By Sameen Qazi
October 16, 2014
A few days ago, social media went rife with people praising Ben Affleck. “Batman comes to the rescue” was the general sentiment tweeted by everyone and my friends happily posted the link to the clip from Bill Maher’s show. People were ecstatic that an American, a prominent actor at that, finally stood up for Islam on a highly rated TV show.
The clip did not just cause a sensation in Pakistan; it opened a debate online with prominent analysts like Reza Aslan and Fareed Zakaria taking up sides and expressing their opinions.
As I thought over what Maher and Sam Harris had said, I found myself more and more in agreement with them. Admittedly, the two hosts had used some pretty harsh words, and what they termed as ‘problems in Islam’ are mostly ‘problems with Muslims’, but the core facts they shared were irrefutable. Something even Affleck realised after his passion filled emotional response.
While their views regarding treatment towards women in the Muslim world can be argued against, the hosts were spot on when they talked about issues like apostasy and blasphemy.
Harris is correct when he says that the majority of Muslims are conservatives who might not identify with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) but will agree to death for apostates and blasphemers. These are the same people who support what he terms as “bad apples” by remaining silent and thus agreeing with those extremist acts. Relying upon liberal principles of justice, equality and freedom of speech, Maher said,
“It is the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will %^&$*$@ kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.”
We can disagree on the semantics, but how many can deny what he says is not true?
Muslims are sensitive about their religion, even when that criticism comes from within their circles; Salman Taseer, Rashid Rehman and Dr Shakil Auj are just a few examples in recent history that give credence to his view. And it is not just individuals that can be held accountable, even a major entertainment channel was taken off the airwaves due to blasphemy allegation. Islam will not kill you, but a fanatic zealot surely will.
While most of us would identify themselves as moderate Muslims who could never think of killing someone, one cannot argue that emotions run wild even in our own country when sensitive topics like blasphemy and apostasy are discussed.
According to the PEW Research’s survey conducted in 2013, 75% of Pakistani Muslims say blasphemy laws are necessary to protect Islam in their country. Blasphemy law may have its roots in colonial times, but it finds its proponents in religious scholars who back these laws often calling them a part of one’s faith in Islam and therefore cause the larger masses to believe in them. Now it might not be that 75% of the people would actually kill a person who is accused of blasphemy, but by silently agreeing to it, they provide the latent support to extremists who will eventually do the deed. These are the people who turn out in support of Mumtaz Qadri and denounce his death sentence for killing Taseer.
We, Muslims, love to comfortably deny any criticism thrown towards us regarding extremist elements by simply saying that it is an insignificant minority, and what that extremist minority does neither represents the true picture of Islam, nor do they have popular support for their actions. This brushing of issues under the carpet, which make us uncomfortable, neither helps us nor the image of Islam in the world. Thus, the moderate majority (if that exists), does very little to collectively counter the extremist narrative and therein lies our problem.
As Muslims, we need to stop brushing aside every criticism as Islamophobia, we need to listen to opposing voices, and deal with the rising intolerance in our societies.