Blasphemy Law: the Shape of Things to Come

To the article below, one can now add this unhappy piece of news:

The decision of a lower court to award the death penalty to a poor Christian woman accused of blasphemy has ignited a wide debate over Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Pro aasia protest Liberals have asked that the Zia-era blasphemy law should be repealed or amended because it has become an instrument of oppression and injustice in the hands of mobs and gangsters (over 4000 prosecutions in 25 years with several gruesome extra-judicial executions). The religious right has mobilized its supporters to oppose any such amendment and regards these attempts as a conspiracy against Islam. Ruling party MNA Sherry Rahman has introduced a “private member bill” to amend the law and the governor of Punjab has intervened (somewhat clumsily) in the judicial process and indicated that a Presidential pardon is on the cards. The international media is arrayed against the law alongside Pakistan’s liberals and progressives, while the “deep state”, the Islamist front organizations and their mentors in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia are no doubt aligned on the other side. What will be the likely outcome of this struggle? It is always hazardous to make predictions, but let us make some anyway and try to state why these are the likely outcomes:

1. The law will not be repealed. Some minor amendments may be made (and even these will excite significant Islamist resistance) but their effectiveness will be limited. Blasphemy accusations will continue, as will the spineless convictions issuing from the lower courts. In fact, new blasphemy accusations will almost certainly be made with the express intention of testing any new amendment or procedural change (thus, ironically, any amendment is likely to lead to at least one more innocent Christian or Ahmedi victim as Islamists hunt around for a test case).

2. Aasia bibi may get a reprieve from the high court but there is a good chance that she will remain in legal limbo and will eventually be smuggled out of the country after a presidential pardon (president Zardari being a rare president who actually has the courage to publicly pardon a blasphemy accused if he gets it into his head to do so) or, unfortunately, she may be killed by a free-lance executioner of the law. It is also very likely that her immediate family will have to leave the country with her. The local Christian community will, in any case, have to show their humble submission in order to be allowed to get on with their lives. Too much public support for Aasia bibi from her neighbors and friends has the potential to incite another tragedy (though it is likely that the local Christian community is conscious of this and will leave public pressure to better placed representatives like Minister Shahbaz Bhatti).

3. In the short term, blasphemy will continue to be a potent weapon in the hands of the deep state, the Islamists and local gangsters. In the longer term, violent reorientation of the deep state in Pakistan may open the gates for a more liberal social order, but there is also the possibility that the deep state will soon re-establish its dominance, causing a return to the jihadi status-quo ante. But if that does happen, it will not mean the end of hopes for a more liberal social order. Rather, it will mean that change will be delayed and may have to pass through future stages of collapse and anarchy. In the truly long run, change is inevitable, but the inevitable may happen by catastrophe rather than gradual (and more desirable) routes.

These predictions may appear pessimistic and discouraging, but I would submit that they are not meant to be discouraging; they are meant to be realistic. The law will not be repealed because the law is not just an invention imposed by General Zia on an unwilling populace. Rather, this law is the crude and updated expression of a pre-existing social and religious order. Blasphemy and apostasy laws were meant to protect the orthodox Islamic theological consensus of the 12th century AD and they have done so with remarkable effectiveness. Unlike their Christian counterparts (and prosecutions for heresy and blasphemy were seen throughout the middle ages in Europe) these laws retain their societal sanction and have been enforced by free lancers and volunteers where the state has hesitated. Thus, in Lahore in 1929, a carpenters apprentice named Ghazi Ilm Deen Shaheed executed the Hindu publisher of a book Muslims considered blasphemous. And Ghazi Ilm Deen Shaheed was not a lone wolf. Such action was being openly demanded by Muslim leaders like Maulana Zafar Ali Khan and thousands of protesters. Ilm Deen's best friend wanted to do the act and only stepped aside because they drew lots and Ilm Deen won thrice in a row.

He was then defended in court by none other than Quaid E Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who was asked to take up the case by our illustrious modernist, Allama Mohammed Iqbal. His funeral drew thousands and was attended with pride by Allama Iqbal, who supposedly said that “this carpenter has left us, educated people, far behind”. His grave is now a popular shrine and a Punjabi movie has been made about his exploit, complete with a dance sequence featuring the blasphemer enjoying himself before he meets his fate.

Shoot rushdie When Salman Rushdie’s book was declared blasphemous and rallies demanding his head were held all over the Muslim world, General Zia was not the agent of those protests. Such executions have even been attempted in Europe, most recently by textile engineering student Aamir Cheema in Germany. And Aamir Cheema too has achieved sainthood after he took his own life in a German prison, with his funeral attracting thousands and his grave becoming a popular shrine.

A minister in Musharraf's enlightened cabinet wrote more than one op-ed commending such acts and fantasizing about the day Salman Rushdie's skin will be torn from his body with sharp hooks. In short, while it is indeed true that misuse of the law has become common after General Zia’s time (an intended consequence, as one aim of such laws is to harass and browbeat all potential opposition), the law has deeper roots and liberals who believe that it is possible to make a distinction between true blasphemy and misuse of the law, may find that this line is not easy to draw.

The second, and perhaps more potent reason the law will not be repealed is because the law was consciously meant to promote the Islamist project that the deep state (or a powerful section of the deep state) continues to desire in Pakistan. The blasphemy law is a ready-made weapon against all secular opposition to the military-mullah alliance (though some sections of the military now seem to have abandoned that alliance, hence the qualification “section of the deep state”). Secular parties are suspected of being soft on India and are considered a danger to the Kashmir Jihad and other projects dear to the heart of the deep state. At the same time, Islamist parties provide ideological support and manpower for those beloved causes. In this way, the officers of the deep state, even when they are not personally religious, recognize the need for an alliance with religious parties and against secular political forces (Musharraf was a good example). They have been forced into an uneasy (temporary?) compromise with secular parties by circumstances beyond their control (aka America) but with American withdrawal a real possibility, the deep state does not wish to alienate its mullah constituency too much. They will be needed again once the Yankees are gone. Hence, no repeal at this time.

But in the long term, change is bound to come. Pakistan does not exist on an island apart from the world. And the world is moving on from blasphemy laws and apostasy laws into the domain of capitalist individualism, if not yet into the realm of democracy or socialism. It is this capitalism that pays the bills for the deep state and its patrons in China and Saudi Arabia. This capitalism, as Marx pointed out, is a universal acid, “it batters down all Chinese forces the barbarians' intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image”. Islamic hardliners may be useful to great world powers at particular times and places, but they will not be allowed to become an alternative power, nor do they have the intellectual resources to be able to do so.

Of course, blasphemy accusations and their use to suppress speech are not limited to Muslim countries e.g. Sikhs have resorted to violence to protest blasphemy and Hindu mobs enforce the sanctity of Shivaji's memory in Mumbai but Islamist violence has merged with secular political grievances to create a particularly potent combination and their conflict with the modern bourgeois world has an edge that other fanatics can only envy. But while this conflict may see many local ups and downs, in the long term the advantage lies with the modern world. The world is what it is and the hard-line Islamists simply cannot provide what the population of Muslim countries desperately wants; more wealth in this world, not just in the next. Capitalism with a Muslim face is certainly possible, even likely; Capitalism with a human face, maybe. But hard-line Islamic supremacism of the type being protected by blasphemy and apostasy laws is not likely to dominate in any country that aspires to also become modern. In the long run (decades, not centuries) it’s going to be forced to compromise, one way or the other (with one way being less painful than the other).

PS: Meanwhile, a reward has been offered…