IT is unfortunate that the stand-off between those demanding tougher legislation on blasphemy and the Bangladesh government has had such a violent outcome. For several weeks, the Hefazat-i-Islam — which draws support from the country’s madressahs — and its supporters have been demanding changes, including the introduction of the death penalty for those found guilty of blasphemy. Bangladesh, however, describes itself as a secular democracy and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed said that the current laws were adequate. Matters came to a head on Monday. With tens of thousands of religious activists on the streets, violence first erupted on Sunday after the police tried to break up a blockade of the highways leading into Dhaka. The next day, in a pre-dawn raid, the police launched a crackdown; Dhaka turned into a battleground echoing with gunfire, hundreds were injured and there were a number of deaths. The police shut down Islamist television stations and arrested dozens of protesters.Here in Pakistan, there is good reason to empathise. As this country’s experience has proved, caving in under pressure to groups that resort to violent means to press for their demands can never produce good results. Though it may temporarily appease such elements, it also emboldens them.
In particular, laws made under such pressure, especially from the religious right, generally prove to be controversial. As Pakistan has seen in terms of its own blasphemy legislation, laws based on religion prove practically impossible to undo later. It is easy for the hardline right to stoke the population’s passions through the card of religion. Yet the state must stand up; and that is why, although demands for a revisit of Pakistan’s own blasphemy laws fell silent after the assassination of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, the issue needs to be taken up again once a new government is in place. The hardline right may exert a lot of force, but it has to be resisted if Muslim countries are to become progressive countries too.