We Cannot Avoid The Battle Over Blasphemy

Why do we turn a blind eye to executions in Muslim states? After Paris, we must confront attempts to impose extreme versions of Islam in the West

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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.

The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has long campaigned, with near-success, to have defamation of religion made an internationally recognised offence. It is only gradually that non-Muslim states have seen the implications of such a law for freedom of speech and of the press. There has also been pressure, by various Islamic organisations in the West, to bring in legislation against “hate speech”, which would restrict freedom to criticise or satirise religious beliefs. In Britain, an attempt by the previous government to bring in such legislation forbidding “hate speech” was only qualified by last-minute amendments in the House of Lords safeguarding academic discussion, preaching and propagation of secular and religious beliefs which might otherwise have been construed as hate speech against a particular religion or lifestyle. This has not prevented over-zealous police or other officials from trying to stop Christian evangelism in “Muslim areas”, forbidding the display of biblical texts in public places or arresting street preachers who were thought to be “offending” this or that pressure group.

In an important intervention in the Daily Telegraph, Dr Tim Winter (aka Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad), a senior Muslim theologian at Cambridge University, points out that image-making is itself an offence in Islam but then goes on to claim that what has immeasurably compounded this offence for Muslims is that the Charlie Hebdo, and the Danish cartoons, before that, were intended to “mock, deride and wound”. He goes on to say that to laugh at the Prophet cannot be understood as free speech but does not say whether academic discussion of him or apologetic by polemical secularists or Christians would be or could be. Using the by now well-known tactic of gaining domination through claiming victimhood, he appeals to Muslim lawyers in Britain to use existing hate speech, slander and libel legislation to trigger a series of complex cases which would lead to the protection of Muslims from “abuse”. As with the OIC’s exertions regarding the defamation of religion on the international stage, is this a thinly-veiled attempt to have some kind of blasphemy law recognised nationally?

What is the difference between Asia Bibi and numerous others on death row, having been convicted on blasphemy charges, and the killings on the streets of Paris and Copenhagen? Is judicial execution different from these extra and anti-judicial atrocities? Why does the international community tolerate one but not the other? Is it because Westerners are involved in one but not the other?

We can no longer avoid a serious discussion about blaspheming in Islam and the culture around it if we are to understand and to prevent both judicial execution and extra-judicial murders. As with apostasy, the Koran seems not to provide for any punishments in this life for blasphemy against God and the Prophet though again, as with apostasy, various unrelated verses are pressed into service by those who would find such a punishment in their scripture. The most the Koran does is to say that such people are cursed in this life and in the next where God will mete out to them “a humiliating punishment” (33:57). It is claimed that the execution of poets, such as Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf in 624 AD, for insulting the Prophet sets a precedent for executing blasphemers today. Others say that these poets were executed for inciting sedition and not merely for blasphemy.

Also, there are well-known stories of the Prophet forgiving some who had insulted him. It is incumbent on Muslims to follow the Sunnah, or practice of their Prophet. Which aspect will they follow today? A great deal depends on what answer is given to this questions.

Some scholars have suggested that there should be a high bar set for entertaining allegations of blasphemy. Those who make such accusations must themselves be pious Muslims and, if a false accusation is made, the penalty for this must be there same as for the offence of blasphemy itself. From time to time, proposals are put forward which will make it procedurally more difficult for such allegations to be brought but the fundamental questions remain that of free speech and the balance to be struck between this and civility in society, as well as the need for public order. Are there any limits on freedom of expression?

The UN Declaration itself provides for the possibility of restrictions for the purpose of securing due recognition for the right and the freedom of others and for meeting the just requirements of “morality, public order and the general welfare”. What does this mean? Do the limitations have to do only with law and can we include custom and convention in public life and the media?

In this sense the events in Paris which have highlighted the role of satirical magazines like Charlie Hebdo have also obscured the serious discussion which needs to take place about the authenticity of the extremists’ claim that they represent “true Islam”. Such a discussion needs to take place not only among Muslims but with all those who have to live in Muslim lands or who have Muslims as neighbours, colleagues and fellow-citizens. How is the Koran and the Sunnah to be interpreted and whose interpretation is correct? To what sources are the extremists appealing and can such appeals be countered?

In a free world the founders of all major religions will come under scrutiny: Moses, Muhammad and Jesus are not excluded from such study. What was their message? What were their aims? What kind of people were they? These are legitimate areas for serious discussion. It is a pity that they have been short-circuited, for the time being, by the “tongue in cheek” activities of satirists though, it is to be hoped, not for good.

Should religious believers seek any protection under the law from insult to their precious beliefs? People are protected from false statements being made about them either orally or in print. Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) also prohibits advocacy of religious hatred that leads to discrimination, hostility or violence against an individual or community. That is to say, the intention is to protect individuals and communities not articles or systems of belief as such. If a belief is attacked, surely its best defence is a reasoned response rather than violence or legal sanction?

The British in India sought to prevent the propagation of religious hatred as a means of promoting social harmony and maintaining public order. In certain contexts, this may be a legitimate aim but, if it is given legal form, it must be hedged about with safeguards for free expression. To put it another way, freedom of speech must be the presumption and any limitations would need to be justified on a case by case basis.

Any penalties for breaches of such limitations must be commensurate with the offence. One of the problems with laws of apostasy and of blaspheming in some Islamic nations is their draconian nature and lack of flexibility and judicial discretion. It cannot only be Muslims who are thus protected. In the Islamic world, the urgent need is to protect Christians, Yazidis, Baha’is and Ahmadis from the hatred engendered by textbooks, extremist sermons and pamphleteering.

The tragedies in Paris and Copenhagen should lead us to face these and other issues squarely, not to avoid them simply to maintain social cohesion with our societies or friendly relations with our trading partners. If they are not faced, domestic and international peace will be short-lived.