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Pakistani protesters at a rally against Asia Bibi: a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010 (Arif Ali/AFP/Getty)

 In the aftermath of the killing and maiming in Paris, Western politicians and the media studiously ignored the obvious questions about the relationship between these and the general attitudes, derived from sharia, to blasphemy and apostasy in the Islamic world. This was, no doubt, for the sake of good community relations and to prevent a backlash against Muslims. These are commendable reasons but unless we can understand the truth behind these events, we will not be able to deal with the problem of extremism and to prevent further attacks. The issue has,once again,be given the sharpest urgency by the double tragedy in Copenagen. Facile defences of "free speech" and claims that these are just a handful of deluded terrorists are simply not enough and do not convince a thinking public. We need to investigate thoroughly the hinterland to the minds and acts of the people who carry out these attacks.What has led them to their distorted and dangerous conclusions?

The different schools of Islamic law are unanimous that the punishment for blasphemy is death. It is for this reason that the Federal Shari'at Court in Pakistan removed the alternative of life imprisonment for blaspheming against the Prophet of Islam and made the death sentence mandatory for this offence. The results of having such a law are well-known. Large numbers of Christians, Ahmadis (members of a heterodox sect) and even Muslims have been accused of blasphemy, tried and sentenced to death. Even people with a history of mental illness have not escaped the rigours of this law and recently, the Lahore High Court rejected the appeal of Asia Bibi, a poor peasant woman, against the sentence of capital punishment imposed on her for allegedly blaspheming in the course of witnessing to her Christian faith.

The law has been widely misused to settle personal scores and to gain an advantage in matters like property disputes. Once a charge is made, the accused's fate is sealed. Both police and judiciary are intimidated by extremists and, at least in the lower courts, there can be only one result: conviction and the death sentence. In the case of Asia Bibi, the worrying development is that the higher courts too now seem to have been intimidated. It is concerning also that Pakistan's example is being followed by other nations. The case of Raif Badawi, who has recently been convicted to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam in Saudi Arabia, is but one example of this tendency.

An important feature of the general atmosphere created by this law is a sharp increase in mob violence against those accused of blasphemy and this extends to their family, their home and even the village or community in which they live. There have been numerous attacks on places of worship, schools and Christian and Ahmadi communities because someone within these is alleged to have blasphemed. Mobs can be incited by someone with a personal grudge and mosque loudspeakers are used to gather crowds which are then encouraged to mete out "rough justice".

Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights guarantees the freedom of thought, conscience and religion and also the right to manifest our beliefs in teaching, practice, worship and observance. It also guarantees our right to change our beliefs. Although most Muslim countries have adopted this and other declarations, it has often been with a declared or mental reservation: insofar as they are consistent with sharia. This has led to various restrictions ranging from those on free speech to restriction and even prohibition of worship. It is interesting to note, in this connection, that Islamic declarations on human rights, such as the Cairo Declaration (1990) made by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, either omit Article 18 altogether or significantly alter its content to bring it closer to the requirements of sharia.

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