Islam Blasphemy Law's Meaning and Its Potential For Abuse in Countries such as Pakistan, even Western Countries
Death of a Governor in Pakistan
On January 4, 2011, the Punjabi Province Governor Salman Taseer was assassinated by a member of his own security detail. The gunmen emptied his AK-47 at the target, hitting him over a dozen times at close range. The gunman later turned himself in, claiming that he killed the governor because the governor is for weakening the blasphemy laws currently in effect in Pakistan, and for going easy on the alleged blasphemer Asia Bibi.
The act of the gunman was cheered by a group of moderate clerics (who had issued anti-Taliban statements previously) and he was hailed as a hero by various Pakistani groups.
What is blasphemy law, and why is it worth killing over?
Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan
The law of Pakistan is unique in that it proclaims itself to be an Islamic Republic, which means its official religion is Islam. It also has laws on the books that makes it illegal to defame Islam, Prophet Mohamed, the various famous religious figures in Islam, to desecrate the Koran, defile a sacred place or sacred object, and so on. The penalty for these offenses are usually fines and years in prison, except defaming Prophet Mohamed, which carries a penalty of death.
An interesting addition to the law is specifically aimed at the Ahmadiyya, which is also known as the Ahmadi Muslims or just the Ahmadis. The Ahmadis consider themselves Muslims, and follow all Muslim laws and customs except one: they believe their leader, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was the most recent Prophet, not Prophet Mohamed. This lead to them being classified as non-Islam in Pakistan, with laws specifically forbidding them from referring to themselves as Muslims or to even have a public meeting or preach.
The blasphemy law is also enforced rather strangely, at least to Western
eyes. The movie "Da Vinci Code" was declared blasphemous in Pakistan
and banned because it defamed Jesus, and Jesus is one of the prophets in
Blasphemy vs. Apostasy
Blasphemy is defaming elements of a religion, such as insulting, defiling, or defaming a religious figure, sacred object, sacred place, and so on.
Apostasy is abandonment of someone's faith, basically a conversion from one religion to another.
Asia Bibi and Proposed Amendments to the Blasphemy Laws
Asia Bibi was a illiterate woman working as a farm hand in a small village. In June 2009, someone remarked to a cleric that she had insulted Prophet Mohamed. Previously she has had some friction with her Muslim neighbors. A mob stormed her house, beating her and her family members, until the police arrived and rescued her. However, she was taken into custody and an investigation by police determined that there is enough evidence to charge her for blasphemy and she was held in jail. In November 2010, a judge in Punjab handed down a sentence of death by hanging and a fine.
International press picked up the new of the death sentence and many Christian organizations claim it is religious prosecution of minorities in Pakistan, and called up various governments to put pressure on Pakistan to get the woman released, or at least the sentence commuted.
Some Pakistani ministers and governors share the thought. Due to a long list of various problematic prosecution and investigation of such blasphemy crimes in Pakistan, many of which apparently arose of false accusations or trumped up charges, many high-ranking officials in Pakistan believe the the blasphemy law should be weakened, and the death penalty repealed.
On the other hand, many Muslim leaders believe that any attempt to weaken the blasphemy law is an affront to Islam. The league of 500 Imams that issued the statement praising the assassin was an indication that this issue may be a very divisive one in Pakistan. Some radical Muslim leaders claim that this is some sort of international conspiracy to divide Muslims.
A Different World View
A blasphemy law at its heart is basically preferential treatment of Islam and its followers. Muslims can insult all the other religions legally without consequence, but no other religions can insult Islam without running afoul of blasphemy laws.
Part of the problem is the definition of blasphemy vs. apostasy.
In a Western Society, it is possible to commit blasphemy, but NOT be an apostate. For example, John is not a Christian, so if John made derogatory remarks about Jesus Christ, he may have committed blasphemy against Christians, but he's not an apostate.
In an Islamic Society, there is no separation of church and state. Church IS the state, and vice versa. Thus, there is also no separation of blasphemy and apostasy. Apostasy and blasphemy are tantamount to treason. If you committed blasphemy in an Islamic society, you have committed apostasy as well. And a Muslim turning his or her back on the true faith, according to the Koran, deserves death, very similar to the Torah prescribing death onto Jews who went apostate.
Any recognized non-believers, known as dhimmis (Christians, Jews, etc.), are allowed to practice their religion in a non-conspicuous manner, but are subject to the same blasphemy / apostasy laws as Muslims. Which means they are severely punished. This law had been abused for hundreds of years, because according to Islamic shariah law, testimony of a Muslim is weighed more than that of a non-Muslim.
There are some schools of Islam that classifies different degrees of apostasy or blasphemy, and prescribes different punishments, but actual implementation will depend on the specific country / society.
Blasphemy Is Not Unique to Islam
While Islam has some of the harshest punishments for blasphemy, it is certainly not unique among religions that prescribes penalties for blasphemy.
The Jewish Torah specified penalty of death for those to speak blasphemy.
Western countries have blasphemy laws on the books for centuries. United Kingdom actually only repealed all of its blasphemy laws in 2008, though no one had actually used the laws for decades. Of course, UK's blasphemy law is only to protect Church of England.
Blasphemy vs. Hate Speech
While blasphemy law may be needed in some cases, in many other cases it is simply used to intimidate religious minorities. Only countries with state religion have used blasphemy laws, and mainly against non-believers.
In Western countries "hate speech" law is used instead. Hate speech describes a much wider set of "speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display which is forbidden because it may incite violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected individual or group, or because it disparages or intimidates a protected individual or group." (cited from Wikipedia)
In practice, the line between hate speech and freedom of speech is blurry, and new methods of communication such as the Internet further blurs the line.
Free Speech or Blasphemy?
The problem with blasphemy about Islam is a very thorny one. While there is nothing wrong with a religion mixed with a state, the blasphemy law makes law professionals cringe as it is so easily abused due to the way shariah laws are as written.
In Pakistan, any blasphemy violations must be judged in a shariah court, which then of course, must be presided by a Muslim judge. The judge will take testimony of a Muslim over that of a non-Muslim by law. This essentially means that any testimony on the part of the defendant, unless he has the support of other Muslims in the village, will be pointless, should the accuser perjure himself, or procure any false witnesses.
Can it fairness be restored? It will be very difficult. Islam is a very pervasive faith that governs every aspect of life, including law. There are actually two court systems: "secular court" and "shariah court", but any sort of blasphemy automatically falls under the Shariah court, where the odds are decidedly stacked against non-Muslims, and that will be up to Muslim Jurists to decide what can be done to preserve the rights of non-Muslims against false accusations.
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