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The blasphemy debate

Published Jan 10, 2011 06:40am


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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For some, the blasphemy law needs to be repealed because it is a violation of freedom of speech.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.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of t

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Comments (11) Closed

SIDDHARTH Jan 10, 2011 02:29pm
Dear Ahmer Naqvi, you have the guts to swim against the current. However, protect yourself; this planet needs young men like you to make it "live and let live" type entity...
Waheed Jan 10, 2011 06:33pm
Very mature response.
H Jan 10, 2011 08:37pm
Some valid points, atlhough i believe freedom of speech should be available to everyone. Just because a few people criticise our religion or talk against it, its not going to have any impact on the religion so why are people so defensive?! its not the religion thats weak but some of the followers.
Usman H Jan 10, 2011 10:41pm
There is complete lack of tolerance in this society and people bring in emotion which shrouds there judgement. It's impossible to have a healthy debate without one being labelled a sinner or reminded of Gods wrath for even speaking about it.
Sandesh Jan 11, 2011 12:11am
Very well described and explained article about this law,,, in a very systematic way....... I liked it... Keep it up..
saad Jan 11, 2011 06:00am
Hats off to martyr Salman Taseer. He was the only politician who had the courage to save an innocent life, and spoke against the misuse of blasphemy laws. He truly sacrificed his life to save Pakistan from falling into extremists hands.
Abid Jan 11, 2011 11:13am
Why don't we cause concentrate on solutions which addressess the misuse& abuse of this law. Articulate how these abuses happen, what can be done to stop them, and how the reform should be enforced.
Faraz Husain Jan 12, 2011 02:06am
"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" - - - BRAVO!!
Anand Jha Jan 18, 2011 09:59pm
Mr. Naqvi It's a pleasure reading such a good article of yours and I really liked the wordings you have used to show your protest against a social disease.What we need is educated mass should come up and try to spread the power of education among others and I know it is very very difficult.If you ask poor they will see religion as the only existing fact , if you ask a wealthy person for them religion is one of the existing fact and if you ask politicians they will see it as a tool to rule. My good wishes are with all my Pakistani brothers and Sisters.
sharath Jan 19, 2011 04:03pm
Dear Mr Naqvi, It was nice reading an article from across the border ,which is equivocal,clear and well written.Unfortunately the world has to put up with religious bigots who interpret religion to suit their narrow violent agenda. Pakistan has bore the brunt of this paranoia.But from across the border the fear and helplessness of the majority of your people is palpable,and this does not bode well for your country. My best wishes to you and all your countrymen and i pray that sanity prevails and relationships improve between our countries.
Ahsan Jan 20, 2011 07:04am
To all favoring change in blasphemy law, I ask only one question. How would you feel if someone comes in your house and curses your mother or your father? Would you be ok with it and call it freedom of speech or what?