How to blaspheme in Pakistan

Picture of Rimsha Masih, a young girl with a head-scarf writing in a school book.How to commit blasphemy in Pakistan | World news | The Guardian

This is a fairly comprehensive assessment of the situation surrounding the blasphemy law in Pakistan right now. While I am not against the idea of a blasphemy law in itself, the way it is used in Pakistan is obviously to settle personal scores that have nothing to do with religion, and this recent case of Rimsha Masih, a young girl with a mental disability who was apparently framed by a local imam who thought her bag of rubbish wasn’t blasphemous enough to get her put to death, so he added a couple of extra pages from the Qur’an just to make sure. This case has also led to a council of ulama speaking out in her favour and a Deobandi religious college, Bannuria, offering her sanctuary, which indicates that a serious debate on reforming the blasphemy law may be underway, although this author notes that previous attempts to stimulate such debate, including the suicide of a bishop, have failed.

There are a couple of mistakes in his illustration of how Muslims view blasphemy. One is his description of the amnesty that followed the Prophet’s (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) conquest of Mecca:

There is another story that kids are taught these days. This story has almost become the new folklore, repeated endlessly on social networking sites and narrated in graphic detail by the supporters of the blasphemy law. According to this story when prophet Muhammad conquered Mecca he announced a general amnesty except for those who had committed blasphemy against his person. He ordered them to be beheaded. One blasphemer was killed even when he tried to take shelter in the Khana Qaba in Mecca, the most sacred place for Muslims, where it is strictly forbidden to kill anyone.

To begin with, there is some dispute over the authenticity of the report that said people were put to death for blasphemy or insulting the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) on the conquest of Mecca, with the exception of two men who were executed for murder, not blasphemy. Even so, most of the people on the list of ten that is commonly quoted were in fact pardoned, and later accepted Islam, and most had been the most vicious enemies of Islam, including the son of Abu Jahl who was one of the Muslims’ worst persecutors when the Muslims had been in Mecca. I have not heard the story that a man was actually killed in the Ka’ba; what was said was that they could be killed even if they took shelter there.

There is another section of this article that requires an answer:

There is a well-off Christian businessman in Karachi who fusses over the trash basket in his office, handles his work file carefully, because, you never know, a stray scrap of paper can ruin you, your family, your business.

In fact, Muslims in general are careful in what they do with the written word, and not only because they fear any blasphemy law. This is not restricted to Pakistan; I have read that there are old ladies in Turkey who gather up scraps of paper they find in the street, lest they contain words or phrases that are sacred, let alone verses of the Qur’an, and take them away for disposal (I suspect, by burning). We respect the written word in general, which is why we do not put books, newspapers and the like on the floor, even if they are apparently only mundane material such as map books or computer magazines. However, it is not blasphemy to inadvertently discard a piece of paper that contains some writing imagined to be sacred, such as a business card containing the name Muhammad. It is certainly not something that someone should be killed over, particularly someone who is not even a Muslim. Neither is it blasphemy to quote blasphemy, whether in court or in a newspaper, as this author repeatedly claims. The literature tells us the things the early enemies of the Muslims used to say about the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) and Islam, and the literature was all written by Muslims and none of them were charged with blasphemy. Needless to say, it is also not blasphemy to say that the blasphemy law as currently found is wrong, but the law is probably well-liked by ordinary people because it empowers the mob and gives a means to settle personal scores. If it were removed or curtailed and vigilantes punished, it would mean order, and the government having power in a country where it is little respected.

Since I started writing this, it has been reported that the young girl involved has been released from custody. It has been suggested that she will not be safe anywhere in Pakistan and previous Christian victims of this law have had to flee to Europe. It is a good thing that this case has finally prompted some debate, and the government should move to clarify what constitutes blasphemy and what does not, because many people seem to be under the impression that any disrespect for any written Islamic material or anything that could be interpreted as disrespectful to the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) is blasphemy, when this is not the case (of course, the history of the Deobandi-Bareilawi dispute may mean that a blasphemy charge attracts greater anger there than in many other parts of the Muslim world, and among Muslims it is Bareilawis, who present themselves as moderate Sufis to the outside world, who are more likely to get into a frenzy over this issue). The government should also move to crack down on the mob rule that ensues in cases like this and impress on ordinary people (and their imams and other popular leaders) that it is the government, not them, who are there to enforce the law.

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