New York Times in a recent piece saw the assassination of the Governor of Punjab as intensification of the struggle between secular and religious forces in Pakistan. The showering of rose petals and garlanding of the confessed assassin, the refusal of the moderate religious leaders to criticize the assassination, oblique condoning of the murder by the hard liners, non-attendance of the last rites by the leader of the opposition and President Zardari, a friend and ally of the late Governor, diplomatic silence of senior officials on the assassination reflect the polarization of Pakistani society into so-called moderate and extremist camps and the ascendency of the religious extremists.
Salman Taseer’s “fault” was his advocacy against the death sentence awarded to an illiterate Christian woman accused of blasphemy and his outspoken support for the deletion of the blasphemy laws of Pakistan. A resident fellow of the American Enterprise Institute sees Pakistan going through a turbulence of choosing a path between Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s secular Pakistan and radical Islamist ideologue Maulana Abu Ala Maududi’s dream of a theocratic Pakistan where all aspects of the life of Pakistanis are to be ruled by Sharia laws.
Though a member of the anti-Musharraf lawyers’ movement of 2007 claimed that only a fraction of the legal community would side with the assassin while the rest are hostages to an extremely emotive issue, yet one must admit that repeated use of Islam by successive political and military rulers of Pakistan and obsessive hatred of Hindu India have brought the country to a pass where sane Muslims fear to reason with the Islamists lest they are regarded as blasphemers themselves.
The US and the NATO countries in particular have to ponder if Pakistan is worth saving from the inevitable conquest by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Laskar-e-Toiba and myriad other religious extremists who are regularly attacking the very foundation of modernity in Pakistan and US efforts to establish democratic institutions in neighboring Afghanistan. Washington Post and the US administration think otherwise. Despite the US administration’s frustration with President Zardari Obama administration considers that both Hamid Karzai and Asif Zardari have to be protected to save existential threat to the Western interest from the virulent attacks by the al-Qaeda and its cohorts.
It is noteworthy that a leader of the powerful political party Jmiaat Ulema Islam and five hundred religious leaders of Jamaat-e-Ahle-e Sunnat have warned Pakistanis against attending the funeral and prayers for the soul of Salmaan Taseer. Washington Post editorial “Death of a liberal in Pakistan” called Salman Taseer “an outspoken defender of secular values” and suggested that despite the “feckless civilian government” of Asif Ali Zardari the West has little option but to strengthen its support for the Zardari government and in the fight between democratic moderates and Muslim extremists the current civilian government is the most reliably liberal force. Attempts to politicize the assassination has been warned against by the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz whose one of the top leaders reminded the ruling Pakistan People’s Party that the government’s survival depends on the PML-N. PPP on the other hand is portraying Salman Taseer as a nonreligious person who was killed because of his conflict with religio-political parties.
If the rulers of Pakistan and the silent majority were to take this challenge thrown by religious extremists laying down then the message that would go from the second largest Muslim country in the world to the secular and post-secular world ( industrial North where people’s religious ties have gradually and dramatically lapsed in the post-War period) that Bernard Lewis was right after all in his claim that Islam has always been intolerant in giving political space to other religions and democracy is a Western way of administering public affairs that may or may not be suitable for others. Such a signal would also encourage the born-again Christians and occupiers of Arab lands since 1967 of continuing their onslaught on Muslims regardless of their attitude towards terrorism and cementing an abstract global divide into a real one.
The West’s belief in the sincerity of the Muslims in inter-faith dialogue and for secularization of the population essential for modernization of society would be shaken. As it is the Muslim Diaspora in the West are regarded with suspicion and fear of being overwhelmed demographically though the Muslim birth rate does not increase by geometric progression and they would remain a minority, albeit growing, with acquisition of host country’s culture despite economic and social exclusion to which they are subjected by the majority population.
It has been argued that ethics of reciprocity demands religious tolerance. In Christianity, for example, the concept has been defined in one of the gospels as: “Therefore all things ye would that men should do to you, do you even so to them”. If a Christian considers his religious ethics of reciprocity is of paramount importance, then he would want people of other beliefs to enjoy freedom of religion, speech, assembly and other freedoms enumerated for example, in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other documents.
However, it is to be acknowledged that religious freedom is one of the most complicated matters in the whole of human rights law and practice. It comprises an assortment of related rights and entitlements such as freedom from discrimination because of one’s religion, freedom to live in a society that does not give preference to any particular religion over others, and freedom to enjoy civic respect for one’s religion. Thomas Hobbes who was one of the first modern Western thinkers to provide secular justification of the state which marked a departure in English philosophy from the religious emphasis of Scholasticism had rightly observed that people being fearful and predatory must submit to the absolute supremacy of the state in both secular and religious matters for self-preservation. Since the world we live in is far from the Kantian world federation of Perpetual Peace where actions of any sort are neither taken from a sense of duty nor dictated by reason and often are performed for expediency , absolute freedom of speech and expression on religious matters had to be circumscribed.
Thus in the British criminal law the crime of blasphemous libel was developed mainly during the eighteenth century to protect the Anglican version of Christianity but no other religion or belief .That is why Blasphemy case leveled by British Muslims against Salman Rushdie for his Satanic Verses was not entertained by the British court because Rushdie’s irreverence was not recognized as a crime under British law.
Before we examine the merits and demerits of Blasphemy law in Pakistan it is necessary to define the concept. According to Black’s Law Dictionary blasphemy is “any oral or written reproach maliciously cast upon God, His name, attributes or religion. In general blasphemy described as consisting in speaking evil of the Deity with impious purpose to derogate from the divine majesty and to alienate the minds of others from love and reverence of God”. While etymologically blasphemy may denote the derogation of honor due to a creature as well as of that belonging to God, in its strict sense it is used to mean the latter. Blasphemy is heretical when the insult to God involves a declaration that is against the faith.
It is imprecatory when it would cry a malediction upon the Divinity. It is contumacious when it is wholly made up of contempt or indignation towards God (New Advent-Catholic Encyclopedia).Among the Athenians blasphemy was actionable. Among ancient Romans blasphemy was punishable though not with death. In the times of the Justinian punishment was severe. Among the Franks, according to a law enacted in the 9th century, punishment for blasphemy was death. As time went by severity of punishment for blasphemy also decreased. It has already been stated that blasphemy law in England was enacted to protect the Anglican version of Christianity. But its application has been rare with the passage of time. The Labor Home Secretary personally favored scrapping of the law from the statute book.
Americans too feel most disturbed by the idea of punishing someone for blasphemy. It runs counter to the freedom of religion and freedom of expression, both guaranteed in the First Amendment of the US Constitution Following the ratification of the Constitution in 1788, the First Amendment and most State constitutions prohibited establishment of official religion. The US Supreme Court never had to decide on a blasphemy case. But in 1952 it ruled on a similar matter. Justice Tom Clark observed “It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon particular religious doctrine”. Gradually, state courts found prosecution of blasphemy cases unconstitutional or unenforceable. No prosecution for blasphemy has taken place in the US since 1971.
In Australia rigorous debate was conducted by the Law Reform Commission on the question of abolition of blasphemy law. Many found the existing law as anachronistic or irrelevant to the circumstances of modern Australian society. Australian Humanist Society favored abolishing the blasphemy law as “it is a relic of religious persecution, a penalty on opinion and it defies the hard won freedom of speech which underpins democracy”. It was further argued that essentially the law was enacted to protect the community from the wrath of God and not to protect the religious sensibilities of others. Because of this interpretation there could be no blasphemy against a non-Anglican God because in those cases the community would not run the danger of divine retribution. Hence the concept of blasphemy was found to be obsolete.
Some Australians found the blasphemy laws as discriminatory and anomalous in a multicultural society. The argument to extend the laws to include other faiths was considered unacceptable as it would create difficulties between and within religions and ” since all religions involve beliefs which are considered blasphemous by other religions , extension of the law would encourage inter-religious strife and cross persecution”. The most persuasive argument against retaining blasphemy laws was that such laws infringed upon the freedom of speech and freedom of information. Australian Law Commission favored the abolition of the blasphemy laws and warned that retention of such laws could see emergence like the anti-Muslim sentiment in England following Rushdie affair.
The editors of Human Rights and Responsibilities in World Religions (2003) wrote in introducing the book “Religions have too often been used to justify the violation of human rights in part through the hierarchical and selective use of role of ethics and postponement of temporal justice to divine judgment or future karmic consequences”. It would perhaps be instructive if impact of blasphemy laws in neighboring countries is discussed. In the Indian sub-continent the British had enacted the blasphemy laws to protect minority Muslims from possible attacks from majority Hindus.
After the creation of Pakistan as the Muslims became the majority community there was no reason to keep the laws in the statute book. Instead of abolishing the laws were made more stringent. Legislations undertaken during 1980-1991 (life imprisonment was replaced by mandatory death penalty) made the Muslims more intolerant towards non-Muslims. From 1948-79 eleven cases of blasphemy were registered. Only three cases of blasphemy were reported during 1979-86. Forty four were filed during 1987-99. In 2000 fifty two cases were registered out of which forty three were against Muslims and nine were against non-Muslims. This shows that the laws are being abused more blatantly by the Muslims against fellow Muslims to settle old scores.
Jurists have raised questions as to whether a non-Muslim can be sentenced to death as he is already a “kafir” (non-believer) and not a “murtaad” (a person who repudiates Islam after embracing it). Without delving into the complexities of the Islamic laws on this issue one can safely make the observation that the blasphemy laws and their stringent applications have not raised the image of Pakistan in the world as a tolerant Muslim country. UN Commission on Human Rights( July-August 2003) referring to Pakistani blasphemy laws observed: ” When religious discrimination is inscribed in laws and imbedded in societal structures, this often leads to victimization of minorities as well as killings and assassinations”. The UN Commission reminded Pakistan that the laws over the years have resulted in religious intolerance and violence against Christians, Hindus and members of the Ahmadyyia community. The commission further reminded Pakistan of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Pakistan which held that the mere use of the laws was an abuse since the laws were inherently bad legislations, the language of the laws were ambiguous, the objectives were dubious, and the laws lacked the protection of guarantee against misuse. The UN Commission called upon Pakistan to repeal all discriminatory laws including the blasphemy laws and ratify human rights treaties that it has not yet ratified.
Any discussion on national affairs impacting on international relations cannot even begin without reference to the iconic moments of nine-eleven terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, strongly condemned by all the Islamic countries( as by the rest of the world) which led to the assault on Afghanistan and dislodgement of the despicable Taliban regime. But unfortunately to some suspicious Western eyes the convulsions in the Islamic world is because of its intolerance of the House of the Unbelief-Christendom-a competing world religion and a distinct civilization; little realizing that the convulsions could have been caused by the struggle between monotheistic Islamists and the moderate Muslim elements to capture the soul of the Islamic world. It would, therefore, be unwise to give the impression that there is an incipient movement of neo-Islamic conservatives at a time when the world is experiencing raging turbulence of clash of civilizations.
Global trend is towards modernity, secularism and forsaking of any form of extremism, be it religious or otherwise.
If Pakistan’s experience can be taken as a guide then it would be advisable if the Bangladesh government which commands absolute majority in Parliament were to abstain from legislating blasphemy law which can only tarnish the image of Bangladesh as a moderate Muslim country.
Kazi Anwarul Masud is a former Ambassador and Secretary of Bangladesh.