Pakistan's blasphemy law and Asia Bibi: Why does religion go bad?

All the world – at least all the right-thinking part of it – rejoices at the acquittal of Asia Bibi by Pakistan's Supreme Court. It has been a long nine years since she was arrested on charges of blasphemy. Her eventual death sentence – the first ever handed down to a woman on this charge – galvanised world opinion against Pakistan's infamous blasphemy laws. Revised and sharpened under the Islamist military dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq, these mandated punishments ranging from prison terms of up to 10 years for 'Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs', through life imprisonment for defiling the Quran, to capital punishment for derogatory remarks, written or spoken, against Mohammad or other prophets.

ReutersSupporters of the Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan party chant slogans after Asia Bibi's acquittal.

In fact, the death penalty for blasphemy has never been carried out, and Asia Bibi – as a Christian and a woman who was the focus of huge international sympathy – was at less risk of it than others who have been found guilty. Her risk of death, however, was and is very great. It is no longer from the state, but from vigilantes who think the judiciary has gone soft. Dozens of people have been murdered on suspicion of blasphemy or while on remand. Her lawyers are at risk too, as are the judges who acquitted her, and those who've supported her publicly, and Christians in general. Already there have been violent demonstrations against the verdict and supporters of Islamist political party Tehreek-e-Labaik have called for assassinations.

But why do they hate her so? Or to put it another way, since she's been found not guilty of what they believe her to have done – why are they so set on killing anyone at all for what they say about their prophet?

It's very tempting, since they are so adamantine in their certainty, to take them at their word: they just think that's what their religion requires. That's bad enough: what sort of religion requires that of its devotees? And isn't it evidence of the fundamental irrationality and intolerance of religion, that it could breed such rage and spite?

Dig a little deeper, however, and it's not so simple. The vast majority of Muslims would say Islam doesn't require the death penalty for blasphemy. Before 1986, when Zia's 'reforms' took hold, there were only 14 cases of blasphemy reported; there have been more than 1,000 since. What has driven this vast upsurge, which has claimed victims from every community – though disproportionately from minorities?

What's clear is that it isn't good enough to blame 'religion' – and specifically, it isn't good enough to blame Islam. There is intolerance and discrimination in other Muslim-majority countries, yes, but Pakistan is an outlier in the way it has entrenched religious violence in its legal system.

Two things have happened during the last three decades. One is that people have been given permission to hate by a flawed system. And the other is that they have been given reasons to hate. They are not good reasons, but – human nature being what it is – they are sufficient.

By coincidence, a report from the Journal for Artificial Societies and Social Stimulation published today (and reported by the BBC) sheds some light on Pakistan's problems with blasphemy. Snappily titled A Generative Model of the Mutual Escalation of Anxiety Between Religious Groups, it uses artificial intelligence algorithms to work out why religious people turn violence. It happens, in fact, surprisingly rarely, but when it does it's because groups encounter other groups that challenge the beliefs that are fundamental to their identity – as in Northern Ireland during the Troubles or the 2002 Gujurat riots in India, where up to 2,000 people, mainly Muslims, died. It's particularly when groups are perceived to be roughly the same size that the perception of threat escalates and violence results – and, significantly, this can be through conventional and social media, not just face to face.

The Christian population of Pakistan is tiny, at only around 1.6 per cent of the population. But it represents a cultural identity that is dominant in much of the rest of the world. It isn't that Pakistani Christians are perceived as a threat, but Christianity – a Western religion, standing for Western values – most definitely is. Throw that into the already volatile mix of Pakistani life – political and military instability, anger at corruption, widespread under-education, government via a medieval feudal system – and it's not surprising that any challenge to the one rock-solid foundation – conservative Islam – meets with an extreme reaction.

Asia Bibi, and Faraz Badar, killed in an acid attack, and Asma Masih, burned alive for refusing to marry a Muslim man, and Azhar Masih and Rohail Masih, shot dead outside a church – the list goes on and on – were made victims because of their faith. But behind that simple fact there's a whole hinterland of other causes. It's not religion that's to blame; it's religion that's been twisted by fear, frustration and anger, and manipulated to provide an imaginary distraction from real problems.

For who now really believes God requires his followers to take up arms to defend him, or is remotely put out when someone says something disparaging about him? 'I have no need of a bull from your stall, or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills... If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it' (Psalm 50: 9-12). It's believers who have a problem with blasphemy, not God – and it's believers who need to be challenged to rise above their feelings of outrage when they feel their treasured beliefs are under attack.

In countries where a religious and legal establishment approves and validates a violent response to blasphemy, this is a hard ask. It requires leadership of the sort Pakistan's prime minister Imram Khan has conspicuously failed to provide. It is not just about repealing a law – though that would be a good first step – but about changing a mindset.

And until that happens, there will be more Asia Bibis, because religion has been weaponised as a tool of repression and hate.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods