PhD Pre-Submission Seminar – Blasphemy in Pakistan: a spectacle of Piety

Dates & times

Fri 23 March 2018, 3pm–4pm


Milgate Room, A.D. Hope Building, ANU

Image: SanaHeadshot_sml


Blasphemy allegations in Pakistan in recent years have led to a student getting lynched on a university campus, neighborhoods getting burnt down by angry mobs, and a governor getting killed by his own security guard, among other similar incidents. Pakistan inherited the clauses concerning “Offences Related to Religion” from the British government that criminalized insult to any religion in colonial India. However, in the 1980s, the military dictator General Zia-ul-Huq introduced laws exclusively protecting the sentiments of Muslim majority of Pakistan. Consequently, there have been more than 1500 recorded incidents of accusations, and 75 of the accused have been killed by mobs or individuals between 1987 and 2017.

My research investigates the causes behind blasphemy accusations and the subsequent violence against the accused, “outside the law” of the state. Focusing on inter-personal relationships between the accused and the accusers, I demonstrate how perceived transgressions of social relations within an environment of growing moral anxiety lead to blasphemy accusations. The accusations that begin at the inter-personal level then escalate into public anger that may precipitate action outside the law. In this seminar, I will discuss questions of legitimate violence, tensions between public and state morality, and the symbolic power of the public punishment of alleged blasphemers.

My research shows the public life of blasphemy in Pakistan and its significance for the wider socio-political and moral landscape of the nation. I argue that, at the local level, blasphemy accusations and subsequent violence are but one way—albeit increasingly effective and hard to contest—of dealing with the uncertainty and moral anxiety that pervade the everyday life of Pakistani Muslims. The uncertainty and anxiety are grounded within the context of globalization, wider state policies, competing narratives of piety, and religio-nationalistic ideology used by the military-state to legitimize its power. My thesis highlights how these tensions are acted upon and lived out in the everyday lives of the people.


Sana Ashraf is a PhD candidate at The School of Archaeology and Anthropology, Australian National University.


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