The Sordid History Of Blasphemy Laws That Convinced A 15-Year-Old Boy To Cut Off His Own Hand

CREDIT: AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary

An angry mob reacts after burning Christian houses in Lahore, Pakistan, Saturday, March 9, 2013. A mob of hundreds of people in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore attacked a Christian neighborhood Saturday and set fire to homes after hearing accusations that a Christian man had committed blasphemy against Islam's prophet Mohammed, said a police officer. Placard center reads, " Blasphemer is liable to death."

Anwar Ali carried his own severed hand into a small town mosque in Pakistan earlier this month. The 15-year-old had been amongst its congregants on Jan. 10 when the imam asked for a show of hands of those who did not love the Prophet Mohammad. Ali’s hand shot up — the only one to do so in a group of about 100 who attended the services commemorating the birth of Islam’s messenger.

He realized his mistake when he saw that his was the only hand that was up. He quickly put it down, but not before the local cleric accused him of blasphemy — a capital offense in Pakistan. “Don’t you love your prophet?” others at the mosque demanded of Ali. A devout Muslim despite his youth, the boy raced home.

“When I raised my right hand unwittingly, I realized I had committed blasphemy and needed to atone for this,” Ali told the BBC.

“I came back home and went to the grass-cutting machine, but found the place dark so I took my uncle’s phone to point some light at my hand,” Ali, who is the son of a laborer in a largely agricultural part of Pakistan, added. “I placed it under the machine and chopped it off in a single swirl.”

Shabir Ahmad, the cleric who unwittingly prompted Ali’s drastic action, was arrested soon after the incident, but then released when religious leaders protested. He was since arrested again on Sunday and is currently being held by authorities on terrorism-related charges.

“There is no physical evidence against the cleric of involvement, but he has been charged for inciting and arousing the emotions of people to such a level that the boy did this act,” said Faisal Rana, an area police chief.

The cleric denies inciting hatred and violence. The boy’s family has also said that the cleric did nothing wrong and does not deserve to be punished.

The boy’s father, however, is concerned about the wellbeing of his son, who has not been to a proper hospital since he cut off his hand. A nurse at a small village clinic cleaned and dressed his wounds.

“I don’t even have money to pay the nurse,” Ali’s father, a low-income laborer, said. “I also want a new hand for my son.”

Ali is the youngest of five children and the only one of his siblings to have continued his education into his mid-teens.

His father said amid sobs, “My only solace is that he did it for the Prophet.”

Many in the village have begun to revere the boy for his brutal action. Many have come to visit Ali to offer him their respects. The BBC reported that one man kissed the boy’s remaining hand and pressed it against his forehand.

“The boy’s gesture to show his love for the Prophet is unmatchable. I’m here to encourage him and to pay homage,” the man, identified only as Farooq, said as his eyes welled with tears.

For some, the praise that Ali is receiving for committing such a gruesome act reveals not just how twisted beliefs about blasphemy have become, but how extreme actions for the sake of religion are lauded.

“We have become a society so intoxicated by negative things in the name of religion that parents feel proud of sending their children to jihad and to die in the name of such activities,” said I.A. Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “The government needs to do more to educate people and to speak out against extremism.”

Although blasphemy laws are a relic of Pakistan’s colonial past, they have evolved to accommodate the country’s increasingly extremist ideals towards Islamic practice, according to AFP:

Pakistan inherited its blasphemy law from former colonial power Britain, which devised the code to ensure communal harmony in then undivided India. New sections were introduced in the 1980s under military ruler General Zia-ul-Haq, which elevated Islam above all other religions and introduced the death penalty as part of his broader Islamization agenda.

Critics say the law, often misused by people carrying out personal vendettas, is feeding violence particularly against minorities. “Such legislation can cause hatred, prejudice, and within that prejudice, may cause violence,” says human rights activist Hina Jilani.

Though Pakistan has never executed a blasphemy convict, more than 50 people accused of the crime have been killed before their trials were completed and 17 are currently languishing on the charge on death row.

Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi listens to Governor of Pakistani Punjab Province Salman Taseer, unseen, at a prison in Sheikhupura near Lahore, Pakistan, on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2010.

Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi listens to Governor of Pakistani Punjab Province Salman Taseer, unseen, at a prison in Sheikhupura near Lahore, Pakistan, on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2010.


A Christian couple was lynched in December after being falsely accused of tossing out pages of the Quran — an act that is tantamount to blasphemy according to Pakistan’s strident laws on the topic. The two worked as bonded laborers at a brick kiln where an angry mob executed vigilante justice before the charges could be investigated. Shama Bibi and Shazad Masih’s children and family continue to live in fear that they will be identified and similarly brutalized by an angry mob.

It took the Pakistani Supreme Court to stay the execution of a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy, a charge she said stemmed from a personal grudge. Asia Bibi spent nearly five years on death row before she was freed — and immediately went into hiding — in July.

Such judicial intervention is rare since blasphemy cases require no evidence to proceed; witness testimony is sufficient to sentence someone to death for the offense. The charge of blasphemy is so toxic that even defending its accused do so knowing that their own lives are at risk.

Weeks after a human rights lawyer agreed to defend a professor accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammad on Facebook, he was shot and killed by two gunmen.

In 2011, governor was assassinated by his own bodyguard after he advocated for justice for a Christian woman who had been falsely accused of committing blasphemy. The country’s first federal minister for minorities, a Christian, was killed that same year.

While Ali appears to have emerged from the charge of blasphemy after vehemently proving his reverence for the Prophet, few in Pakistan have been able to maintain normal lives after the allegation is made against them.