Much ado about blas­phemy

The Pak Banker - - 4editorial - Babar Ayaz

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.

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