On June 28, 2020, Endangered Scholars Worldwide learned that a Pakistani literature professor has been detained under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws—yet another example of growing religious intolerance in the Muslim-majority country.
Sajid Soomro, a senior professor of Sindhi literature at Khairpur’s Shah Abdul Latif University in Sindh province, was arrested on June 10, 2020 after police filed a blasphemy case against him under the Pakistan Penal Code, a law that carries a potential death sentence for anyone who insults Islam. Soomro has since been incarcerated and is awaiting trial, and reports suggest that he is in solitary confinement. The police have stated that Soomro has been under their radar for his dissenting views and criticisms of the country’s most powerful clerics. In an interview, Hakim Ali Kalhoro, a local Sindh police officer stated that:
Sajid has written things critical of seminaries, religious beliefs, the concept of heaven, and polygamy. He has also criticized Pakistan. Therefore, he has been registered under the relevant sections of the law.
In an interview, Asad Butt, the president of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, noted that he believes that the Soomro is being admonished for expressing views that do not correspond to those in power in Islamabad:
He attended the funeral of a Sindhi nationalist, which did not go down well in some powerful circles who might want to teach him a lesson. We believe that if somebody has different political views then he or she should be engaged in dialogue, but using blasphemy as a tool to silence voices could become very catastrophic.
Sindh is known for its distinctive culture, which is influenced by Sufism, a mystical form of Islam that emphasizes the inward search for God. It is also home to Pakistan’s largest Hindu population and also a significant number of Shiite Muslims.
Soomro had spoken out about the growing number of insurgents and extremist seminaries over the last 15 years, blaming the central government for the rise of violent extremism in Pakistan.
Academic freedom has always been under threat in Pakistan. What is concerning now is that blasphemy-related violence against lecturers, professors, researchers, and students fostered in part by government persecution and discriminatory laws is becoming more frequent, and authorities have failed to establish adequate protection for universities.
As we reported, in December 2019, a 33-year-old university lecturer Junaid Hafeez was sentenced to death on blasphemy charges. The Bahauddin Zakariya University lecturer was accused by hardline student groups of insulting the Prophet Muhammad on social media and of making derogatory remarks in March 2013. Hafeez was sentenced behind bars without trial for six years, spending much of that time in solitary confinement. His lawyer, Rashid Rehman, was shot dead in his office in the city of Multan in May 2014.
The penalty for blasphemy under Pakistani law is death. But it is increasingly common that vigilantes take the law into their own hands before the courts get involved. Since 1990, at least 65 people have been murdered by angry mobs or assassinated on allegations of insulting Islam.
In April 2017, Mashal Khan, 23, a student at Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, a town in Northwest Pakistan, was pulled from his dorm room by a crowd of his fellow students. The violence that followed, recorded on a mobile phone, was uncommonly brutal. The attackers shot Khan twice, dragged his corpse through hallways, beat it with planks, and stripped him naked. The video shows the mob involved in the lynching shouting religious slogans and congratulating each other over the terrible episode.
Endangered Scholars Worldwide considers the detention of Sajid Soomro a flagrant and unjust violation of the freedom, security, and safety of scholars and students in Pakistan. We call upon the Pakistani government to immediately and unconditionally release Soomro and to respect, guarantee, and implement the provisions and principles of human rights.
Endangered Scholars Worldwide is also alarmed by the recurring wave of vicious campaigns against academics in Pakistan. We deplore all attempts to limit academic freedom by targeting intellectuals on insubstantial grounds. We believe that the ongoing, increasingly severe attacks against university students and faculty in Pakistan bring up grave concerns over the ability of scholars, intellectuals, students to work safely in the country’s educational settings.