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Partners in blasphemy

March 11, 2010

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Last week, an interesting story in the Pakistani media went unnoticed in which an eminent Islamic jurist Dr Muhammad Aslam Khaki threatened to register a blasphemy case against the federal government for comparing the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) to the Charter of Madina.

The jurist was referring to the review petition filed against the recent NRO verdict by the Supreme Court of Pakistan that declared the ordinance unconstitutional, ordering the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to reopen all the corruption cases against a number of senior political figures and government officials who were earlier protected under the NRO.

In Khaki’s opinion, the Charter of Madina was an accord between Muslims and non-Muslims to promote mutual patience and tolerance under the leadership of the Prophet Muhammad – not to hide each other’s crimes. Comparing this peace accord with the NRO is therefore unjustified.

He further argued that contrary to the Madina Charter under which both the parties agreed to reconcile, the NRO was an agreement between a dictator and a political party to cover each other’s corruption cases and comparing the actions of the Prophet to a dictator amounts to blasphemy. According to him, the government is liable to be prosecuted under the country’s blasphemy laws – ironically introduced by another dictator in Pakistan in 1986.

There couldn’t have been a worse time for this accusation against the present government that is in the process of amending the Blasphemy Law to prevent its misuse by extremist groups. Although minority groups and human rights activists in Pakistan have time and again called for the repeal of this law, the government only has some “procedural changes” to offer for now.

There are reports that the present government (like the previous one) will be unable to fulfill its commitment as religious groups in Pakistan have threatened street and legislative protests if the revised bill is introduced.

Also, for a country like Pakistan that is leading 56 other Islamic nations in lobbying for an international legislation against blasphemy at the UN, calling for a repeal of the national blasphemy law is out of the question. It is worth mentioning here that Pakistan’s initiative to lead the nations of Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) is propelled by religious groups in the country rather than the government itself in an attempt to ‘Islamise’ the Pakistani society.

These groups claim that insults against Islam and the Holy Quran are on the rise in the Pakistan and are hence seeking an international cover to suppress religious minorities in the country. They, however, have no evidence to back their claim.

Over the past two decades, hundreds of cases have been registered under the country’s blasphemy law, which is known to be one of the most stringent laws. The penalty includes a mandatory death sentence for defaming Prophet Mohammad, but no one has been convicted so far. However, in a recent case in Lahore, a Christian was awarded life imprisonment for desecrating the Holy Quran. In several other cases, alleged blasphemers have died at the hands of mobs even before the police could intervene.

Secular groups in Pakistan have long demanded that the law should be repealed, primarily arguing that Islam should not be the only religion protected under the anti-blasphemy law. As one activist with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan rightly points out: "There is no need for an anti-blasphemy law. Laws are for humans, not beliefs and ideas. You can't limit one's thoughts."

At an international level, western democracies also reject the basic premise that religions should have rights. The focus, they argue, should be on equally protecting the rights of the adherents of all religions as well as those who choose not to practice religion at all.

Imam Yahya Hendi, an American Muslim scholar who was in Karachi recently, echoes these views. "While I do believe that all religions should be respected, I don't think I would support a legislation in this regard, which will eventually be used as a political sword," he told a group of journalists. In his opinion, such a law would also discourage people from discussion and debate about different religions of the world, adding that one needs to be more tolerant of criticism against religion and learn to fight back with sound arguments instead of "seeking protection behind laws."

One interesting exception to the generally laissez-faire attitude towards the concept of blasphemy in the West is the case of Ireland, whose government surprised everyone last summer by introducing a law against blasphemy.

The legislation imposes criminal penalties and fines of up to €100,000 on anyone found guilty of ‘publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion.’

The Irish Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern insisted that he was obliged to reform the existing 1961 Irish law on defamation, which ruled that a person can be both fined and imprisoned for up to seven years for the crime of blasphemous libel.

“My intention is to remove the possibility of prison sentences and private prosecutions for blasphemy,” said Mr Ahern, who argued that the only alternative to bringing in a new law was to change the constitution by a national referendum, “a costly and unwarranted diversion” from the country’s financial crisis, he said.

But it seems that Minister Ahern did not realise the worldwide ripple effect that was to be prompted by a small piece of legislation in a small western democracy. The law has been seized upon by groups from the extreme left to the extreme right of the political and religious spectrum across the globe.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), a 56-nation regional security group, warned that the Irish blasphemy law could flout international standards on the freedom of speech and have a ‘chilling effect’ on the freedom of expression.

Elsewhere, a group named Atheists Ireland launched a controversial online campaign opposing the legislation which garnered worldwide attention. They posted 25 written or and uttered quotations which have been categorised as blasphemous under various laws, attributed to figures including Jesus Christ, Prophet Muhammad, Pope Benedict XVI, Mark Twain, Salman Rushdie, and singer Bjork.

Yet, while the law was largely criticised and condemned in the West, other groups decided to hold up the Irish blasphemy law as an international model.

Religious groups in Pakistan are using the Irish law to spearhead the campaign, mentioned earlier in this article, for an international law against blasphemy. The OIC has borrowed word for word the text of the Irish legislation in their submission to the UN Ad Hoc Committee on the Elaboration of Complementary Standards calling for the adoption of a global principle against defamation.

And so, while the members of Atheists Ireland run the risk of prosecution and fines for their open challenge to the Irish blasphemy law, the government of Pakistan is being charged with the same accusation from hard-line Islamists for comparing the NRO with the Charter of Madina.

The real question is to determine which party is caught in the middle of all these polemic views. Does a law against blasphemy protect against the incitement of religious hatred, or does it promote intolerance and extremism?

Hard-line religious groups in Pakistan and the Irish government both favour the former argument. And the government of Pakistan, which is struggling to dilute its Blasphemy Law in order to prevent its misuse by extremists, finds itself on the same side of the fence as Atheists Ireland.

A case of strange bedfellows, indeed.

This blog was co-authored by Aroosa Masroor and Jessica Magee.

Aroosa Masroor is a Karachi-based journalist. Jessica Magee is a freelance print and broadcast journalist based in Dublin, Ireland.

The views expressed by these bloggers and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.