Young children, religious minorities and people with mental health problems have all been accused of the crime of blasphemy in Pakistan.
Now the country’s most popular television station has shown that even one of Pakistan’s most powerful institutions is not immune from a growing trend.
Ever since Geo News was accused of airing blasphemous material on one of its morning shows last week the channel has taken extraordinary security precautions, including removing its corporate branding from the side of its broadcast trucks.
“It’s a very dangerous situation because it puts all our staff at risk,” said Imran Aslam, president of the channel. “This is not just about the destruction of property or the shutting down of the channel, but lives.”
For weeks Geo, which is part of a conglomerate that also owns leading newspapers, has been at the centre of a media and political storm, with the country’s spy agency – the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate – and opposition politician Imran Khan calling for it to be shut down.
The ISI was furious after Geo carried accusations that the agency was behind the attempted killing of the channel’s star journalist Hamid Mir last month. Khan has accused the company of helping to rig last year’s general election.
But the situation became more serious on Friday when clerics across Pakistan condemned GEO for broadcasting a staged “wedding” of two celebrities on its morning show.
The problem was not the involvement of Veena Malik – an actor who once scandalised the country by appearing nude on the cover Indian FHM magazine with “ISI” written on her arm. Instead offence was taken at the performance of a Sufi song about the marriage of Muhammad’s daughter – a popular element to many ordinary weddings in Pakistan – and that a comparison was being drawn with Malik.
Many fundamentalist Islamic sects take a dim view of Sufi culture, which often revolves around singing, poetry and visiting the shrines of holy men.
Geo responded with full-page apologies in its newspapers and the suspension of all the staff involved in the programme.
But that has failed to stop angry demonstrations around the country, including a lawyers’ strike called by bar associations. A legal petition against the channel has been accepted by the Islamabad high court.
That such a frivolous bit of daytime television, similar to many other shows, could cause widespread outrage highlights the growing sensitivity around perceived insults to Islam, which can now be found almost anywhere in Pakistan.
On 13 May, police arrested and charged 68 lawyers for blasphemy after they held a public protest and chanted slogans against a police officer whose first name happened to be the same as a revered figure in early Islam.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have long been used to settle scores and financial grievances, particularly against religious minorities who often cannot defend themselves because lawyers are reluctant to represent them and because evidence cannot be properly scrutinised in court for fear of repeating the alleged blasphemy.
This year an elderly British-Pakistani man diagnosed with schizophrenia was sentenced to death in a blasphemy case brought by a man with whom he was in a property dispute.
In 2012 a 13-year-old Christian girl who reportedly had Down’s syndrome was arrested in Islamabad after she was accused of burning pages of the Qu’ran.
She became one of the very few blasphemy suspects to be released after men from the local mosque came forward to testify that the mullah had planted the evidence on her as part of his campaign to force out the Christian community.
Although leading human rights organisations have all called for laws to be repealed, public criticism of the legislation can itself be seen as a form of blasphemy.
On Wednesday the Express Tribune deleted an article on the subject in the international edition of the New York Times, which it carries as a daily insert.
The opinion piece by Lahore-based author Ali Sethi discussed the case of Rashid Rehman, a human rights activist who was shot dead in his office on 7 May after daring to take on the legal case of a young academic accused of publishing blasphemous material on Facebook.
One of the most famous people to publicly criticise the laws was former Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who was gunned down by his bodyguard.
The killer Mumtaz Qadri has been feted in many quarters, including by lawyers, and a mosque in Islamabad has been named in his honour.