Much ado about blasphemy
Acursory view of the whole debate about the Blasphemy Law shows that there are many saner and more intellectually sound Muslims who do not support the existing draconian law. Except for a small extremist coterie of bigots, many politicians are all for removing Section 295-B and C
Way back on March 6, 1927, Bertrand Russell delivered a lecture to the National Secular Society, South London Branch, at Battersea Town Hall. It was subsequently published in pamphlet form that same year. This essay achieved fame when Paul Edward published a compilation of Russell's essays on religion, titled Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays. In his lecture, he talked about his agnostic views about God and questioned certain Christian values.
The blasphemy and blasphemous libel laws were part of the British common law at that time. The laws had existed since the 17th century and were punishable by the common law courts. This law was not invoked against Russell by the Church or the British government, although a police case was registered against one rationalist, Harry Boulter, in 1908. He repeated the offence in 1909 and was jailed for six months for speaking against religion.
The last person sent to prison for blasphemy in Britain was John William Gott in December 1921. He had three previous convictions for blasphemy when he was prosecuted for publishing two pamphlets titled Rib Ticklers, or Questions for Parsons and God and Gott. While Russell's intellectual criticism of Christ and God was tolerated by British society, Gott's satire of the biblical story of Jesus was found punishable. He was sentenced to nine months hard labour. As he was suffering from some incurable illness, he died shortly after he was released. The case became the subject of public outrage.
There were outbursts by religious lobbies against the subsequent writing and art work, which they considered were blasphemous but the law was not invoked and freedom of expression was respected. The debate about this law gained currency when British author Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses, was published in 1988. Strong reaction against Rushdie in Muslim countries and an Iranian fatwa sanctioning that he should be killed "stimulated debate on this topic", with some arguing that the same protection should be extended to all religions, while others claimed the UK's ancient blasphemy laws were an anachronism and should be abolished. Despite much discussion surrounding the controversy, the law was not amended. The law was however abolished in 2008. The lobbying for the abolition was done by the National Secular Society and was signed by leading figures including Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, who urged that the laws be abandoned.
In 2006, a Dalit intellectual Kancha Ilaiah, who is Head of the Political Science Department of Osmania University in Hyderabad (India) wrote Why I am not Hindu. He wrote with "passionate anger, laced with sarcasm on the caste system and Indian society". The book criticises the Hindu gods and goddesses and provides socio-economic context to the Dalitbhujan gods and goddesses. There was indeed a strong reaction against the book from extremist Hindu organisations, but it was supported by many Hindu intellectuals and civil society activists. As Hinduism does not have the concept of blasphemy, such laws are absent in their tradition. Today, Section 295-A of the Indian Penal Code punishes "hate speech, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of any citizen with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging religious feelings." The law is not religion-specific.
There is enough literature written by Jews against Judaism. The Jewish right has always condemned such moves but has not been able to get them tried under any law. More recently, David Dvorkin published his paper Why I am not a Jew in the US. Nobody demanded that he should be tried and no attempt on his life was made. In any case, he could not have been tried in the US because freedom of expression is an inalienable right of the people under the First Amendment. However, in 1995, a book was published in the US, Why I am not a Muslim. The writer used a pen name, Ibn Warraq, fearing the strong reaction from Muslim extremists. The question thus arises is why, in our Muslim society, is free thinking not challenged by rational argument by the Muslim theologists? Why do we need one of the most extensive and repressive blasphemy laws?
A cursory view of the whole debate about the Blasphemy Law shows that there are many saner and more intellectually sound Muslims who do not support the existing draconian law. Except for a small extremist coterie of bigots, many politicians are all for removing Section 295-B and C. To my pleasant surprise, even Rana Sanaullah, who is generally considered to be a fundamentalist, agreed to change in the law on a TV talk show recently.