highlighted the inadequacy of the legal system to protect their religious rights, and understood vigilante violence as filling this gap. Though all the participants strongly agreed upon the need for laws that criminalise blasphemy, they indicated that the theistic violence that it incites is morally wrong. In terms of the impact it has on communities, some Christian participants articulated the environment of fear and the ‘chilling effect’ that these laws lead to, especially in educational institutions. Even carrying out conversations about blasphemy laws is viewed as being dangerously close to committing blasphemy. However, many participants suggested that Sindh is a tolerant state, with a relatively lower incidence of extralegal blasphemy-related violence.

The operation of such laws, Munshey explains, has consistently implied a negation of the presumption of innocence, an integral part of the constitutional right to a fair trial. Witnesses often refuse to articulate the alleged act of blasphemy, for fear of committing further blasphemy. This leads to two consequences – first, the burden of proof is effectively reversed, and second, that the determination of innocence or guilt of the accused comes to rely primarily upon the testimony of the accused-witnesses themselves.

This inability or unwillingness of the witnesses to articulate relevant legal facts around the cases is reminiscent of Felman’s account of the ‘juridical unconscious.’ Felman provides a critical account of the moment in time in which Holocaust survivor K-Zetnik faints at the stand during the Eichmann trial, thereby bringing the criminal justice system to a grinding halt. Her point is simply that the operation of the law is so heavily reliant on witness testimony that if such testimony cannot be reconstructed, an utter breakdown of the system would ensue, highlighting the limits of the law’s conscious reach, thereby exposing the juridical unconscious.

The suitability of qualitative research for this project is evident – not only because of its sensitive nature, but also due to the dearth of secondary literature on the topic. The nature of the topic being so particularised to the collective experience of each community, and further to the specific experience of individuals within such communities, the qualitative method seemed to be the most appropriate to address these questions. I do, however, think that complementing these findings with solid doctrinal analysis would provide a fuller picture by demonstrating exactly how the current normative legal framework is inadequate in addressing the moral harms of blasphemy. The possibility of using comparative research may also be explored to better assess the impact of Pakistan’s law of blasphemy in relation to other similarly situated jurisdictions. This feedback was echoed in the comments of the primary discussant.

In conclusion, the presentation brought a ‘human’ element to an important legal issue. It persuasively invited us to query the rising sense of public distrust in the Pakistani criminal justice system, and the moral limits of blasphemy law, through the lens of people’s lived experiences.