Pakistani TV Program Ignites Blasphemy Charges Over Perceived Insult to Mohammed's Daughter

By Patrick Goodenough | May 21, 2014 | 4:35 AM EDT

A still from video of the Geo TV show at the center of the latest blasphemy controversy in Pakistan. (Screenshot: YouTube)

( – Pakistani Muslim fundamentalists’ fixation with blasphemy has found a new target, with one of the country’s most popular private television networks under fire after airing a clip that its critics say insulted Mohammed’s daughter.

Amid a torrent of accusations of blasphemy, police have opened multiple criminal investigations, targeting among others the Geo TV network’s owner, the anchor of a morning show called “Wake Up Pakistan” and two guests on the show, Pakistani film actress Veena Malik and her husband, a wealthy businessman.

The show involved dancing in a re-enactment of Malik’s recent wedding, while Sufi musicians sang a song about the wedding of Fatimah, the daughter of Islam’s founder, Mohammed.

Adding to the perceived insult, a pair of shoes was seen being waved during the performance. Shoes are considered unclean in the Islamic faith. At the same time, a Pakistani wedding ritual involves female relatives of the bride “stealing” the groom’s shoes and charging a payment for their return.

Whatever the intention, the program that aired last Wednesday drew the wrath of Sunni and Shi’ite groups, sparking protests across the country and demands for the government to ban Geo TV – despite the network’s public apologies for what it called an “inadvertent mistake.”

“Geo TV has hurt the religious sentiments of millions of people by disrespecting Islam’s holy figures and therefore, the channel must be taken off air,” Sunni Ittehad Council chairman Sahibzada Hamid Raza told a press conference. The group of scholars issued a fatwa declaring Geo TV haram (sinful and consequently prohibited) to Pakistani Muslims.

A petition lodged before the Islamabad High Court by a lawyer for a group of radical clerics widened the range of targets, now including the Sufi musician, a poet who wrote the song about Fatimah, cable operators, and – ironically – executives from a rival TV network that re-aired clips from the offending program in a bid to accuse Geo TV of blasphemy.

Controversy over Pakistan’s blasphemy laws has been growing in recent years, stoked by their frequent targeting of Christians and other religious minorities.

Most notorious is a statute that carries the death penalty for insulting Mohammed (section 295-C of the penal code), and one carrying up to life imprisonment for defiling the Qur’an (section 295-B). But another section, 298-A, outlaws actions or remarks that defile any of Mohammed’s dozen wives, members of his family, or “companions.” A conviction carries a prison term of three years, a fine, or both.

According to the Karachi daily, Dawn, the Geo TV case involves allegations of breaches of 295-C (Mohammed), 298-A (his family) as well as section 295-A, which outlaws “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.”

The government of Pakistan, a major recipient of U.S. foreign aid, has for years shied away from calls to amend or repeal the blasphemy laws.

Citing the blasphemy issue and other concerns, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has since 2002 been calling on the State Department to designate Pakistan a  “country of particular concern” under U.S. law – without success.

Countries designated as such may then be targeted with U.S. sanctions or other measures intended to encourage governments to stop violating religious freedom or condoning abuses.

The USCIRF says it is currently aware of 17 Pakistanis on death row, and 19 serving life sentences, after being convicted of blasphemy. They include Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who in 2010 became the first Pakistani woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy. She remains on death row awaiting an appeal hearing.

Two weeks ago a Pakistani human rights lawyer who had been threatened for defending a man accused of blasphemy was shot dead in his chambers.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow