However, while the colonial law was aimed at protecting the places of worship of all denominations, against the backdrop of growing tension between Muslims and Hindus, the new commas introduced by Zia-ul-Haq (which Pakistan’s federal shari’a court later censored as being excessively moderate) work only in one direction. It is unlawful to defile the Quran in any manner, as are all forms of expression offending the Prophet of Islam, “by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation”, as well as any offence to the main figures of Islamic sacred history, in particular the Wives of the Prophet and his family, the four righteous Caliphs and the Companions. And it is not enough. Article 298 B forbids “any person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis)” to give the title of “Commander of the Faithful” to someone other than the righteous caliphs, or that of “Mother of the Faithful” to someone other than a wife of Muhammad, to call “People of the House” a person not belonging to the family of Muhammad, to call their place of worship a “mosque” or azan their call to prayers. All this involves draconian sentences that include life imprisonment and the death penalty.
While providing an effective example of the stiffening of classical sharî‘a (jurisprudence rather that a code of law) in the process of translation into modern state legislation, these norms are set within a climate of permanent mobilisation that tends to present Islam in Pakistan as subject to a constant threat. This is, to say the least, surprising in a country in which 96% of the population is Muslim and in which Article 31 of the 1973 constitution attributes to the state the primary duty “to enable the Muslims of Pakistan, individually and collectively, to order their lives in accordance with the fundamental principles and basic concepts of Islam and to provide facilities whereby they may be enabled to understand the meaning of life according to the Holy Quran and Sunnah.” There is no doubt that laws such as the one on blasphemy are aimed at maintaining high social tension in the country, perpetuating the existence of scapegoats (non-Muslim religious minorities, but also the Shiite community) blamed for being responsible for economic and political failures that have occurred in Pakistan’s recent past.
More restrictions, more conflicts
In truth, and contrary to what one might instinctively think, many studies – led by the Pew Forum – have proved that the level of violence linked to religion is directly proportional to the efforts made by the government to privilege one faith over others. “The more restrictions are imposed by the States the more religious conflict increases.” And Pakistan is no exception. Between 1927 and 1986 there were only seven cases involving blasphemy, while between 1986 and today there have been more than a thousand and the blasphemy law has resulted in the deaths of over 20 people. Although for the moment there have been no death sentence officially carried out (presumably due to the international reactions they would cause), many of the accused have been killed in prison by hired assassins and many others have been lynched by enraged mobs. Even proposing to modify this law can be extremely dangerous, as proved by the murder of two brave politicians who fought to change it, the Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti (a Christian), and the Governor of the Punjab, Salman Taseer (a Muslim). In spite of this, or perhaps precisely because of this, the law has become an icon, to the extent that in April 2009, Pakistan presented to the United Nations Human Rights Commission a proposal “to extend its laws on blasphemy to the whole world.”
After thirty years of abuse, there is a strong temptation to liquidate as provocative not only Pakistan’s proposal, but also a series of similar requests presented over the years by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation invoking the protection of religions (plural). It is easy to oppose these requests with the principle of freedom of speech, but one must also acknowledge that there really is a problem concerning religious symbols. A very long list of incidents linked to religious issues was reported in recent years, ranging from burnings of the Quran organised by an obscure pastor in Florida, to films offending the person of Muhammad, as well as many desecrations of Jewish and Christian places of worship or religious symbols. To provide just one example, in 2012, the Egyptian Salafi Sheikh Abu Islam publicly burned a Bible calling on his followers to urinate on it.
In this perspective, proposals to “protect religions” should be perceived as the wrong answer to a real need, that of defining the extension of freedom of expression and whether there is a limit to the right to criticise and to artistic creativity. Instinctively, the average Westerner will answer such questions with a no, to then be obliged to acknowledge the continuous incidents occurring all over the world which also prove how every individual gesture must now take into account the sensitivities of a potentially global media audience. On the other side, as seen, many proposals can be heard in the Muslim world calling for preventive neutralisation, based on the principle according to which “every religion must respect all others.” The concept is per se acceptable, but in reality ends up meaning that any criticism of any religion should be rejected. It is not difficult to understand how this option is in fact unacceptable, not only (as obvious) for those who hold no religious beliefs and who would thus be reduced to silence, but also for believers, who would end up obliged to establish a polite dialogue with no chance of a real debate. And in fact, when invoking this principle, Muslims do so on the basis of a pre-understanding of other faiths that is implicit in the Islamic concept of (mono-) prophecy. Other religious are effectively not to be criticized to the extent that they conform to the image the Quran provides of them. The problem is more complex than it initially appears to be, because every faith inevitably contains elements of disagreement (and thus also of vigorous criticism) with the traditions preceding them. It would be curious if, by applying the principle of a “protection of religions” Muslim preachers would be forbidden to stigmatize the pagan practices of pre-Islamic Arabia. At least, it is hard to envisage that this was the objective of the request Pakistan presented to the United Nations.
Commenting on events that in the summer of 2012 involved a number of Salafi militants and that once again emphasised the problem posed by restrictions to freedom of expression, the Tunisian jurist Ben Achour wrote, “If the notion of muqaddasât [holy things] is left to the political powers, the latter will set themselves up as arbiters and thus the masters of consciences. In this way, one returns to a theocratic state. […] In my opinion, freedom of artistic and philosophical expression must be expanded without limitations, unless it disrupts public order.” Ben Achour’s statement appears to resolve the issue allowing a solution to the impasse. In principle the priority should be the right to criticism, without which there can be no real progress. The many Muslim intellectuals who have been obliged to take refuge in the West prove that the real problem nowadays in many Islamic countries is to release words from the fear of allegations of heterodoxy, not to protect a religion that is already massively present in everyday life. The Egyptian editorialist Muhammad Khair clearly wrote, “The drafters of the [Islamist] Constitution [of 2012] fight an imaginary battle against the ghosts of ‘identity’, ‘proselytism’, ‘Shiite propaganda’ and ‘westernisation’, and various other ‘conspiracies, but the result is that instead of carrying out its task of guarantor of rights and freedoms, the Constitution ends up doing the exact opposite, insofar that it tries to protect all those who enjoy majority status, power or authority”.
There is however also an important clause in Ben Achour’s idea, i.e. the reference to public order. Although this principle too can be the object of manipulations, it has the advantage of affecting practical matter and not beliefs. What should be forbidden is behaviour that moves from criticism to attacks on people and their dignity, putting at risk peaceful coexistence, while the state has no right to assess a theological issue’s orthodoxy, or lack thereof. In our opinion, this simple principle, (which also inspired Pakistani law before the amendments introduced by Zia-ul-Haq), is sufficient for allowing critical ideas to be freely expressed, without neglecting the effects of individual choices on the communities and the offence caused by uncalled-for attacks on holy symbols. It is one thing to burn the Quran, an act to be unreservedly condemned, and another to discuss exegesis methods without being threatened with allegations of apostasy (as it was the case for example with the Egyptian Nasr Abu Zayd).
The proposal to sanction generally all “religious defamation”, precisely because that would mean a one size fits all solution, would be confusing and potentially dangerous. What must be condemned instead is all incitement of hatred. Of such incitement, however, the current Pakistani law on blasphemy is a sophisticated example.
Translated by Francesca Simmons
Angelo Scola, Non dimentichiamoci di Dio, Rizzoli, Milan 2013, 78.
Expression used in the Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, May 2009, 65.
Yadh Ben Achour, The Measure of Freedom: Freedom without Measure?, «Oasis» 16 (2012), 18.
Muhammad Khair, The world of man, originally published by at-Tahrîr, November 13th 2012.