Blasphemy in a human world — by Sikander Amani

Whether you like it or not, the notion of blasphemy, or of ‘defamation of religion’, creates a hierarchy of beliefs which is simply incompatible with the plurality of the world, and the very right to hold a belief
The Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, recently announced the revision of the Blasphemy Law. For anyone remotely familiar with the outrageous abuse of this law, which has more often than not been used to target non-Muslims for persecution, personal scores or political vendettas. This is very welcome — and long overdue — news. For anyone with even a vague concern about the equality of human beings, this might even be cause for celebration. Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP) claimed that “no one has the power to touch the Blasphemy Law.” Then, slightly less hilariously, but in keeping with their ever so sophisticated views, they threatened “harsh protests” in case the blasphemy laws were touched. Nothing like intimidation and the threat of violence, especially under the guise of God’s wrath, to ensure people get your point.

The issue of blasphemy has become a wide issue. In March 2009, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution, to be followed up soon, calling for the prosecution of defamation of religion. The resolution was initiated by Pakistan, with Venezuela and Belarus as unlikely co-sponsors, and the US now seems to be following suit. It states: “Defamation of religions is a serious affront to human dignity leading to a restriction on the freedom of their adherents.” This is a very thought-provoking — and actually, deeply unsettling — move.

It is no wonder that a Muslim would feel offended by, say, the now famous caricatures on Islam published in a Danish paper in 2005, just like a Christian would feel offended by the negative portrayals of Jesus in several advertisements published lately. There is also no doubt that, at least in Europe, there is clearly a double standard about the limits of freedom of expression, even if the specific history of the European continent partly explains it. Double standards are intrinsically unjust, and European states defending freedom of expression and freedom of speech would have a lot more credibility if they did so in a fair and equal manner, especially in light of the increasing signs of intolerance against Islam across the continent, which European governments not only allow, but in some cases openly support. It is also true that public authorities have a responsibility to ensure a climate of mutual confidence, trust and civility in the polity, and the increasingly strident voices against Islam marks a clear erosion of just such a civility in Europe, an erosion which one can only condemn.

This, however, does not suffice to alleviate the deep unease caused by the UN resolution. It is easy to demagogically surf on the wave of public sentiment and hurt Muslim feelings, as Pakistan, in its virtuous indignation, pretends to do. But the resolution undoubtedly raises the spectre of now providing an officially sanctioned pretext for stifling legitimate dissent. Given the overall dismal record of Muslim countries in protecting religious minorities, or religious dissenters in general, given their equally abysmal use of blasphemy laws (its abuse in Pakistan is more the rule than the exception), one can only be deeply suspicious of such a text. On the contrary, it seems to be the first step towards allowing for the supremacy of one religion — and not just that, but even of one specific interpretation of religion. Sadly, in light of the tendency of extremist groups to impose their views through violence, it is likely that the most reactionary interpretation will prevail, since they are the ones who have a problem with blasphemy in the first place. Another problematic aspect of the text lies in its confusion on the meaning of freedom of religion. Mocking Jesus has never prevented any Christian from going to mass; outrageous statements on Islam or its figures did not impede Muslims from practising Islam. Is not this, after all, what freedom of religion is all about? Freedom is about letting me exercise my belief — not about acknowledging it publicly and officially as true.

And indeed, the text is based on a deliberate confusion: that beliefs, rather than individuals, have a dignity to be protected — which flies in the face of what human rights stand for. In a multi-religious world, where several religions claim to be the only or the best path to salvation (which is their job, after all), freedom of religion is predicated on disagreement, i.e. on the fact that no one religion can be held objectively and publicly as the only valid one, hence the right for everyone to choose their version of the sacred, or none at all. This, in turn, entails the need to acknowledge the legitimacy of religions other than your own, as well as the right not to have any. Now, you will say, “Okay, but we should not defame any form of belief in the sacred.” Aye, there’s the rub. Because in a world where there is no unitary decision on what is holy, I am not bound by your allegiance to your version of the sacred, just as you are not bound by mine: what is sacred to you might not be sacred to me. It might be a matter of good etiquette, or of politeness, that I do not offend you, but it can never become a ‘right’ of yours not to be offended in this subjective matter. It makes a mockery of both law and the intellect to state that there would be a “right not to have one’s feelings and emotions hurt”. Once you acknowledge we live in a human world (human in the sense that we no longer derive authority, political in particular, from the divine), you can no longer impose your views of the holy on anyone, or, more importantly, impose the reality of holiness as such: no one can be forced to be in awe of the same things as you, just as no one can be forced to be in awe at all.

The problem is made all the more acute because of its international dimension: it is very difficult to argue that the fact that the great majority of, say, Pakistanis, or Egyptians, consider Islam to be the truth, and feel hurt by caricatures mocking their religion, entails a correlative obligation on the Danish legislator to ban such expressions. Should Iceland ban any unpleasant statement on, say, Zoroastrianism because someone, somewhere, some time, might feel hurt? But this is a problem even within a state: should Pakistanis stop eating beef because the Hindu community of the land might feel offended by the slaughter of cows? Slippery slope indeed.

Whether you like it or not, the notion of blasphemy, or of ‘defamation of religion’, creates a hierarchy of beliefs which is simply incompatible with the plurality of the world, and the very right to hold a belief. It would become a sad and dangerous world if all of a sudden some beliefs would be immune from discussion. Imagine a world where we would no longer be allowed to make fun of Scientology. Imagine a world where we no longer could criticise Bush’s lunacy, simply because he is the guru of some neo-conservative sect in America. Because, in a human world, religions do not have an inherent superiority to any other set of beliefs.

The decision of having a human, rather than a divinely inspired, world means that we can no longer be killed or imprisoned for not having the ‘right’ beliefs. That is undeniably a progress, since no one agrees on what the right beliefs are.

The writer is a freelance columnist and can be reached at

Source: Daily Times



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