Published:  01:29 AM, 04 December 2017

Drifting in Pakistan's sea of blasphemy

Drifting in Pakistan's sea of blasphemy

The gravity-defying word that we know as 'Blasphemy', found its place in English vocabulary in the 13th century; for the first several hundred years of its life, it had but one single meaning....'the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God'.

With the glorified revival of political and military power of the Ottomans in Turkey, the Islamic clergy felt pleased to adopt the words, 'and Prophet', to suffix God, for purposes of extending the limits of connotation. Later on, the scope of interpretation was expanded to reflect  a fresh vision, that encompassed all major faiths, and read as, 'an act of showing contempt or lack of reverence to a deity, to religious and Holy persons or sacred item status or, something inviolable'.

The Torah also describes blasphemy, as an act of 'reviling God'. In Hebrew, it is known as 'birkat hashem' or 'cursing (the name of) God'. A person guilty of this offense is called a 'megaddef' or blasphemer. Contained in the two main passages of the Old Testament, Leviticus  24:10-23 and I Kings 21:8 -13, the penalty for this offense is stoning the blasphemer to death. For Jews, it can mean an insult or a curse hurled at the Creator. Both were serious offenses, invoking penalty of death.

While the offense of blasphemy was once punishable by death, the Jews today,  are unwilling to enforce the edict anymore. Blasphemy is by all standards, a repugnant human act, because it invades the sensitivities of a person who is deeply respectful of his or her religion, its practices, the holy scriptures and includes the sacrosanct leaders, who had laid the foundations of their respective faiths....to offer divinity's messages to humanity.

The Holy Bible teaches how our Lord desires fellow Christians to govern their lives, to declare that every sin can be forgiven, including the seven 'deadly sins'. The only exception is the sin of Blasphemy. Jesus Christ is quoted in Matthew 12:31 'therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven'

Proponents of the three major faiths have extolled the greatness of the Creator in their Holy Books. Each of these Divine scriptures, feature the Creator's clear guidance and directives for living a life of purpose, as ordained by Him. As each religion evolved in history, undergoing its process of reforms, religious leaders of Judaism and Christianity preferred not to evoke or dispense harsh punishments upon those, found to have violated the cardinal prohibitions of the sin of blasphemy.

On the contrary, the clergy of Islam did not follow suit. They bounced back with the passage of time, to vehemently enforce death penalty to all blasphemers. No excuses, no options and no exceptions. There is no escape from punishment of this 'grave' sin. And, this is also the bone of contention. In the efforts to  impel  continuity and to bestow sanctity of Allah and his last Prophet, Muhammad (PBUH),  there exists no room for a deviation or a compromise. Muslim societies have erupted all over with extreme or vehement responses, whenever an issue of blasphemy was faced with judicial challenges.

History's hurried pace has ushered into focus ....human wisdom, culture, arts and civility, past the Age of Renaissance, to cross another milestone of the Victorian era, finally stepping into the modern age. In the journey through time, western societies evolved through several watersheds and societal markers, to finally break their own shackles of fundamentalism. To give way to compassion, tolerance and a better understanding of crime vs punishment, sin vs morality or, vice vs virtue.

In the eastern, culturally undernourished and conservative societies of our subcontinent, religious scholars preferred to maintain the 'shackles' of their beliefs, and barbed trappings of their convictions. They refused to give in or dilute the provisions of divine prohibitions, for fear of condemnation, public asperity and social discord. Today, confused people across the prevailing Muslim societies are fearful of life threatening, religious backlashes that await the sinners in ambush, at every corner,  if they are not mindful of the society's new ethics and perilous codes of morality.

In the 20th century, the United States began to invalidate laws concerning blasphemy which had been on the books, before the nation was even founded; for valid reason, because these laws were violative of the American Constitution. In societies, particularly where fundamental Islam prevailed, the conservative and religious scholars deemed it expedient to adopt laws against blasphemy or irreverence towards Allah and His Prophet, religious artifacts, customs, practices or beliefs.

Our civilized world today, includes liberal nations of the Western Hemisphere. Where, laws against blasphemy have simply ceased to exist. Enlightened values, including religious and cultural tolerance prevail here. Even if the laws did exist in the past, they have lost teeth, or a firm grip or the power of enforcement.

In our subcontinent's history, offenses relating to religion were first shaped into a code, by India's British rulers in 1860. Later on, this order was expanded in 1927. The Muslim country of Pakistan inherited these laws when it achieved independence in 1947. During the years 1980 to 1986, a number of clauses were added to these laws, by the government of the military dictator General Zia ul Haq.

This soldier solicited the bearded Mullahs, his strange bedfellows, purely in the efforts to maintain continuity of his rule. To appease the clergy, that had been used to perpetuate his reign. He shared an awkward vision of collaring the Ahmadi sect of Pakistan.

He would joyously proclaim the censures and limitations of liberty, which were  imposed on the peace loving people of the Ahmedi sect, to legally marginalize them, for their practice of a faith which had somewhere, deviated fundamentally from the Sunni sect of Islam. They were now a distinct and separate minority, cast away from the mainstream Muslims of this country. Perhaps, the General was  not in  step with the 'sunnah' of our Holy Prophet (PBUH), who had tolerated the existence of the 'dhimmi', in the early Islamic society.

Data made available by NGOs working in Pakistan, including the National commission of Justice and peace (NCJP), reflects that a total of 984 Muslims,  1034 Ahmedis, 347 Christians  and 121 Hindus have been accused under various clauses of blasphemy law, since 1987. Obviously, the country's minorities show up precisely, in these recorded cases of blasphemy. This also reveals how the draconian laws are unfairly applied against the marginalized segment of society.

Quite often, these brutal laws have been used to settle personal enmity, something that has little to do with beliefs, or the Islamic faith. The specter always loomed for the minority, that even a mere accusation of blasphemy was sufficient to make someone a target for hardliners and extremists. Even defending the  accused 'blasphemers' or calling for reforms of these cruel laws, was deemed an act of blasphemy in Pakistan. Something, that also invoked the drastic punishment of death.

This is more often than not, decided on the streets or in the pastures, by a charging mob of the mullah and his cohorts.... rushing in, to render Instant justice, for the pleasure of Allah and His beloved, last Prophet. The victims are people murdered in cold blood. Their precious belongings, homes and properties are instantly transformed into a bonfire of flames....that creates a symbolic and rising inferno!

Although a large majority of Pakistani people are supportive of the concept that blasphemers should be punished, there exists little understanding of what the religious Scripture says, as opposed to how the Laws of our times are converted into penal and criminal codes.

A large number of Pakistanis believe that the law of Blasphemy was inherited directly from the Holy Quran. Courtesy, the regime of General Zia ul Haq. There is absolutely no dispute of the source of this law. Hence, it is a divine, not a man made law, that may not be subject to human modifications.

Almost all popular and secular parties in this country have considered amending the blasphemy laws. The misfortune was that none were able to make any progress because of the sensitivities involved. The truth is that no political party in Pakistan desires to offend the religious voters and their political entities.  

The former Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer was brutally murdered, by an elite member of his security staff. The assassin confessed that he was provoked to commit his crime because the late Governor had offered his sympathies to a Christian woman, falsely accused of committing blasphemy.

His killers had openly stated that the religious group responsible for his murder was the 'Sunni Tehreek', that had issued a fatwa or religious edict, stating that Governor Taseer was lost his right to live because of his unpardonable 'crimes' of blasphemy and apostasy. His grave sin was that he had demanded a repeal of 'the 'inhumane' blasphemy laws, that was widely abused by people who leveled false allegations under its garb,  to settle issues of personal hostility.

One month after this gruesome murder, Pakistan's Minister for religious minorities, Shahbaz  Bhatti, a Christian, voiced his protest over the same laws that incited public executions and street justice. His demise was not late in coming. Bhatti was shot dead in Islamabad, underlining the gravest threats that are now faced by the critics of this law. Or those, who may even attempt to voice their grievances of this 'divine law'.

Nearly six months ago, the widely read magazine 'The Economist'  published a story that focused on top five countries that were deemed to practice the most serious violations of this law. These included the neighboring countries of Pakistan and Iran. Also, Pakistan and Egypt were among those countries which used blasphemy laws as a form of 'anti-minority oppression'.

As a child, I was conscious of Mullah's role. This was limited to birth and death, funeral and special religious occasions. One went to the mosque to offer prayers. Today, the role of the mosque has expanded, to experience a dynamic change in our communities. Mosques in Pakistan are equipped with state of the art public address system, and are directly controlled by powerful sectarian groups. These places of worship have transformed into centers, assigned with the responsibility to defend the tenets of the sect, that has occupied the mosque.

One of the worst Islamic sects to suffer continued attacks from the sectarian mullahs, is beyond doubt, the Shia sect of Pakistan. As public opinion continues to be mobilized, this sect may well on its way to embrace a fate similar to that of the Ahmedis. Sectarian Ulemas (religious scholars)  keep  referring them as 'kafirs' (infidels). Shia doctors, engineers, teachers and religious scholars have continued to be silenced by paid 'target killers'. The decision to kill Shias is not taken in a distant land, by Pakistan's enemies. Or, the enemies of Islam... a favorite direction, in which the clergy would like to point. These episodes of atrocities are preached, planned and executed at the sacred houses of our worship.

A person I know who works in the 'shadows' of the Intelligence Bureau in the country, confided that there exist sufficient sectarian organizations in Pakistan, with sufficient weapons, to wage a perpetual war. In a very short time, the 'mullahs and the muftis' have been successful in blurring the thin line that separates the sayings of God and the clergy.

In Pakistan today, simple disagreement with someone who has wild, flowing beard and moves with armed body guards can cut short one's life. Two successive political governments have endeavored to appease this group of people. There is a realization, however that you just cannot appease someone who insists his word is also the word of God and his honor is as sacred as the honor of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Someone had rightly pointed out, that silence is the mother of all blasphemies. (Readers' comments are welcome. Connect Facebook page @nazarwrites.com)

The writer is based in  Florida, USA

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