This was on old post about blasphemy laws that I wrote in 2015. It is on the site, but hard to search for, so i decided to repost it now that blasphemy is again in the news with protesters in Pakistan demanding the French ambassador be expelled, the country in lockdown and several people including policemen already killed in riots. It is possible that the main driver of this particular episode is something else entirely (for example, cracks in the ruling junta or between GHQ and Imran Khan) but the blasphemy meme-complex provides the fuel for this fire, even if it is being cynically used by some oversmart idiot in the ruling elite/intelligence agencies.
Most of this is picked out of a past post about the cruel blasphemy execution (by being burned alive) of a Christian couple in Pakistan. I am reposting because blasphemy is in the news again and I cannot count the number of times someone has managed to say “colonial era blasphemy laws in Pakistan” in a misleading manner. I wanted to have a post handy where I could direct them, so here it is, a quick overview of the blasphemy issue in Pakistan
A blasphemy law was part of the 19th century Indian Penal code as section 295.. It was not a bad law at all and the lazy habit of blaming it for later blasphemy law crap in the Indian subcontinent is just that: a lazy habit.
Here is section 295 of the Indian Penal Code of 1860:
Injuring or defiling place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class.—Whoever destroys, damages or defiles any place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defilement as an insult to their religion, shall be punishable with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.
The aim of the law was to prevent/punish things like someone throwing a dead pig into a mosque or a cow’s head into a temple. An actual physical desecration is to be punished. This seems like an eminently sensible law and cannot really be blamed for all the evils that came later. But in the 1920s there was a famous case in Lahore where a Hindu publisher was arrested by the colonial authorities after Muslims agitated against him for having published a book called Rangila Rasul (“merry prophet”). The British colonial authorities tried to prosecute him for hurting the religious sentiments of Muslims, but the high court in Lahore (quite properly) found him innocent because there was no law on the books against just publishing a book, no matter how offensive it may be to some religious group. Fearing future communal discord from such provocations, the British then had the legislative assembly add section 295A to the law in order to criminalize deliberate attempts to “outrage the religious feelings of any community”. This section states:
Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise], insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 4[three years], or with fine, or with both.
But even with this new and expanded article 295A in place, prosecutions for blasphemy were few and far between until, in the 1980s, General Zia added two new sections to the law in Pakistan and really set the ball rolling. These infamous sections are labelled 295B and 295C.
295-B: Defiling the copy of Holy Qur’an. Whoever wilfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur’an or of an extract there from or uses it in any derogatory manner for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.
295-C: use of derogatory remarks etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet: – who ever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation innuendo, or insinuation, directly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life and shall also be liable for fine.
Note that the law no longer requires that the offense be malicious in intent. Intent is no longer an issue. Insulting the Quran or the prophet, even unintentionally, is now punishable by death. To seal the deal, in 1991 the Federal Shariat Court of Pakistan struck down the option of life imprisonment and made the death penalty obligatory.
And of course, the new amendments only apply to blasphemy against Islam, not against all religions (in this sense, the new laws are more “rational” and internally coherent, since all religions blaspheme against all other religions as a matter of course, so the original law was not coherent in principle, though still workable in practice). Between 1984 to 2004, 5,000 cases of blasphemy were registered in Pakistan and 964 people were charged and accused of blasphemy; 479 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and 10 others. Thirty-two people charged with blasphemy were killed extra-judicially during that time. More have died since. Eighty-six percent of all the cases were reported in Punjab.
Every time the shit hits the fan, many liberal people start hoping that this blasphemy law can be changed to finally stop or slow down this torrent of prosecutions and killings. Others have noted that the law is not the problem, free-lance enforcement of a broader blasphemy meme in the Muslim community is the problem and will likely persist even if the law is repealed. In my view the law is not the only problem, but it IS a very potent symbol of the surrender of state and society in front of the blasphemy meme. Repeal of the law will not kill that meme, but repeal of the law will be an equally powerful signal that things have changed and that state and society no longer approve of the killing of blasphemers. It will not end the problem, but it will be the beginning of the end. Repeal of the law is not a sufficient condition for this nightmare to end, but it is a very important necessary condition.
Unfortunately, I don’t think such repeal or amendment is actually likely in the foreseeable future. My predictions:
- The law will not be repealed. Some minor amendments may be made someday (and even these will excite significant Islamist resistance and are not likely) but their effectiveness will be limited. Blasphemy accusations will continue, as will the spineless convictions issuing from the courts. In fact, new blasphemy accusations will almost certainly be made with the express intention of testing any new amendment or procedural change (thus, ironically, any amendment is likely to lead to at least one more innocent Christian or Ahmedi victim as Islamists hunt around for a test case).
- (in 2015 I wrote that Aasia bibi, the law’s most prominent current victim, will not get a reprieve from anyone but she will not be hanged. Instead, she will be held in prison till she dies or is killed by a vigilante in prison. Her immediate family will have to leave the country at some point. The local Christian community will have to clearly show their humble submission in order to be allowed to get on with their lives. Obviously I was wrong. Pressure from the EU and Canada proved intense enough to get her out. But it was done very carefully and remains a live issue for Islamists, who are now posting pictures of her meeting Macron as proof that France is the blasphemer in chief today.
- Blasphemy will continue to be a potent weapon in the hands of the deep state, the Islamists and sundry local gangsters and land grabbers.
These predictions may appear pessimistic and discouraging, but I would submit that they are not meant to be discouraging; they are meant to be realistic. The law will not be repealed because the law is not just an invention imposed by General Zia on an unwilling populace. Rather, this law is the updated expression of a pre-existing social and religious order. Blasphemy and apostasy laws were meant to protect the orthodox Islamic theological consensus of the 12th century AD and they have done so with remarkable effectiveness. Unlike their Christian counterparts (and prosecutions for heresy and blasphemy were seen throughout the middle ages in Europe) these laws retain their societal sanction and have been enforced by free-lancers and volunteers where the state has hesitated. The most famous, and in many ways, the most telling example of the wide societal sanction for killing blasphemers is the case of the carpenters apprentice Ghazi Ilm Deen Shaheed, who executed the Hindu publisher of Rangila Rasul after legal prosecution had failed. The demand to kill Rajpal was being made openly in public meetings and two other Muslims had already attempted to kill Rajpal prior to Ilm Deen’s successful attempt. In fact Ilm Deen’s best friend had supposedly wanted to do the act and only stepped aside because they drew lots and Ilm Deen won thrice in a row.
And when Ilm Deen did kill Rajpal in his shop, the Muslim community mobilized to defend him and in the high court his appeal was handled by two lawyers, one of whom was none other than Quaid E Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who was asked to take up the case by that illustrious modernist and “moderate Muslim hope”, Allama Mohammed Iqbal. After the appeal failed and Ilm Deen was hanged by the British, Allama Iqbal was one of the leaders of a campaign to have his body brought to Lahore for reburial (he had been quietly buried in a remote prison by the British authorities). When this demand was conceded in the face of massive public protests, his funeral drew thousands of spectators and was attended with pride by Allama Iqbal, who reputedly said that “this carpenter has left us, educated people, far behind”.
In an ironic twist the charpoy (rope bed) on which Ilm Deen was borne to his grave is said to have been donated by another literary luminary, Mr MD Taseer, whose own son would later become governor of Punjab and would be killed for “blasphemy” by a new Ilm Deen. Ilm Deen’s grave is now a popular shrine and a movie has been made about his exploit, complete with a dance sequence featuring the blasphemer enjoying himself before he meets his fate.
When Salman Rushdie’s book was declared blasphemous and rallies demanding his head were held all over the world and books were burned, General Zia was not the agent of those protests.
Rushdie went underground and has managed to survive, though some of his translators were not so lucky. But Theo Van Gogh was killed in broad daylight in Amsterdam and Ayan Hirsi Ali was driven underground for producing a supposedly blasphemous movie in liberal Holland. Another blasphemy execution was attempted by textile engineering student Aamir Cheema in Germany. And as expected, Aamir Cheema too has achieved sainthood in Pakistan after he took his own life in a German prison, with his funeral attracting thousands and his grave becoming a popular shrine.
A minister in Musharraf’s enlightened cabinet wrote more than one op-ed commending such acts and fantasizing about the day Salman Rushdie’s skin will be torn from his body with sharp hooks. A fantastically surreal movie has even been made about the execution of Rushdie by Muslim Guerillas who penetrate his secret Zionist hideout and attack him with flying Korans.
I am not kidding.
In 2002 a convicted murderer named Tariq decided to atone for his sins by killing a man accused of blasphemy who happened to be in the same prison in Lahore. Director Syed Noor (known for countless song and dance Lollywood films) produced and directed a movie called aik aur ghazi (one more holy warrior) about this young man and his glorious exploit. It is worth noting that Syed Noor is a “moderate Muslim”, but this has not prevented him from glorifying the actions of a vigilante who killed another prisoner because he believed him guilty of blasphemy.
When a poor christian boy was accused of blasphemy in Lahore, the entire colony he lived in was burned to the ground. When a poor Christian woman named Aasia bibi acted “uppity” in front of some Muslim ladies (see details in the video below), she was charged with blasphemy and sentenced to death. These episodes highlights another important aspect of the blasphemy meme: it functions to bully and oppress minorities by threatening them with legalized lynching in exactly the same way as the “uppity nigger” meme was used to bully and oppress black people in the pre-civil-rights South in the United States. The fear of being accused of blasphemy, enforced by periodic horrific lynchings, ensures that Christians, Hindus and Ahmedis never forget their place and act uppity in front of good Muslims, since any indiscretion could lead to a blasphemy accusation and once accused, your goose is cooked.
Aasia Bibi’s death sentence was so flagrantly unjust that Salman Taseer (whose own father had provided a funeral bier for Ilm Deen), the then governor of Punjab, was moved to say she should be let go and the blasphemy law should be amended to prevent such misuse. He was killed by his own guard for saying so. His guard was garlanded and showered with rose petals by Pakistani lawyers when he appeared in court and now has at least one mosque named in his honor.
HE has since been hanged. But he remains a hero to Islamists (including for the husband of the relatively liberal PM-in-waiting Maryam Nawaz Sharif) and it is worth noting that he had been handing out new death sentences of his own while in prison; he convinced one of his guards to go and shoot a 70 year old mentally unstable British man who has been sentenced to death on blasphemy charges but not yet executed (probably not yet executed because he is British). MNA Sherry Rahman introduced a “private member bill” to amend the law and was herself charged with blasphemy for her pains (though being a member of the ruling elite, she has not been brought to trial). Rashed Rahman, a well known human rights lawyer was shot dead because he dared to take up the case of a young university lecturer who is being tried for blasphemy on insanely ridiculous grounds in Multan. Javed Ahmed Ghamdi, a liberal cleric who has tried to present religious arguments against this law (a law that clearly goes well beyond anything written even in most of the medieval compilations of shariah law) has had his assistant killed and is now living in exile in Malaysia. “Respected” Pakistani religious scholars have declared him to be an apostate and an agent of the enemies of Islam. The law is no closer to repeal or even modification.
In fact. the law is now moving on to fresh pastures. There is a sustained push by anti-Shia groups to use the law against Shias just as it is being used against Ahmedis, Christians and other minorities. The law does not specifically mention the issue of blasphemy against the companions of the prophet (the sahaba), but why not? if you insult any of the companions of the prophet, do you not insult the prophet? Never mind that the companions themselves were frequently at each other’s throats, but today the issue is the wedge that will open the way to legal persecution of Shias and help push them into the same position now occupied in daily fear by Christians, Hindus and Ahmedis. Several Shias have already been charged under the law and there is more to come. In fact, on the same day when Shahzad and Shama met their gruesome fate in Kot Radha Kishan, a Shia Zakir was killed in custody in Gujrat. He may have been mentally unstable and had been arrested for brawling in the bazar. In custody, he continues to harangue the police about the calumnies suffered by the Banu Hashim (the family of the prophet) at the hands of some of the companions (the sahaba). This so upset one of the police officers present that he got an axe and decapitated the prisoner inside the police station.
But of course that is not all. Shias themselves are generally very keen on killing blasphemers (and in fact, frequently regard Wahabis and Salafists as blasphemers because they do not share the Shia’s extremely exalted opinion about the prophet and his family) and have been registering cases against Sunni clerics who insulted members of the prophet’s family or one of the Shia imams.
In short, killing blasphemers is considered a highly admirable deed by a very large number of people in Pakistan (and probably in several other Islamicate nations). While it is indeed true that misuse of the law has become common after General Zia’s time (an intended consequence, as one aim of such laws is to harass and browbeat all potential opposition), the law has deeper roots and liberals who believe that it is possible to make a distinction between true blasphemy and misuse of the law, may find that this line is not easy to draw. The second, and perhaps more potent reason the law will not be repealed is because the law was consciously meant to promote the Islamist project that the deep state (or a powerful section of the deep state) continues to desire in Pakistan. The blasphemy law is a ready-made weapon against all secular opposition to the military-mullah alliance (though some sections of the military now seem to have abandoned that alliance, hence the qualification “section of the deep state”). Secular parties are suspected of being soft on India and are considered a danger to the Kashmir Jihad and other projects dear to the heart of the deep state. At the same time, Islamist parties provide ideological support and manpower for those beloved causes. In this way, the officers of the deep state, even when they are not personally religious, recognize the need for an alliance with religious parties and against secular political forces (Musharraf was a good example).
Of course blasphemy accusations and their use to suppress speech are not limited to Muslim countries; e.g. Sikhs have resorted to violence to protest blasphemy and Hindu mobs have rioted to enforce the sanctity of Shivaji’s memory in Mumbai. But Islamist consensus on blasphemy is wider and deeper and has a very sharp edge that other fanatics can only envy. In the long run (decades, not centuries) Islamists will be forced to compromise with modernity one way or the other (with one way being less painful than the other). But that time is not yet here…For many years, perhaps decades, we are going to see terrible violence in the Islamicate core and some of it is going to be about blasphemy. That is just where we happen to be..
The above part of the article was originally written BEFORE the Hebdo killings. Then I added the following parts. Some of the following items are a bit outdated, but you will get the point I think.
The reaction to the Charlie Hebdo killings in Western countries (and especially France) has been so visceral and immediate that many Muslim countries felt the need to send officials to express solidarity with France (those marching for freedom of expression have included the representatives of such bastions of free speech as Turkey and Egypt and even Hamas, Iran and Saudi Arabia were moved to condemn the killings. And within the Western world, even the postMarxist apologists who generally support restrictions on free speech in the name of “sensitivity” have been split vertically by the Hebdo murders. Some like Zizek have taken (for their ilk) an unusually harsh stance against the killers and their ideology, multiculturalism be damned.. But the Hebdo moment does not extend into the Islamicate core. In fact, Islamists in Pakistan are recovering their balance as we speak and are likely to launch some more protests this Friday to remind people that they are still around (though if the deep state does not wish to promote their cause at this time then the affair may not reach the level of past protests). In Niger, crowds have already burned several churches and several people have been killed (it seems they were not impressed by Pope Francis’ attempt to use this moment to ask for insult-protection for all faiths). More such stuff may happen in the days and weeks to come. In any case the Islamists do not have to respond soon. Patience is one of their virtues. Revenge attacks will come some day even if nothing happens soon. They have long memories. They are not done yet.
Longer term, the outcome in Western countries is likely to be more blasphemy, not less (things will be more confused in the world’s largest democracy). And it will not all be some principled defense of free speech. In terms of abstract principle, the French (and many other European countries) are not without their own hypocrisies. Many European countries have laws against “hate speech” , holocaust denial and even blasphemy that are a mockery of free speech (and that do not really promote the peace and harmony they are supposed to be promoting; see a must read article by Sam Schulman on this issue) They frequently do not apply these laws, or fail to convict when they do apply them (and punishments are very very mild), so the actual situation on the ground is not as bad as it is in many Islamicate or Marxicate countries, but it is certainly not ideal. The United States is, in terms of abstract principles, probably the best country in the world for freedom of expression. As in all human endeavors, there is some distance between the ideal and the practice even in these United States, but legal restrictions on freedom of expression are lower in the US than in any country I can think of (past or present).
But while discussions of abstract principle have their place, they can also distract from far more obvious and simpler points. In this case, here is the situation: there are people of many religions in Europe, in Japan, in China, in the Americas (North AND South) and in all these religions (except Islam) it is now the norm to argue about the foundational myths and to make fun of them. Some people take them literally (in ALL religions), many people deeply respect them, but some find them totally unbelievable and others just make jokes about them. In this atmosphere, you have a Muslim population that is asking for very special treatment for their particular myths. They are saying (in effect) that not only will WE live under rules XYZ, we want EVERYONE to live under rules XYZ. But they (and their intellectually more sophisticated defenders in the Western liberal elite) also insist they are not different in principle from anyone else. They also have ongoing and historic disputes with many groups (including, for example, right wing anti-immigrant politicians, Zionists, Jews in general, Christian religious nutjobs, Serbs, etc etc). In this setting, how likely is it that everyone in Western societies will accept MUSLIM rules that even some Muslims find unbearably oppressive? …I think it is not very likely.
btw, Charlie Hebdo itself has come out of this tragedy with flying colors. The accusation that they are some kind of racist right wing publication was a canard in any case, and their current issue proves it. You can read more about it here.
Anyway, here are my predictions:
1. More blasphemy in the West. Things will go back and forth, but the overall trend is that Islamicate taboos on satirizing Islam will gradually fall, as will taboos on discussing early Islamic history any differently from the histories of other religions or other ideologies. There will be more attacks, more Islamophobia (both real as well as imagined-SOAS-type Islamophobia) and more unpleasantness all around, but the overall trend will be towards more criticism and more satire and ever fewer taboos.
2. In the Islamicate core, blasphemy will remain a huge big deal and many more people may yet share the fate of Raif Badawi (or worse), but the internet will ensure that the discussions that will become common in the West will slowly make their way into the Islamicate core as well. But they will invite a backlash and in places (like Pakistan) things will get worse before they get better.
3. PostMarxist thinkers will split further, with some joining the critics of Islamicate taboos and other defending them in the cause of fighting Islamophobia. Many of them will continue to insist (not always without justification) that the “real issues” are economic or political, not religious, and that Islamophobia is real and the people on Fox News really do have more power than the Islamists still living in Western Muslim communities, but the circle within which religion is ALWAYS “not the real issue” will shrink, not expand. This is not of much interest to many people (since Post-Marxists don’t actually run the world, in the “West” or the “East”), but is always of interest to some of us because of the friends and family we hang out with. It will not be a happy few years in this circle as things in the Islamicate core get worse, Islamophobia (the actual cases) gets worse and neither Zionists nor Palestinians get to win cleanly. I feel a bit sad about this.
4. “Reform Islam” (consciously or unconsciously modeled on Reform Judaism) as promoted by people like Reza Aslan or Karen Armstrong may eventually become a real thing, with some sort of coherent theological framework and it’s own network of mosques and religious teachers, but we are nowhere close to it being a reality already. The notion that there is already some kind of “moderate Islam” that lies hidden under a recent Wahabi overlay and can be recovered by promoting Sufiism and the poetry of Maulana Rumi is highly exaggerated. Blasphemy and apostasy, for example, are capital crimes in ALL major sects of Islam and a few superficial books from Reza Aslan or Armstrong are not enough to change that. On the other hand, where there is demand, someone will eventually provide supply. These books are not completely useless. In the years to come, other, more subtle, more knowledgeable and more sophisticated thinkers will no doubt create such Islams (plural) in the Western world and in China. But not so easily in the Islamicate core. Things there will get worse before they get better. Dr Ali Minai has an excellent piece about some of the work that will have to be done.
The full-frontal Islamist memes meanwhile can be seen in this excellent video. Our Imam in school used to say a lot of these things in 1974 and we thought it was more funny than threatening. But they were serious and here we are today.
btw, as an illustration of things to come: several people (and more important, the magazine Newsweek) have posted respectful portraits of the prophet Mohammed painted by Islamic artists in Iran, Turkic and Mughal lands in the pre-colonial era. See for example
Btw, Hafiz Saeed is on it..