Written by Iona Ramsay
Faith, spirituality and religious belief can be one of the most important elements of a person’s identity. However, in many parts of the world, the freedom of both believers and non-believers to express themselves is threatened in worrying – and even deadly – ways by the politicisation of religion.
In fact, when it comes to censorship and legalised punishments in the name of “religion”, the criminalisation of blasphemy across the globe is surprisingly common. Today, over a third of countries worldwide have some form of legal framework against “blasphemy”. Amongst the harshest of these is Pakistan’s infamous system of blasphemy laws. Supposedly designed to protect God and Prophet Muhammad from insult and defamation, these unfortunate laws have instead resulted in the imprisonment of thousands of people, as well as escalating levels of mob violence and killings on behalf of both the State and its citizens.
Pakistan: Deadly restrictions on freedom of speech
Back in 2010, Pakistan attracted worldwide condemnation when a Pakistani-Christian woman named Asia Bibi was sentenced to death for insulting Prophet Muhammad. What was her alleged blasphemous behaviour? As events unfolded, it was revealed that a row had broken out in her village after Muslim women refused to drink from the same cup as Bibi. Bibi was accused of blasphemy five days later and, despite the contradictory evidence, was sentenced to death.
To this day Bibi remains imprisoned on death row – almost nine years after her sentencing. Meanwhile, supporters of Bibi and critics of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have also suffered tragically for speaking out for Bibi. When Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab – the most powerful province in Pakistan – came out in support of Bibi, he was later shot dead by his own bodyguard. Alarmingly, the murderer is now revered as a martyr by many.
The apparent ease with which Bibi could be convicted to death for blasphemy – in spite of shaky evidence – reveals the extent of the atmosphere of fear surrounding Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Lawyers are afraid to repeat allegedly blasphemous words in court for fear of being accused themselves, and have been murdered for taking on such cases. Even judges – the highest-ranking professionals within the legal field – have expressed fear about declaring a non-guilty verdict.
Islam and colonial Pakistan: Personal rights and freedoms
Fundamental rights to freedom of expression and religion, as well as the right to fair trial and due process, are clearly being violated in the context of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. However, it would be a mistake to present such injustice – as is often done – as an example of some sort of conflict between human rights and Islamic law.
In reality, Pakistan’s first blasphemy laws actually date back to British colonial rule, when they were introduced in an effort to prevent disharmony between Muslim and Hindu groups. The current formulation, however, was brought in by General Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s, and set out the death penalty for blasphemy and includes specific anti-Ahmadi clauses. This was part of Zia’s programme of “Islamisation” of the country, which was an attempt to bring all laws into “conformity with the injunctions of Islam”. However, how far these laws conform to “the injunctions of Islam” has been much debated among Islamic scholars.
Blasphemy itself has been frequently conflated with the traditional crime of apostasy (renouncing one’s faith), for which the punishment in classical jurisprudence is often believed to be stoning [Editor’s note: Voice of Salam does not believe in or support the view of stoning as a legitimate Islamic theological practice]. These laws traditionally did not apply to non-Muslims, but today’s blasphemy laws in fact are often deliberately used to target non-Muslims (who under such laws could be accused of blasphemy, but not of renouncing a faith they never had). Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are thus a misinterpretation and misapplication of classical Islamic law.
In fact, many scholars today question whether apostasy should even be considered a criminal – rather than a moral – offence [Editor’s note: Voice of Salam does not believe in/support the criminalisation of apostasy]. The apparent prohibition rests on a solitary hadith, and appears to contradict early Muslim practice. Within the context of early Islam, rejecting the faith also meant rejecting the State, and so laws protecting Islam effectively functioned as laws against treason. In the modern nation-state however, when citizenship is not determined by religious identity, acts of blasphemy no longer present a threat to the State.
However, in Pakistan, blasphemy laws still hold the perceived “quality” of protecting national identity. Yet in reality, the current defence of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws represents a nationalism of the worst kind. Such nationalism is based on an “othering” of religious minorities including Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Ahmadi and Shia Muslims who are disproportionately targeted by the current blasphemy laws.
The vast and often violent political power that can be mobilised by such nationalist sentiment has politicised the blasphemy laws in dangerous ways. In the most recent elections, Imran Khan’s populist PTI party was helped to victory by its defence of the blasphemy laws, whilst last November, Islamabad was brought to a standstill by protestors who accused the government of blasphemy after it changed the wording of an oath.
More often than not however, the laws serve simply as a way of settling personal scores. The late Mashal Khan was a young student who had criticised his university’s management. After rumours spread that he had expressed blasphemous opinions, he was lynched, shot and mutilated. In the end, the police investigation after his death concluded that there was no evidence that he had ever committed blasphemy.
Rights first: No room for blasphemy laws
The concept of “blasphemy” has undoubtedly moved beyond theological debates and in many cases has now come to signify an offense against national laws and political power. To even criticise the law itself is seen as an offense against God. In the context of Pakistan, blasphemy has become a “catch-all offense” against God, the nation and the political system with deadly outcomes [Editor’s note: Voice of Salam believes that limitations on freedom of speech should only be imposed in the interest of public safety and peace to counteract violence and hate speech].
Ultimately, loss of personal freedoms and even the right to life are the heavy price the victims of such draconian laws have been forced to pay. However, as long as blasphemy continues to remain such an emotive and sensitive issue, in a country where religion permeates almost every area of society and where Muslim Sunni privilege prevails (at the cost of all Muslim and non-Muslim minorities), it appears that these laws will not be abolished any time soon.
Whilst we can hope and campaign for legal change, until such time comes we must ensure that the concept of “blasphemy” does not continue to serve as an excuse for violence, sectarianism, and disregard for the rule of law.
Editor’s note: Voice of Salam does not believe that stoning is an original mandated/legitimate Islamic theological practice from any point of Islamic history. Nor does Voice of Salam believe in any form of “punishment” for/criminalisation of apostasy.
Voice of Salam believes in the separation of religion and the State and stands against the use of any form of capital/physical punishment in all forms in today’s society.
About the author
Iona Ramsay is currently studying for an MA in Religion in Global Politics at SOAS in London, and holds a BA in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Cambridge.
Iona works for CSW, a Christian human rights organisation which advocates for freedom of religion or belief for all, and is particularly interested by ways in which religion is manipulated for political, personal and commercial gain.
You can get in touch with Iona at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Feature image: FL-photography (i-Stock)