It was, apparently, the posting of a “blasphemous image” on Facebook that led an angry mob to burn down houses with children inside them.
It’s been suggested that it was a picture of the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site, that provoked the mob in Gujranwala in Pakistan. They rallied last Sunday at Arafat colony, home of 17 families belonging to the Ahmadi sect. As police stood by, houses were looted and torched. At the end of the night, a woman in her 50s, Bushra Bibi, and her granddaughters Hira and Kainat, an eight-month-old baby, were dead. None of them had anything to do with the blasphemous Facebook post.
Was the image even blasphemous? In some ways, it doesn’t really matter. What matters was that it was posted by an Ahmadi, whose very existence is condemned by the Pakistani penal code.
Ahmadiyya emerged in India in the late 19th century. It is a small sect based on the belief that its founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was, in fact, the Mahdi of Muslim tradition. This teaching is rejected by Orthodox Sunni Islam.
In Pakistan, this means that being a member of the Ahmadiyya sect is dangerous. The law says you cannot describe yourself as Muslim. You cannot exchange Muslim greetings. You cannot describe your call to prayer as a Muslim call to prayer. You cannot describe your place of worship as a Masjid.
Any Ahmadi who “any manner whatsoever outrages the religious feelings of Muslims” can be imprisoned for up to three years.
Ahmadis suffer disproportionately from Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, but they are not the only ones who suffer. Accusations of blasphemy are frequently levelled at members of other minorities and at mainstream Muslims too. Often, this is done out of sheer spite. Often it is done to settle scores.
As the New Statesman’s Samira Shackle has pointed out, amid the chaos and fear generated by the law, it’s often difficult to find out what people are actually supposed to have done, as media hesitate to repeat the alleged blasphemy lest they themselves be accused of the crime.
The fevered atmosphere created by the laws mean that to oppose them can be fatal. In Janury 2011, Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer was killed by his own bodyguard after he pledged to support a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, who had been accused of the crime. Taseer’s assassin claimed that the governor had been an “apostate”. He was widely praised by the religious establishment. Three months later, Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was killed, apparently because of his belief that the blasphemy law should be changed.
Meanwhile, an amendment proposed by Taseer’s colleague Sherry Rehman, which would have abolished the death penalty for blasphemy, was dropped. Rehman was posted to diplomatic service in the United States later that year, amid allegations that she herself had committed some kind of blasphemy.
The number of blasphemy cases is steadily rising, and Human Rights Watch recently claimed that 18 people are on death row after being found guilty of defaming the prophet Muhammad, though no one has as yet been executed.
The laws may seem archaic, but they are in fact utterly modern. While some of South Asia’s laws on religious offence date back to the Raj, the laws relating to the Ahmadi, and the law making insulting Muhammad a capital offence only emerged in the 1980s, as part of General Zia’s attempts to shore up his religious credentials.
The sad fact is this Pakistan’s new enthusiasm for blasphemy laws is not an international aberration. Nor is this a trend confined to confessional Islamic states.
Ireland’s 2009 Defamation Act introduced a 25,000 Euro fine for the publication of “blasphemous matter”. According to the Act , “a person publishes or utters blasphemous matter if—
(a) he or she publishes or utters matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion, and
(b) he or she intends, by the publication or utterance of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.”
Note how similar the wording is to the Pakistani law forbidding Ahmadis from offending Muslims. The Pakistani government repaid the compliment when, along with other members of the Organisation of Islamic Conference, it attempted to force the UN to recognise “religious defamation” as a crime, lifting text from the Irish act. Pakistan claimed, grotesquely, that criminalising blasphemy was about preventing discrimination. Cast your eyes back once again to how its blasphemy provisions treat Ahmadis.
Across Europe, more and more blasphemy cases are emerging. In January of this year, a Greek man was sentenced to 10 months for setting up a Facebook page mocking an Orthodox cleric. In 2012, Polish singer Doda was fined for suggesting that the Bible read like it was written by someone drunk and “smoking some herbs”. The trial of Pussy Riot in Russia was heavy with talk of sacrilege.
We tend to believe that the world is moving inexorably toward a secular settlement. The unintended upshot of this prevalent belief is that organised religions, even in countries like Pakistan, get to portray themselves as weak people who need to be protected from extinction, even as they wield power of life and death over people.
Religious persecution is real, and should be fought. Freedom of belief is a basic right. But blasphemy laws protect only power, and never people.