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Anatomy of blasphemy laws
By Anwar Syed
THERE was a time when religion kept a society together, and denial of its truth or efficacy could work as a disintegrative agent. It had, therefore, to be protected from the invasions of non-believers and heretics. None could be allowed to ridicule the dominant majority’s religion, its doctrine and dogma. Those who uttered or published such insults would be punished. Thus began the blasphemy laws in England and Europe.
I should like to say a word about the operation of blasphemy laws in England, a country with which we have had long and deep associations, before examining their substance and workings in Pakistan. Until about the close of the 16th century church authorities dealt with blasphemers under the canon law. Subsequently, blasphemy became an offence under the English common law. In 1676, Sir Mathew Hale, the lord chief justice, maintained that “Christianity is parcel of the laws of England,” and that, therefore reproaching it amounted to subversion of the state and government.
English law made the following types of expression subject to imprisonment, fine, and/or corporal punishment: denial of God’s being and providence; “contumelious reproaches” of Jesus Christ; “profane scoffing” of the holy scriptures, or exposing any part thereof to contempt or ridicule; reviling the sacrament of the Last Supper; rejection by a person professing to be Christian of the belief that members of the Holy Trinity were God, or that the holy scriptures were of divine origin.
In its actual operation the law was used from time to time to persecute atheists, Unitarians, Quakers, and other non-conformists. But it appears also that other persons punished for violating it were not all that numerous. The last such person was John William Gott, sentenced to nine months in prison in 1921 for having satirised the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem and for comparing him with a “circus clown.”
It should be noted that the English blasphemy law did not protect religions other than Christianity as represented by the Anglican Church. No penalties ensued if, for instance, anyone made fun of the Pope or, for that matter, belittled Martin Luther or John Calvin. Since the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, Muslims in Britain have been asking for the law’s coverage to be extended to protect all religions. Other minorities have made similar demands, but these are not likely to get anywhere.
Many British liberals — including a good number of businessmen, members of parliament, academics, men of letters, journalists, and creative artists — believe that the blasphemy law is harsh, outmoded, discriminatory, liable to be used as an instrument of bigotry, contrary to the Human Rights Act of 1998 (especially clauses relating to freedom of expression), and that it should therefore be repealed. On the other hand, conservatives, represented by organs such as the “Christian Voice,” oppose repeal.
The compromise to which successive governments in Britain have tended would keep the law on the Statute Book but not enforce it. A large group of persons gathered outside the entrance to a church in Trafalgar Square (London) in 2002 to hear one of James Kirkup’s poems, which suggested that Jesus had been “gay.” The police, however, left the sponsors of the event and the audience alone.
The blasphemy law in Pakistan does not protect religions other than Islam. No penalties will be imposed on the man who alleges that the attribution of divinity to Krishna is misconceived, or that the Hindu scriptures are nothing more than fiction. Equally safe is the man who declares that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s claim to being a prophet is false.
Otherwise the law is extensive in coverage and stringent in its terms. It takes the form of additions to Sections 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code. Section 295-B provides that anyone who defiles, damages, or desecrates a copy of the Quran, or an extract from it, and anyone who uses it in a derogatory manner or for “unlawful purposes” (whatever that might mean), will go to prison for life. Section 295-C has it that anyone who defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) through any form of expression whatever, explicit or implicit, shall merit death or life imprisonment and fine.
It appears that any assessment of the Prophet’s honour and dignity that falls short of the level that others may have assigned him will probably be interpreted as blasphemous. It follows also that no part or aspect of his word or deed is to be open to scrutiny.
Section 298-A prescribes imprisonment up to three years to anyone who “defiles the sacred name” of any of the Prophet’s wives, members of his family (“Ahl-i-Bait”), companions (“Sahaba”), or any of the first four “rightly guided” caliphs.
Additions to Section 298 (B and C) are addressed exclusively to members of the Ahmadi community. They will go to jail if they do any of the following things: call their faith Islam and themselves Muslim; preach their faith; refer to anyone of their own community as Ameer-ul-Momineen; designate such a man’s companions as “Sahaba” and his wife as “Ummul Momineen”; invite Allah’s blessings upon one of their chosen persons; call their place of worship a masjid or make the traditional Muslim call for prayer. They are not to “outrage” the religious sensitivities of Muslims. Subsequent developments forbid them to post the Muslim declaration of faith (kalima) on their places. And, unless I am mistaken, they may not even greet a Muslim in the latter’s traditional language.
Parts of this law are vague and thus lend themselves to misapplication. It is, for instance, hard to assign the word “defile” a specific enough connotation. The dictionary says it means to corrupt the purity or perfection of a person (or object), debase him/her, to denude him/her of chastity, to make him/her unclean with something that is contaminating, sully or dishonour him/her. In another situation we might have dismissed this word as a bad choice, but here we are stuck with it.
Plain abuse or denunciation could be called defiling. For instance, anyone who calls Jesus “gay” or compares him with a “circus clown” (as mentioned above) may justly be accused of “defiling” him. But if one chooses to use the word loosely, many harmless observations could be dubbed as defilements and therefore blasphemous. Consider a few possibilities.
There are Muslims who believe that our Prophet was partly divine, while others believe he was entirely human. In the former view the latter are lowering his status and may be seen as defiling his sacred name. On occasion the Quran is critical of some of the Prophet’s wives, but if a Muslim asserted the same, he might be accused of defiling them.
We know as a fact that Umar bin Khattab and Ali ibn Abu Talib disagreed with Abu Bakr (the first pious caliph) on certain issues and considered his decisions to have been inappropriate. Would we be defiling the “sacred name” of Abu Bakr if we were to agree with Umar and Ali?
One of the Prophet’s wives, Ayesha, and two of his companions, Talha and Zubair, fought Ali ibn Abu Talib (“Jang-i-Jamal”) soon after he had become the fourth pious caliph. Muawiya bin Abu Sufyan also fought him (“Jang-i-Safin”). Needless to say, one of the sides in these battles acted wrongfully. Would it be blasphemous to say so?
Some of the Prophet’s companions remained with him for several hours every day. Others visited him only once in a while and that too briefly. Surely they cannot all be placed as equals in terms of their closeness to the Prophet. The law under reference gives us no clue as to who are to reckoned as “Sahaba” whose names are sacred. For instance, is Abu Sufyan, an inveterate foe of the Prophet, who repeatedly led the Quraish of Makkah in battle against him, and who accepted Islam only after Makkah had fallen, to be counted among his “sahaba” and criticism of his conduct to be regarded as “blasphemous libel”?
Constraints placed upon the Ahmadis in sub-sections B and C of section 298 are perplexing, to say the least. They are forbidden to follow Muslim expressions, observances, usages, and practices in spite of the fact that these are all parts of their faith. Or, to put it in another way, the law says their faith must not be what it is.
The law says the Ahmadis must not call themselves Muslim and their faith Islam. This puts them in an impossible position. They are not merely pretending to be Muslim. They honestly and truly believe themselves to be Muslim. The law requires them to lie about their self-perception. It calls upon them to be duplicitous. This is incredible.
The law is repugnant not only to the universally accepted charter of human rights, to which Pakistan is a signatory, but also to its own Constitution, which guarantees all citizens the right and freedom to profess and practice religions of their choosing. It sanctifies horrendous intolerance and reduces Pakistan’s professions of moderation and enlightenment to gross hypocrisy.
Islam is quite capable of “protecting” itself, if we will let it be. Moves to “protect” it, and the resulting controversies, have only worked to divide us as a people. The blasphemy law serves no useful purpose. It is simply an expression of the majority’s anger at a small minority that is deemed to be heretical.
In its actual operation it has visited unspeakable suffering upon innocent persons. Men of ill will have used it to wage personal vendettas, grab the weaker party’s property, or simply vent their malice.
Yet, given the likely opposition of the Islamic parties, it may be politically difficult to repeal this law. The British compromise might merit consideration: the law may remain on the Statute Book, but let it be ignored, and thus made inoperative.
The writer is professor emeritus of political science at the university of Massachusetts at Amherst, US.