Playing god in the land of the pure

Published: January 10, 2015
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The most appropriate, logical attack on fanaticism will be to show Islam’s moral repugnance in employing coercion and violence against God’s will or edicts, and its double standards compared against the proper standards within the religion. PHOTO: FILE

People everywhere look for answers in stark black and white, and love the comfort that gives them the ability to use it as a club against others. For some reason, people keep recreating the very issues in their religions that the founders of those religions sought to eradicate. True spirituality should bring complete humbleness and love. What is common to all of us is how we struggle for an authentic faith without taking refuge in the absolute; that, to my mind, is the classic source of apostasy.

There is nothing I ever read about Islam that didn’t pertain equally to other religions’ excesses. It must be in the psyche of man to find ways to make sure that they are part of the in-group and look for ways to punish anyone who differs. Right wing fanatics of every stripe discover threat everywhere. My old buddy, Radical Henry – as I like to fondly call him – a devout Christian, thinks that the lack of nativity on public grounds is an assault on his religion. Get real, I tell him.

What kind of faith is it that needs others to do something for you? And who needs those pictorial illustrations anyway? He says that is a slippery slope so he needs to be vigilant. I say you are being narrow and bigoted, and are unable to do the internal work that would make you free to find your own way.

If numbers did the trick, then the resurgence of Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries in the US should have resulted in a very pious nation. Instead, religion wrapped itself in the flag and became militant, intolerant and fundamental in the worst possible meaning.

I’m not trying to sermonise here but essentially make arguments rather forthrightly. As someone grievously concerned about the epidemic of extremism and criminal use of ‘blasphemy’, the two factors are tearing apart the Pakistan I knew and destroying the core of goodness that once resided in the society of the country. The purpose is to diagnose that and prescribe solutions.

Power is seductive and so is blasphemy law in Pakistan; it has now become, first and foremost, a tool of political power and it abuses its original purposes. This now infamous piece of legislation was originated under the British Raj in India, and was inherited by Pakistan as part of the governor-general’s legacy before Pakistan had a separate constitution. The purpose and content of the colonial law against blasphemy was multi-directional and provided a security umbrella for the beliefs of all the major religious communities in India.

In essence, it forbade acts of disparagement by members of any one religious community against the beliefs, places of worship and religious practices of other religious communities. It also had a graduated approach to punishment, so that sentences for acts of blasphemy involved affordable fines and brief periods of imprisonment designed to deter communal attacks. It did not prescribe anything as severe as capital punishment for conviction of acts of blasphemy. For violence conducted in the name of religion, the British colonial law had criminal provisions in the Indian Penal Code.

The Zia administration brought about a radical revision of the colonial blasphemy law and turned it into a power tool of Sunni Islam to gain political leverage over the country as a whole by creating fear in the minds of religious minorities. The jurisprudence of the revised law is now all about blasphemy in Islamic terms, and the potential sentences for violation, that were fairly mild originally, now include huge fines and capital punishment. It no longer protects other religious communities as it did in British India. Instead, it hangs as a potential sword above their heads.

I’ve come across tons of literature suggesting that the law should be ‘updated’. Unfortunately, it is not a question of “updating” the Islamised Pakistani blasphemy law. In my opinion, there are only two ways to go about it; the law can either be,

(a)    Removed completely as an implicit threat to any member of Pakistani society, or

(b)   Restored to its original language, form and purpose, and used as a safeguard against communal violence, which now in Pakistan also implies “sectarian violence,” as in Sunnis versus Shias.

In practice, blasphemy law (read: ‘intimidation tool’) in Pakistan is a form of systematic political and psychological “torture” destructive of the wellbeing of religious minority communities and individuals in Pakistan. The CIA’s method of enhanced interrogation techniques against terrorists pales in comparison to the systematic violence initiated by this piece of legislation. That being said, the law is a no-win subject for anyone who has witnessed the religio-political manipulation carried out behind this law for decades.

Obviously blasphemy law antagonists and minority rights activists are always faced with nothing less than death threats from religious fanatics. In the meantime, while it is extremely sad what happened in Peshawar in December 2014, we must take a step back and reflect on recent events.

This year, 2015, started off on the wrong foot showing, once again, that things have not taken a turn for the better. A mentally unstable man, accused of blasphemy, was killed despite having been acquitted for the alleged charges. He was then denied a burial. Essentially, our society, as a whole, seems to have fallen off the extremist cliff. It is no longer talked about that a couple was burnt alive in a brick kiln for blasphemy leaving, five children behind. Salman Taseer’s murderer is a hero all over the country. Junaid Jamshed can advocate why women shouldn’t be allowed to drive. Anti-Shia hate speech is being spewed from various mosques, and just today an Imambargah in Rawalpindi was attacked in which seven people were killed. Minorities are being persecuted for being minorities.

A sound strategy to counter such threats could be to contextualise the law. Doing this would ensure that every time someone reads the law, they are able to also read the thought process, writings or any other form of expression that went behind it; this way the words cannot be turned against a certain section of society so easily by mullahs who purposely push people into ignorance.

So the most appropriate, logical attack on fanaticism will be to show Islam’s moral repugnance in employing coercion and violence against God’s will or edicts, and its double standards compared against the proper standards within the religion. To show that God condemns Muslims killing Muslims, He forbids coercing others to change their religion and says that the only form of violence justified is self-defence (or defence of the community) against obviously offensive armed attack; not because someone has used a slur or some blasphemous outburst.

Another way to fight extremist tendencies is to expose any hypocrisy that may exist on either sides of the spectrum; impious or immoral behaviour of prominent mullahs should be brought out into the open as well – so when a religious scholar appears on TV allegedly drunk, the act should not be swept under the carpet, it should be investigated.

Pakistan needs a psychological, sociological and ideological makeover. The initial line of defence against blasphemy and fanaticism is to bring down and rip apart superficial symbolism and practices that have made their way into the religion’s infrastructure. We need to categorically resist and remove all those idolatrous pillars of jahalat. Once the humming gorillas and demons are booted out, then the real process of reform can kick in. This will be a painstaking test of patience for all and sundry. Pakistan is, for the most part, an educated nation, enlightened enough to get on with the work of reformation.

In recent days, while discussing blasphemy and fanaticism with those who know, I’ve come across a few out-of-the-box recommendations. One of them is that the country needs outside pressure of an earthquake magnitude to change it and it will most likely come from a big power like China, upon which Pakistan is pathetically dependent for arms flow, big construction projects, nuclear energy and coal plants, which doesn’t want its domestic system destabilised by radical Islam.

Chinese influence might push Pakistan to greater clarity because Pakistan cannot afford to alienate China. Its elected elite and senior military leadership milks it for whatever they can get out of it (there is no deep “national” loyalty amongst them), and they reinsure their families’ futures by sending their money and youngsters abroad. But it is going to take a rather large clash between China and Pakistan to frighten the mullahs.

The other option floating about was that the military should take the lead and finish off the Taliban/fanatics, once and for all. That, to me, is a myopic way of handling the mess. Yes, the army can basically take action and carry on for a few years going after the mullahs but that wouldn’t eliminate the cause of the issue – ignorant Islam, filled with walking, talking felonies like the law pertaining to blasphemy.

The key, therefore, lies with the people, not the Chinese and certainly not the military. The enemy lies within and the will to counter the evil must come from within. Use education as a weapon of opportunity; turn the country into a powerhouse of knowledge and tolerance. Do not be afraid of engaging in fair and honest discussions. Face your fears with courage. Hold conversations that would enlighten the common man. Ask difficult questions. Be critical and analytical. Most of all wake up and stop blaming the government. It’s a dead horse anyway. Everyone else is to blame for tolerating what happens every day, including you. The day Pakistanis decide this is unacceptable, it will stop.

Enough of my pontificating!

I guess the real question is, why do people think that the world God created needs so much tweaking from them to make it right?

Ahson Saeed Hasan

Ahson Saeed Hasan

The writer is a proud American, a peacenik who has traveled well over 80 countries and lived in four continents. He likes to share his experiences and reflect on the worldly surroundings. He tweets @tweetingacho (twitter.com/tweetingacho)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • imad uddin

    I agree with everything you said in the piece, and I appreciate your critical approach. the qiestion in th end seems ambiguousRecommend

  • Abuzar Jamil

    Education is the only cure for this cancer.Recommend

  • nijo

    treat everyone as human rather than as believers and non-believers and stop the medieval things like lashes and stoning it is not there in other abrahamic religions, all these is creating hatred in people’s minds, a revolution is needed and having only education will not cure it.Recommend

  • Salma

    You hit the Bull’s eye! A nation such as Pakistan should decide that it will not be held hostage by groups with ultra views in ins own land. Be it in the name of religion, or language, or race, or the so called past glory. It should also not be depending on the generosity of the western nations, or the advice/ admonition from the big brother, the “all weather friend”. That happens if the state behaves as it should: A state and not a sulking body.Recommend

  • Maximus Decimus Meridius

    I wanted to write a comment on how your have diligently researched and written this article but the words out of my friends mouth, who has been reading from behind my shoulder are much better. He says
    “This guys tells the truth . So if he is in Pakistan he should leave ASAP”Recommend

  • bigsaf

    Well thought, observing the problem and offering solutions, though far away from the tough situation. Unfortunately its hard to believe and unlikely that there’d be any progress on this front any time soon.Recommend

  • John B

    The current generation of mullahs who dominate the airways and mosques strongly disagree and they are winning. The discussion is antithesis to the resurgence of salaffi and Wahhabi sects. The evolution Islamic theology and philosophy have been eroded in the last three decades and will need fifty years to eliminate the current school and another fifty to restore to essential basics. Recommend

  • Yo2Da2

    A good piece, Mr. Hasan. Maybe you clarify one thing for me: Are you blaming only the “blasphemy” laws for the jihadi mess? Isn’t blasphemy and other such bad ideas inextricably part of the religion’s ideology from the beginning and which ISIS, Al Qaeda and their ilk use for their inspiration, as much as the good ideas of peace, brotherhood, tolerance and all the good things the majority of Muslims everywhere use as guide posts. Repealing of blasphemy laws is not going to solve the problem by itself. By the way, you need not openly announce your apostasy as there are crazy dogmatic Saudi-funded ideologues in the U.S. also. (You have to realize that US still is a predominantly Christian nation – 95 % – and many of the faithful are still mad at the US Supreme Court to have sided with the grande dame of atheism, the late Maddy O’Hair, in prohibiting religious symbols from the secular public square. I am glad Radical Henry is your buddy. You may be right legally; but he has the weight of American history and custom behind him.)Recommend

  • L.

    Find me blasphemy in the religious texts of Islam. Recommend

  • Hasan

    It was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who started this nuisance, bowing down to the Mullah.Recommend

  • Yo2Da2

    Talk to your neighborhood Mullah. He’ll be able to show you all the good and bad parts. Or just Google it. :-)Recommend

  • Yo2Da2

    It says in his brief bio that he is a “Washington, D.C. based journalist”.Recommend

  • نائلہ

    I am asking the person who believes there is blasphemy in Islam. I am asking YOU where your source is. Can’t you even defend your beliefs? Recommend

  • Ravi

    Isnt it in Hadith?Recommend

  • L.

    WHERE? How am I supposed to look for something that doesn’t exist? If he thinks it does, he should prove it. Recommend

  • Maximus Decimus Meridius

    hence the “IF” partRecommend

  • Critical

    You should include *Conditions Apply

    because most of the top islamic terrorists had Western education,not madrassa education and some of them even studied in Europe….

    If that didnt widen their perspective,I’m not sure what else might…..Recommend

  • Critical

    FYI,stoning and lashing are found in both Torah and Bible…Its just that Jews and Christians have stopped following those verses.Recommend

  • Critical

    A simple google search helped me find a verse in — Quran 33:57–61

    also in hadith Sahih al-Bukhari, 4:52:270, see also Sahih al-Bukhari, 5:59:369, 3:45:687, 4:52:271

    Not sure if the ET Mods publish themRecommend

  • Yo2Da2

    Pakistan is Islamic with sharia laws. There are blasphemy laws in Pakistan. People and courts take them seriously (Christian couple burnt alive, Taseer killed, Lahore High Court upholds Asia’s death sentence, etc.). QED. These are facts. Beliefs are indefensible, including especially religious ones.Recommend

  • L.

    Which version of sharia law declares that for a rape case to be filed, 4 witnesses need to be present as witness? The correct version and every educated scholar would agree with this, is that the law is for alleged adultery.

    What I fail to understand is why Indians use Pakistan’s constitution as their primary source! That’s like using Saudi Arabias laws instead of picking up the Quran- now where does Islam say women aren’t allowed to drive?!

    This is an old excuse. “Pakistan’s constitution” is laughable. Now fix your perception or find the evidence. Recommend

  • Yo2Da2

    Well, Sir/Ma’am/Your highness, if we only looked at the texts then we will find all kinds of contradictions in the Bible, Torah, Hindu scriptures, and the Quran and will be pointlessly arguing from here till eternity. The “good” Muslims interpret their religion one way and the world has no problem with them. The “bad” or “evil” Muslims (and their numbers seems to be growing by the day) are the ones who have the attention of the world today. To understand where a religion is TODAY, you need to look at the texts and how they are interpreted, the practices inspired by those interpretation in major Islamic communities, and, let us not forget, the history. Saudi Arabia (just flogged a blogger, for Pete’s sake!), Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Malaysia, Indonesia, Iraq, Nigeria, Sudan, Bahrain, UK, Germany, France, Egypt . . .. the list goes on and on. You may very well have the benefit of a madressah education so know your version of the Quran. Sorry, I get information second hand. Why should I fix my perception? Perceptions about Islam and Muslims are being shaped by your contemporaries. Thank you very much. And goodbye.Recommend

  • Critical

    Please check the verses I gave…..Is it that hard for you to search them????

    I cannot post them as I know ET would play safe and block themRecommend

  • L.

    Posted twice, ET wont pass. I would direct you to the following link: http://www.reviewofreligions.org/5002/what-is-the-punishment-for-blasphemy-in-islam/Recommend