The blasphemy law is self-defeating


It is a shame that in the year 2017 we are still debating whether or not an individual should be killed for expressing a viewpoint. The statement doesn’t change even if that viewpoint is utterly despicable. Neither would it change even if it is a verbal attack on the personality one might hold dearest to their heart and in the highest esteem.

What has brought the debate back to the fore – not that it ever goes away in Pakistan – is the first death sentence based on social media blasphemy, which has been issued to a Lahore-based Shia man in Bahawalpur.

So someone posted something that was deemed derogatory to Islam on Facebook, and now he should be executed as per the law of this land. Alright, in a country where free speech and more importantly life itself has little meaning, it shouldn’t come across as a surprise that now we’re sentencing people to death for activity on a social media network. But what truly is ridiculous about this process is that this madness is being carried out for ‘respect’.

Yes, by killing someone for apparently disrespecting an ideology, or a person that we hold in high esteem, we believe that we would maintain the esteem of that particular ideology or a person.

Let’s further simplify this: if US codifies into law the death punishment for anyone who insults America, would the rest of the world start respecting the US more after watching people being killed for criticising it?

Or let’s look closer to home: ever since we’ve witnessed a rise in the mob lynching of Muslims in India for beef, have we started respecting cows more? Do we not find it utterly despicable that people can be killed for eating a beef burger, and face state sanctioned imprisonment for it?

So why do we think it’s okay to kill people for drawing cartoons or making YouTube videos or saying something on Facebook?

More importantly, why on earth do we think this would add to the respect for Islam?

Any Muslim who believes that an individual should be killed for blasphemy, cannot simultaneously say that Islam is a religion of peace. For that to be the case, there should be no stoning, no amputations, no decapitations, and no lashes for ‘crimes’ like blasphemy, adultery, homosexuality and even sorcery. And let’s not forget in large parts of the Muslim world, there are no violent punishments for many of these.

Of the 50 Muslim-majority states, why is it that only 13 countries – Pakistan included – punish blasphemy with death? Do the other 37 not care about the respect for Islam or Muslim figures? Should we start calling them non-Muslim then?

The fact is that all ideologies, religions included, have to evolve with time so that they remain relevant to their time. The contemporary world cannot be defined through theological interpretations of a millennia-and-a-half ago, and it’s the scriptures that need to be viewed in the light of modern sensibilities.

That means that the blasphemy law cannot exist in the 21st century, no matter how well substantiated the case of its proponents might be. More importantly, the theological discussion on the blasphemy law – which has been reinterpreted progressively to remove the capital punishment by many modern Islamic scholars – should not be deemed sacrilegious as well.

That is what has created an inertia, where an individual cannot even question the legality, validity, or relevance, of a law, because seemingly doing so would breach the law itself. In this regard, the law acts like a jurisprudential mafia.

The blasphemy law being self-defeating is made obvious by the many anti-Muslim right-wing groups in the West highlighting its prevalence in the Muslims world – and the rather dangerous support for it among the masses – to underscore their claims against Islam and Muslims.

Of course our collective silence only aggravates the anti-Muslim bigotry, which has increased hate crimes against Muslims in the West. We, in turn, are silent because we don’t want to kill in the name of ‘respect – it’s a vicious circle that continues to claim lives of Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and there’s hardly anything more insulting for any ideology than people killing in its name.

For further enhancing the esteem of Islam and its prominent figures – especially in the eyes of those who don’t adhere to it – we need to bring a progressive and tolerant version of Islam to the forefront. There already are pluralist interpretations of Islam out there, we just need to make sure our states take them up, every time they want to legislate over a matter of religious concern.

But of course, as long as the blasphemy law – especially in its existing form, with the capital punishment – is still there, reformism cannot become mainstream. Because reform itself would be, and is, deemed blasphemous.