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Non-violent ways to combat blasphemy


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SINCE religious, racial and ethnic identities are central to human conceptions of self-worth, non-constructive speech whose sole purpose is to deliberately insult such identities should certainly be discouraged.

Pakistanis burnt vehicles, theatres and Obama effigies incessantly for days following the uploading on YouTube of The Innocence of Muslims. However, such self-directed violence obviously has little chance of success, and wisdom lies in considering non-violent strategies for combating blasphemy.

Moreover, one must pursue not only formal but also informal non-violent mechanisms to increase the chances of success. A dispassionate review of the feasibility of both mechanisms can help allocate effort appropriately across both options.

Focusing mainly on formal mechanisms, people often propose asking the UN to impose a global blasphemy ban. However, the UN can only develop international conventions. Each member country is free to decide whether to ratify individual conventions fully, partially or not at all.

Thus, Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights already mandates that “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law”.

However, when ratifying this convention, the US submitted reservations (as did Pakistan against numerous other articles of this convention) against Article 20 stating that it would not adopt it since it contradicted its free speech provisions. Consequently, the UN cannot penalise America for not enforcing this article domestically.

Furthermore, the UN also lacks enforcement powers against even those countries which violate international conventions they have previously ratified unless all five veto-wielding countries agree. Such agreement is possible only in cases of grave global security threats given the vast differences in the priorities of veto-wielding countries. As such, achieving UN-imposed blasphemy bans and subsequent action against non-complying countries, especially veto-wielding ones, will require enormous effort.

Muslim countries will ultimately have to influence domestic opinion and legislation in every country individually, which also is an enormous task. They could focus more immediately on Western countries since most blasphemous speech originates there given their lenient free speech provisions.

Since free speech exceptions exist even in Western countries, Muslims could first review whether current exceptions could outlaw blasphemous speech. Thus, privacy/confidentiality laws in Western countries usually trump free speech rights, but are largely irrelevant against blasphemy issues.

Slander is a crime in a number of Western countries, but such provisions mainly protect living individuals and companies rather than identity groups or deceased individuals. Hate speech instigating violence or intimidation against identity groups, beyond just ridiculing them, is banned. However, this provision would not cover blasphemous speech which does not explicitly instigate violence.

Speech which would invariably create public commotion and injury is banned, e.g., shouting ‘fire’ falsely in a dark theatre since it will understandably instigate almost everyone to run reflexively to save their lives.

While blasphemy causes commotion in Muslim countries, it clearly represents an avoidable choice rather than reflex action since most Muslims remain peaceful. Moreover, such commotion occurs beyond the boundaries of responsibility of Western governments, making them largely immune to it.

Thus, existing Western free-speech exceptions, reflecting Western individualistic and materialistic values, largely cover concrete losses to live entities and do not protect sacrosanct matters, including even Western religions.

The ban on Holocaust denial in some European countries is an exception to this trend, which Muslims could use to convince Westerners to have free speech exceptions cover other sacrosanct matters. However, even that ban has emerged from their own histories where six million Europeans were massacred.

Just as Muslim countries are loath to change their laws to please Western sensibilities, Western countries may not easily change their laws to please Muslim sensibilities. Thus, while it is still certainly worthwhile to pursue global blasphemy bans diplomatically, one must be mindful of the enormous challenges involved in achieving such bans.

Given these long odds, it is important to simultaneously consider informal mechanisms for combating blasphemy in the West. While Western societies do not prohibit identity-based insults legally, it is possible to discourage such attacks informally there.

Xenophobic right-wing groups in the US have a long history of disparaging minorities, e.g., blacks and Jews. However, Jews and blacks have become better organised and have also developed linkages with sympathetic societal groups to challenge right-wing vitriol.

Thus, even though such insults are not prohibited legally, anyone making anti-black and anti-Semitic insults faces severe public censure today and the frequency of such attacks has reduced significantly.

Such informal censures are much weaker in support of some recent immigrant groups, including Muslims, partly because they are not as strong economically, organisationally and/or numerically as blacks and Jews.

Since their economic and numerical strength is relatively fixed in the short term, the easiest option for such new groups is to enhance their organisational strength and develop linkages with sympathetic societal groups.

Thus, strengthening the advocacy and networking activities of Muslim political groups in Western countries may yield more immediate dividends in combating blasphemy than long, contentious battles in international bureaucracies and may even eventually help win these battles.

However, sympathy for some immigrant groups, including Muslims, is also weak in Western countries because minorities in these groups’ original countries face far worse excesses. For example, minorities cannot even pray openly in some Muslim countries.

The contentious movie itself was a deplorable reaction to excesses against Egyptian Christians. Thus, Muslims must also treat their own minorities better to garner greater sympathy and respect globally. As the saying goes, ask not for justice just for yourself but for everybody, for in doing so you make justice more assured for yourself.

The writer is a political economist at the University of California, Berkeley.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (29) Closed

DramaWriter Nov 07, 2012 05:42pm
Truth is sure hurting you two...
aa Nov 07, 2012 01:36am
Author assumes that religious identity is central to self-worth. Perhaps in Pakistan but not in all parts of the world. Religion has taken a backseat in most western countries. China, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India - deeply spiritual countries have large populations that have turned their backs on organized religion. Zealots exist in most countries but there's no evidence that religion is central to every man's self-worth.
Aimal Nov 06, 2012 08:46pm
I would like to know from this Comparative religionstudent why a muslim living in the West has a better and more secure life than in a country with a muslim majority.
Tahir Nov 06, 2012 04:49pm
This is such a silly thing to worry about. There's so many real problems in the world that deserve attention.
Gerry D'Cunha Nov 06, 2012 11:13am
'Muslims must also treat their own minorities better to garner greater sympathy and respect globally'.Name any muslim countries which follows this concept? Bless the christian countries who treat and respect their minorities - muslims are more safer in a christian countries than their own muslim countries. What a shame!!!!
Waqas Nov 06, 2012 04:53pm
Brilliant Matt!
JustSaying Nov 06, 2012 01:17pm
Your your hate ran away with your mind and facts.
Amir Bangash Nov 06, 2012 02:25pm
There is no doubt that blasphemy is the most heinous act on the part of Blasphemer but all Pakistanis must know that this act by itself is a conspiracy against Islam and Pakistan. No one be allowed to react in a violent way that harms no one but our own people and every one must wait for the law to take it
Truth101 Nov 07, 2012 07:55pm
You have lied from the get go...
Zanoo Nov 07, 2012 07:56pm
Nothing that you have stated is based on fact.
Zazi Nov 07, 2012 07:53pm
You obviously have experience that as you lie along creating hate.
peddarowdy Nov 06, 2012 10:27am
The World isn't comprised of US and EU, you know.. 60% of World's population resides in Asia. The greatest disservice to Human Beings is not Blasphemy, but stoning, cutting of hands for minor crimes, shooting people for adultery, jailing women in a Burqa in a 40 Degree Celsius weather are some that come to mind, none of which is practiced in the US or EU. I don't have to explicitly tell you where it is practiced. Horrible things happen in all Free Societies, Blasphemy is not one of them. Caste violence happens in India, but at least the law forbids it and the popular media highlights and decries it. In the Muslim world, forget law, event the media justified killing in the name of Islam(Qadri for instance).
Matt Kovach Nov 06, 2012 09:38am
its only blasphemy to believers
Abhishek Nov 06, 2012 08:38am
Pakistan society is fast changing into a monolithic one , where one cannot see life beyond Islam. What they fail to understand is that a Rainbow looks beautiful because is multicolored so a healthy society will flourish only if you have different and varied opinion rather than just one
Rogue Nov 06, 2012 07:14am
Most Pakistanis did not come out to start fires and plunder, vandalise, and kill. When and if not politically motivated and instigated, these protests are almost always like a toddler's tantrums, thrown because the toddler doesn't know any better, hasn't yet learned the correct way to express his frustration. Alternate means of registering protests need wide publicity. This also brings to light how duties of public representatives are still not clear to majority of public. More years of democracy should do it. I cannot say how many.
Rani Sharma Nov 06, 2012 06:04am
Instead of expecting the West and other non-Muslim regions to change their ways how about Muslim countries practicing tolerance for free speech, especially criticism of histrorically prominent religious persons? How about facing up historical facts?
BRR Nov 06, 2012 05:48am
A well reasoned article that factors in the reality of the world we live in, but is likely to be lost of most Pakistanis who neither understand nor care for such reasoned explanations.
peddarowdy Nov 06, 2012 03:15pm
Which part of it is a lie? Please enlighten, oh just one.. Is Blasphemy really a greater crime than say killing a minister who stood up for a poor Christian girl?
Osmond Nov 06, 2012 05:17am
There can be no international blasphemy law ever, not even individual countries can enact blasphemy laws that can ensure justice to everyone regardless of what religion they choose to follow. Look at it this way, a follower of a particular religion believes that his/her religion is the only true religion which implies that someone else's religion is false so that constitutes blasphemy. A case in point Muslims blaspheme Christianity by preaching that Jesus was a prophet, who Christians believe is the son of God. Christians believe that after Christ there will be no other Prophet, implying that Mohammed is not a Prophet, which constitutes a blasphemy in Islam. So how on earth can one come up with a law that can do justice to both Christian's & Muslims ?
Abdul Nov 06, 2012 04:26am
very nice article
Utkarsh Nov 06, 2012 04:22am
A very well reasoned and detailed article that would dispel many myths that were spouted about the West around that time. But the key point remains: why do you want to outlaw blasphemy? It's hurting your feelings, nothing more. It's not causing any violence (until YOU start rioting because of it). It's just someone expressing his opinion on a subject that you do not lay sole claim too. Blasphemy could only be justified when we knew that the particular religion was actually an absolute truth. But no matter what you feel about your religion, the truth is there is no absolute truth in any religion.
ComparativeReligionStudent Nov 06, 2012 01:03pm
Agha Ata (USA) Nov 07, 2012 01:12am
Everybody is mistaken. People do not use violent ways to combat blasphemy; they use blasphemy as an excuse to get violent. It is the decades of boredom, frustration and joylessness and hopelessness of life that makes them rebel against everything.
Rajesh Kumar Nov 07, 2012 01:07am
@JustSaying - Truth always hurts.
Nazar Sandhu Nov 06, 2012 05:01pm
What is blasphemy for one man is faith for another. I believe that all religions are insults to God, ar therefore blasphemous and therefore should be banned. Not practical but that is my opinion.
rana Nov 06, 2012 07:52pm
tolerence is no longer part of our vocabulary. Arent muslims not told to marry the christians and the jews?does this not mean that a muslim man's wife can remain faithfull to her religious believe and to her man?i mean when a muslim man is allowed to marry a non muslim(jew or christian) does it not mean that she has the right to retain her religion?i think our modern day pakistani and indian muslim scholars have failed to get through to the muslim masses with the true Islam teachings.
Raoul Ciao Nov 06, 2012 07:34am
the issue is - why condone or criticize blasphemy in the first place? Till faith does not revert to being a private affair , it will continue to have ruinous implications as it will forever be "my belief against yours" also in the public domain. In the public domain should be, how do we live together, how do we make the nation a better place for the next generations of pakistanis etc . But by retaining violent or non violent methods to protst blasphemy etc, we continue to debate the here and now thoughts of radicals; as against of humanity and of those who are mostly marked out by blasphemy (or for that mater Hudood like ordinances) "laws" - Ahmediayas, Shias, hazaras of all shades, minorities includinh Christians, Hindoos, others; women etc etc. The issue is - inquiry is dead - no one wishes to inquire into religion at scholarly levels or reject the dictats of mostly radicalised "power centric" religious leaders anymore in Pakistan. They accept what they are told as the only truth and people like Mr Asghar Engineer are just too few and far between to suggest otherwise.
rana Nov 06, 2012 07:44pm
there's urgent need for muslims to learn about islam and then there will be no one to criticise Islam.
Rao Nov 06, 2012 01:19pm
Yours is a very succinct explanation buddy! I like that.