By Rashad Ali
Blasphemy is a hot topic these days, not some historic relic. Ireland has only just removed its prohibition of blasphemy from the Republic’s law books. For its part, Austria as a sovereign state has maintained its own blasphemy laws, and the ECHR has upheld its right to do so to maintain social harmony, though they seem to think Muslims worship Mohammad.
But by far the most extreme manifestations of what is wrong with a state hegemonically taking on blasphemy are to be seen in Pakistan. Its laws do not merely outlaw it – “offenders” can face capital punishment. And when the government fails to please extremists in its application of the law, mobs assemble and they can make the government back down.
The current furor stems from the murder in 2011 of Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab and a critic of the blasphemy laws. Taseer spoke up for Asia Bibi, a Christian sentenced to death for blasphemy. One of his own bodyguards, Mumtaz Qadri, shot him dead for taking this stance.
Asia Bibi and Salman Taseer
Justice did follow. Mumtaz Qadri was found guilty of murder and executed in February 2016. And at the end of October 2018 Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned Asia Bibi’s conviction.
The reaction to the Supreme Court ruling from various groups, including senior clerical figures, has been plainly extreme. People have called for rebellion against the courts, the military, the government and the state of Pakistan itself. Some have claimed that this is some kind of foreign plot to undermine Islam, with the current government or the judiciary taking its orders from the plotters.
Demonstrations and calls for strike action and shutting down the country are already creating disruption across major cities. This has led Imran Khan, former cricket all rounder star, leader of the PTI party, and now the Prime Minister of Pakistan to come out and criticize calls for rebellion, saying strongly that these actions won’t go unchallenged. He added that it is the average worker who will suffer as a result of the unrest. He has been praised in some quarters for doing so.
Others are less supportive, pointing out that Khan himself shut down cities whilst campaigning and threatened to shut down all the major cities, in fact. Furthermore, he is himself associated with the very same extremists and used issues such as the blasphemy laws as a part of his own campaigning platform. His politics are now having extreme repercussions, with reports that he too has been declared a kāfir (apostate) and presumably ghustak-e-rasool (defamer of the Prophet), or at least one who tolerates insults to the Messenger or Islam.
Meanwhile, the judges who passed this verdict have been declared apostates by various sectarian groups. The very dangerous, odd and violent rhetoric of wajib ul-Qatl (literally, those whose killing is obligatory) has been hurled at them by Tehrik-e-Labbaik, or the movement of those responding to the call.
This has happened despite the judges not rejecting or questioning the extreme nature of such a punishment in our day and age, nor calling for such judgments not to be applied. Instead, they simply found Asia not guilty. Essentially, then, Pakistan faces a threat to the entire judiciary, the rule of law, and the law enforcement system in the country.
A demonstration in support of Mumtaz Qadri
This is not and does not have to be the norm. As many have pointed out, these laws were brought in by British colonialists to regulate their subjects. But the clause which is most controversial was introduced under the dictatorial rule of Zia in 1986. It added the death penalty for anyone insulting the Prophet of Islam.
But this is not really an issue of common law. Nor is it an issue of sharīah or religious rulings per se. We know the majority of Pakistani Muslims belong to the Hanafī legal school of Islam, and as such nominally do not believe in fixed laws for state punishments for blasphemy. In fact, such a position can be advocated in almost all Sunni schools, including among Salafists and Hanbali puritans (using the term ahl-e-hadis in the Indian sub-continent) who may be described as scriptural literalists.
In addition, as a signatory of UN human rights conventions, Pakistan is duty bound according to most Sunni madhāhib (schools) to respect such treaties and not impose any punishments that violate them.
For a more detailed study of these issues, prepared in the aftermath of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, please see this Institute for Strategic Dialogue research note.
So, if this is not a religious issue per se, what is it that we are dealing with? The narcissism of small differences, arguably as comical as the People’s Front of Judea vs. the Judean People’s Front in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”, were the issues not so serious. Fueled by sectarian conflicts in a tribal and inward looking context, this culture has taken root in branches of Islam that are otherwise not strongly ideological and at least not traditionally seen as radical or extreme.
Truly hardcore extremists have contributed too, of course, by infiltrating the mainstream. Imran Khan and others, in turn, have used these forces for their own interests.
The outcome is a subculture where people vie for authenticity, eager to show they honor the Prophet of Islam the most. Sadly for the faithful, and horrifically for society, this manifests itself in a race to the bottom, where even murder is sanctioned and violent extremists are venerated and called saints, martyrs, and, in a twisted and macabre fashion, even lovers of the Prophet – Ashiq-e-Rasul.
The journey back from the bottom will require religious, political and cultural shifts and a strong set of foundational principles. Those principles include respect of the rights of people to hold their religious beliefs. These beliefs must be seen as part of their basic human rights, granting them protection not only to hold them, but also the right to express such beliefs without fear of persecution. This must apply for all peoples, minorities included.
A demonstration against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws
Once again, much of the necessary framework already exists, both formally within Pakistani legal values and international treaties, and within the country’s rich religious tradition. This is about regaining lost ground, not new terrain.
Verse 135 of Surah Al Nisa (The Women) of the Qur’ān has been posted on a wall facing the faculty of law’s main entrance at Harvard University. It can be a guide and a warning for the faithful too. It is dedicated to achieving true justice:
“O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for God, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, God is more worthy of both. So follow not [personal] inclination, lest you not be just. And if you distort [your testimony] or refuse [to give it], then indeed Allah is ever, with what you do, acquainted”.