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Why the Law of Blasphemy in the Islamic World Must be Scrapped

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

15 June 2017

The latest victim of the abhorrent Islamic law of blasphemy is a Pakistani Shia called Taimur Raza who was accused of denigrating the Prophet on the social media. It is curious that his case was tried in an anti-terrorism court which would mean that Pakistan does not see any distinction between matters of national security and matters of religious belief. But certainly Pakistan is not the only country which continues with the medieval practice of condemning people to death in the name of committing blasphemy. The whole Islamic world is rife with the problem and there are very few voices from within the Muslim community who think that something should be done about this inherently anti-democratic and discriminatory law within their midst.

According to a 2014 Pew Research Centre report, there are fifty countries around the world which outlaw blasphemy. Thirty out of these fifty countries are majority Muslim. As expected, theocracies like Saudi Arabia are part of this list but more surprisingly countries which are normally understood as modern like Turkey, Egypt, Malaysia, Pakistan and Indonesia. To top it all, the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) based in Saudi Arabia has been campaigning for a global blasphemy law ostensibly to protect Muslims from what it calls Islamophobia.

Now we know that as a historical and contemporary problem, Islamophobia does exist and at places in virulent form. But to suggest that all critique of Islam is Islamophobia is a bit too much and what these OIC members might be doing in the name of protecting Muslims is nothing but further bolstering their unpopular rule by labelling any criticism as Islamophobia and any dissent as akin to blasphemy.

The victims of this discriminatory law often happen to be those who are at the margins of society. Dissenters who are advocating social and political changes, women and religious minorities have often bore the brunt of these accusations. If not killed outright, they have legal cases slapped against them which drags for years ultimately destroying the lives of these individuals. Consider the case of Aasiya Bibi in Pakistan. This Pakistani citizen was not just a woman but also belonged to the Christian minority. The accusation of blasphemy has very nearly destroyed her life. Additionally it also claimed the claimed the life of the Punjab governor Salman Taseer who was advocating for her release.

The famous Egyptian poet Fatima Naut has been facing a three year blasphemy sentence for criticising the slaughter of animals on Bakrid. A Malaysian man was charged with blasphemy simply because he posed questions to his religious teacher. And of course we cannot forget the brutal lynching of the Afghan women who had an argument with a local cleric. The killing of Mashal Khan within a university precinct in Pakistan is too fresh in memory. Or take the example of Jakarta’s governor, popularly called Ahok who is currently facing two year jail term on charges of blasphemy. In fact in Indonesia blasphemy charges have risen steadily in the last decade and have a nearly one hundred percent conviction rate. Similar is the case with Egypt where blasphemy accusations have risen manifold since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. Bangladesh and Pakistan have seen deadly marches in favour of a more stringent blasphemy law. However, it would not be an overstatement to say that most of the victims of blasphemy have been those at the margins of their respective Muslim societies.

While there is some merit in the argument that this is a problem which besets the Muslim world and there is need to critique the law of blasphemy from within the Islamic tradition, it is also true that the execution of this law has also much to do with the spread of peculiar reading of Islam called Wahhabism. Promoted by Saudi Arabia, this strain of Islam is becoming the dominant way of thinking from Egypt to Indonesia. Wahhabism is fundamentally all about blasphemy. The concern as to what is true Islam and what is not is at the heart of Wahhabism. Muslims who follow different and varying interpretations of Islam other than Wahhabism are considered to be committing blasphemy one way or the other. Ever since Iranian revolution and secular formations like Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Naser posed an ideological threat to the foundations of monarchy in Saudi Arabis, the country has invested billions of dollars in building mosques and religious schools, funding preachers sympathetic to their ideology and promoting media outlets which transmit the Wahhabi ideology.

Added to this is the widespread belief among the Muslims that Saudi Arabia is at the centre of the Muslim world simply because Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest places are there. Thus it is the Saudi interpretation of Islam which becomes the correct interpretation of Islam in the eyes of the believers. Within the Muslim world, blasphemy was hardly an issue till the 1970s. But the growing clout of Saudi Arabia over the imagination of the Muslim world, funded by their petro dollars, have made the margins of the Muslim world (Pakistan, Indonesia) trying to full time emulate the Islamic laws of Saudi Arabia.

All this when the Quran hardly says anything about the charge itself. There is just one verse which says that if one hears anything conversation denying the authority of God’s words, then Muslims should not sit in such a company. That’s all. It doesn’t say even to silence them far less commands Muslims to kill and maim such people accused of blasphemy. But for the warriors of Allah, the Hadees, many of whom have been proven to be false and concocted is rated a notch above the words of the Quran itself. How else does one understand that fact that where the Quran tells Muslims to shun the presence of blasphemers, Muslims just do not follow it. But they will follow spurious Hadees which exhort the follower to kill the blasphemers.

There are various ways to understand the Muslim rage on blasphemy. The first is that in Islam, the state and religion are almost identical. A different religious position automatically implies a different political position and that’s why it comes in handy for the state to keep an absolute check on religious opinions, particularly of those who hold a different political opinion. It’s not surprising therefore that a theocracy like Saudi Arabia would and does control each and every aspect of Islam. States like Egypt have been known to hand out Friday sermons to imams in order to control the dissemination of Islam even in mosques.

But more importantly perhaps, the outrage over blasphemy is used by political leaders for their own cynical ends. In democracies, political parties used the sense of outrage amongst Muslims to garner support. It is not surprising therefore that none of the mainstream political parties ever thought of condemning the extremist voices who wanted to Aasiya Bibi for example. Defeating a political adversary becomes more important than principles and values and even the teachings of the Quran itself. It is also emerging as a weapon to stifle dissent, especially in those Muslim countries where people are voicing their anger on the monarchy and its rigid rule. The case of Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia is a case in point. This blogger posted content on the social media which was critical of the Saudi ruling family. What would be considered normal democracy, in Saudi Arabia, Raif was tried and convicted for blasphemy and it still waiting release from prison after being whipped in public.

Laws of blasphemy only bring disrepute to the Muslim world. Given that it has no sanction in the holy Quran, Muslims themselves should protest against such a discriminatory law within their midst. After all, of they believe that they should get a free right of expression, then it is only logical that followers of other religious traditions and those having a different interpretation of Islam should also be given the same rights.


A columnist, Arshad Alam is a Delhi based social and political commentator.


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