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Interfaith Dialogue ( 6 Dec 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Blasphemy and interfaith dialogue

By Dr Syed Mansoor Hussain  

Considering the easily inflamed religious sensibilities of most Pakistani Muslims, it is unlikely that any educated or sane member of any minority religion will deliberately commit ‘blasphemy’ knowing full well the result of such behaviour

Whenever I get another message in one of my internet chat rooms about Pakistani-American friends or acquaintances becoming involved in ‘interfaith’ dialogue, I feel a trifle sorry for them. I have always felt that interfaith dialogue in the US, especially between Muslims and other faiths, is a post-9/11 phenomenon that has served little if any useful purpose. Pakistani-American Muslims who want to embark on such activity are in essence ‘preaching to the choir’.

Most people in the US who do not subscribe to some extremist religious point of view accept people of other faiths as equally responsible US citizens and more importantly, the US constitution forbids any discrimination based on religion. This of course includes Muslims. Interfaith dialogue then is really encouraged by well-meaning Christians or Jews that wish to make Muslims feel as welcome as other religious minorities. Therefore, such dialogue is more often than not occurring between ‘reasonable’ people who do not have any ingrained bias against Muslims.

That said, what does make me particularly sad for these Pakistani-Americans trying to prove that Muslims in general and Pakistani Muslims in particular are a tolerant bunch of people is that we in Pakistan are so consistently bent upon undermining the reputation of Pakistani Muslims as being ‘tolerant’ of other faiths. Case in point is the recent death sentence handed out to a Christian woman for blasphemy. The fact that even the Pope has sent a message asking for her to be released does highlight the issue for most Catholics in the US and elsewhere.

Personally I believe that if any individual actually and deliberately assaults the religious beliefs of any person of another faith, that person should be held liable for such behaviour. However, whether the death penalty is appropriate punishment for such people, including those proved guilty of blasphemy, is a different matter entirely. Here I must admit that as a matter of principle I am opposed to the death penalty for any crime.

Whether we like it or not, harassment of minorities is a national pastime in Pakistan. One of my first memories as a child is of the anti-Ahmedi riots in Lahore in the early 50s. From then on I saw the thriving ‘Anglo’ community in Lahore virtually disappear as evidently did the Parsis from Karachi. Many members of these minorities, including the Ahmedis, have whenever possible migrated to other countries. The ones left behind, especially among the Christians except for some of the well-established urbanites, are mostly those who are too poor to leave the country of their birth.

The case of Aasia Bibi, the woman recently condemned to die, is typical of what happens to rural area Christians when it comes to charges of blasphemy. Often personal or local enmities are the basis of such charges and once such an accusation has been made, the local religious ‘leaders’ usually step in and make things worse. The investigative authorities as well as the lower judiciary then have no choice but to carry the charges forward, often ending in a conviction. If the accused is not immediately incarcerated then he or she is often murdered and the murderers of such accused persons rarely see a trial themselves.

Considering the easily inflamed religious sensibilities of most Pakistani Muslims, it is unlikely that any educated or sane member of any minority religion will deliberately commit ‘blasphemy’ knowing full well the result of such behaviour. It is, therefore, difficult for me to imagine a situation in which such behaviour would occur. From what little I have read it seems to me that in most Muslim empires of the past that had large non-Muslim populations, blasphemy was rarely — if ever — a problem. The same might be equally true of most Muslim majority countries in the world today. That then makes Pakistan rather unique in its frequency of blasphemy cases.

Much is being said and written about the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan these days. Not being a legal scholar by any stretch of the imagination, I cannot present an opinion about their validity. What I can, however, say is that as far as ‘discriminatory’ laws are concerned, more often than not such laws are just not enforced in most countries as these countries become more advanced and ‘civilised’. It is unlikely as far as I am concerned that any of these ‘religious’ laws that often lead to discrimination against women and minorities in Pakistan will ever be repealed or that Pakistan will develop a secular constitution. It is, however, more likely that such laws will become less commonly enforced as we become better educated and yes, more civilised as a country. Or at least I hope so.

Clearly Pakistan faces major problems today that are much more important to the future of the country than the plight of Aasia Bibi. But that does not absolve us of the need to be sensitive to the religious beliefs of minorities for that in itself is an important determinant of how we as Pakistanis are going to move forward. Acceptance of minorities will only happen after we first move closer to banishing the scourge of sectarian strife within our major religious denominations. Toleration of each other precedes tolerance of ideas and concepts that are necessary for developing a healthy and modern society.

However, there is a question that has bothered me for some time but I have never received an adequate answer for it. In Pakistan if a Muslim asks a Christian, do you believe that Muhammad (PBUH) was the last prophet and that the Quran is the word of God, and the believing Christian says no, would that then be considered blasphemy under the existing laws?

Finally, I also wonder if the most honourable Chief Justice of Pakistan, who has so often taken suo motu notice of injustices faced by ordinary Pakistanis, feels that the cause of justice was well served when Aasia Bibi was condemned to death for blasphemy.

The writer has practised and taught medicine in the US. He can be reached at

Source: Daily Times