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The blasphemy debate

January 10, 2011

Pakistani lawyers shout slogans in support of Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri who confessed to killing Governor Salman Taseer. - Photo by AFP

As Mosharraf Zaidi pointed out in his excellent article, the for and against camps in the blasphemy debate are often speaking at cross currents. For many of us, the blasphemy law is abhorrent because it is frequently misused and abused. However, we cannot expect to present this argument into the general debate, because it shifts the focus away from the legitimacy of the law to a question of how it is being enforced.

For some, the blasphemy law needs to be repealed because it is a violation of freedom of speech. Unfortunately, this is the exact point where the anti-blasphemy law campaign finds itself being portrayed as a bunch of 'liberal-extremists' licking the soles of western boots.

Why does that happen? If we are to accept freedom of speech as a valid value to cherish, then it means that we believe that everyone has the right to say what they feel. That, in theory, is wonderful but in practice it boils down to two things.

First, it ignores the fact that in Pakistan, by and large, you do not have rights - instead, you have power. If you have power to say what you feel like, you might pretend you are exercising your rights, but in reality you are flexing your considerable muscles - which means those without power are by and large without rights.

Secondly, it implies that the only thing sacred in this debate is the right to free speech, and the sanctity of that right exists above and beyond anything else that might be sacred. For the pro-blasphemy camp, this essentially translates into saying that people 'should' have the right to trash all that is sacred.

Now, I might be wrong here, but I can sense that you are tensing up a bit. Fear not, for many of the 'progressive' crowd, words like ‘sacred’ and ‘holy’ are immediately problematic and uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, the problem is that until we can frame our debate in those very contexts of religion and things that are sacred, we are always opening up ourselves to be outflanked by claims that we are brainwashed from abroad and that we have no clue about what it means to be a Pakistani or a Muslim.

So why don't we take this debate on in a religious context?

The reason being is that we seem to imagine that Islam like a computer which we can only be used once we have learnt C++ and Java and other complex languages.

A few weeks ago, there was this thing on Twitter where everyone was tweeting as their 16-year-old selves. My favourite tweet was by someone who wrote "One day I am going to learn Arabic, interpret the Quran the right way and then all our problems would be solved."

Many of us can relate to the feeling that there is a truth out there that we can get to if only we are learned enough. However, we grow up and come to assume that the supremacy of Islamic knowledge lies with those whose day job it is to memorise it, and so we shirk from entering any religious debate.

Well, that is just ridiculous. If the blasphemy law debate is to be won and I am talking in pragmatic terms here, it has to be framed within the context of religion.

The problem with the idea of blasphemy law is that it implies that the Prophet (PBUH) or God or the Holy Book are extremely fragile and weak that unleashing the law to punish business-card trashing and water-bringing betrays a supreme sense of insecurity. It also implies that something as mundane as those actions would bring the whole edifice of faith and religion crashing down.

Is our faith so weak that it sentences an impoverished woman to death to save itself? Is our religion so wobbly that trashing a business card can bring it down?

Even if you do not believe in the sacred history, accepted versions of historical Islam admit that the Prophet (PBUH) suffered some brutal persecution of his people and himself without feeling the need to physically avenge them. So why is it that his followers, fourteen centuries on feel so insecure about criticism?

The blasphemy law is a blasphemy in its own self. It reduces that which is supposedly sacred into an idea so weak and powerless that only the most violent action can save it.

You might not agree with me and you might not feel that you can carry this debate with anyone armed with tafseers. Perhaps, but I honestly believe that even if this is a losing argument, it is not a futile one because it zeroes in on the realm of religion – the very realm the pro-blasphemy camp seems to believe it owns, and can thus manipulate it for its own purposes.

Ahmer Naqvi is the Brian Lara of his generation - he's a genius but his team usually loses. He blogs on his own property in Blogistan, and makes short films you can see here, and here.

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