Wednesday, January 5, 2011

To Hell with Blasphemy


“It is clear that blasphemy, which is a sin committed directly against God, is more grave than murder" - Thomas Aquinas

I just finished watching the first season of The Tudors on DVD. It has some problems. For one thing, it’s a trashy bodice-buster (the series could have been called, Kings Behaving Badly). It also suffers from historical inaccuracy and too many of its characters are paper-thin. But if you like a dramatic period piece, there’s enough to maintain interest. They do a nice job of weaving the historical events of Europe with the personal ambitions of the characters, most notably in the connection between the Protestant Reformation and Henry VIII’s passion for Anne Boleyn. Anne is a bit like Helen of Troy. Instead of launching a thousand ships, she, by arousing Henry’s lust, launches England into its break with the Catholic Church, changing forever the course of European (and American) history. What I find most interesting about The Tudors is its portrayal of religion at this pivotal moment in 16th century England.

In the last episode, the newly-appointed Lord Chancellor, Thomas More, announces that he will vigorously defend the true faith from the growing Lutheran heresy. In a powerful and disturbing scene, More (played by Jeremy Northam) watches as a heretic condemned for blasphemy is burned alive at the stake. More stares intently as the flames consume the screaming man as if he is fascinated by the chemistry experiment, the combination of flame and human flesh. That he is carrying out God’s justice is never in doubt. Years later, Thomas More, would be venerated by the Church for his own martyrdom, and he was regarded as a learned, principled and compassionate man even in his own day. It says a lot about how far we’ve come. Back then, even a “humanist” would have no hesitation in concluding that a person who believed the wrong thing about God deserved to die in flames. For what is the agony of one man when compared to the eternal torment of the multitudes who might be infected by such heresy?

But have we really come so far? On the same day I watched this entertaining television program, I learned about the civil unrest in Pakistan over its blasphemy laws. In Pakistan, the world’s largest Islamic nation, an insult to Islam or defamation of the Holy Prophet may be punishable by death. This isn’t simply the case of an anachronistic law remaining on the books in a traditional society (like a law which criminalizes adultery in Virginia).  Blasphemy has been in the news because in November, Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old Christian woman, an agricultural worker, had been sentenced to death for blasphemy. Unlike the heretics convicted in Thomas More’s England, this woman published no incendiary pamphlets, preached no doctrine and criticized no religious authority. Her particular offense was the touching of a drinking bowl that was being used by Muslim co-workers. Judging by the reaction, you’d think she drew a cartoon.

Reformers and human rights activists, embarrassed and outraged by the harshness of such laws, have been trying to repeal or change them for some time now, but with no success. Although judicial convictions for blasphemy have not resulted in any state executions (in Pakistan, at least), the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has documented dozens of cases where the mere accusation of blasphemy has led to murder and false arrests of Christians and more often, members of minority sects within Islam. The Asia Bibi case has drawn considerable international attention and there has been pressure both within Pakistan and without to free the woman and to amend the laws. Pope Benedict XVI has weighed in and called for authorities to free the Christian woman. A reform bill was brought before Pakistan's Parliament. The bill did not call for the repeal of the blasphemy law, but it did eliminate the death penalty and called for some procedural safeguards against miscarriages of justice. It looked as if the reformers finally had some momentum.

What followed in Pakistan on Friday, December 31st was remarkable and every bit as disturbing as the burning of heretics by zealous inquisitors. Thousands of Pakistanis took the streets to protest any possible change to the nation’s blasphemy laws. Religious leaders called for a general strike, forcing businesses to close. Rallies were staged in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and Quetta. Karachi, a city of 13 million people was brought to a standstill and the police fired tear gas to stop protesters from marching on a residence of President Asif Ali Zadari. One Sunni cleric in Islamabad warned in his Friday sermon that any change to the blasphemy law would happen "over our dead bodies." To some religious Muslims, it is THAT important that such insults be punishable by death.

Does this kind of bullying and street politics on the part of religious extremists actually work? You bet it does. Within hours of the rallies, government officials were already distancing themselves from any bill or proposal to change the blasphemy laws. I imagine they'll figure out a way to pardon this poor woman and allow her to flee Pakistan to a place where, if she’s careful and sufficiently obscure, she should be able to handle as many water bowls as she likes. But don’t expect changes anytime soon to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws or to the culture of terror and intimidation that such laws engender.

Do these radical Islamists constitute a majority in Pakistan? Surely not, but their numbers and influence are sufficient that they can hijack the majority and get their way in an already unstable political regime. This time, the extremists left nothing to chance. One of their enemies and a prominent advocate for changing the law was Salman Taseer the Governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province. In November, Taseer said: "The blasphemy law is not a God-made law. It's a man-made law," he said. "... It's a law that gives an excuse to extremists and reactionaries to target weak people and minorities.” Yesterday, Taseer was shot to death by his own security guard.

Why did the guard do it? Because, he told the police while in custody, Taseer "did blasphemy of the Prophet Mohammed." Let’s consider the mentality here. To express an incorrect religious view or to offend Islam is to defame the Holy Prophet.  This is a crime punishable by the state and punishable by death. And to propose any change to this law is also to insult the Holy Prophet. How does one combat such a mentality?

In the West, people tend to agree that criminalizing attitudes about religion is a bad idea. In the United States of America we go even further to protect freedom of conscience. Under our Constitution, the state can play no role in the establishment or endorsement of any religion or religious view. Any law seeking to criminalize blasphemy violates our First Amendment. This secular formula has fostered both freedom and prosperity. We didn’t arrive at this moment overnight. It was a long struggle and, as any look at European history will tell you, it was a bloody one.

It is often said that what the Islamic world needs is its own Reformation and its own Enlightenment. But the theology of Islam and the present conditions of the Islamic world make it difficult to identify potential catalysts for that kind of sweeping change. We don’t see a Martin Luther, a Henry VIII or an Anne Boleyn (maybe in a burka?)  And we can’t readily identify the sort of Enlightenment figures who would play the role of Montesquieu, John Locke or John Stuart Mill. These observations may cause us to simply throw up our hands, ignore world events and take smug comfort in the superiority of the West. We shouldn’t.

For one thing, the killing of the Governor of Punjab serves as a reminder that there are indeed individuals (and Muslims at that) willing to risk their lives for change and reform within Islamic society. Following the assassination of Taseer, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti told CNN. "I will campaign for this... these fanatics cannot stop me from moving any further steps against the misuse of (the) blasphemy law." When asked if he feared for his own life, Bhatti acknowledged that he has received many threats, but he said “I am ready to sacrifice my life for the principled stand I have taken because the people of Pakistan are being victimized under the pretense of blasphemy law." This is courage. As a nation that purports to champion freedom, we ought to acknowledge it and support it.*

We should also not make the mistake of thinking that this stuff is none of our business. If 9/11 has taught us anything, it taught us that the world is a much smaller place than we might wish it to be. Political instability and religious fanaticism in central Asia impacts our security, our interests, our good relations with other nations and it directly affects our ability to combat global terrorism. And blasphemy laws aren’t confined to “backwards” nations from those scary parts of the world.  Blasphemy is a criminal offense in Ireland. No, you won’t be sentenced to death, but you may be slapped with a hefty fine for taking the Lord’s name in vain or for other “blasphemous material.” This is defined as material "grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion” and it is criminal when the intent and result is "outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion." Asia Bibi would not be safe in Ireland. The law is an embarrassment to any civilized person.

Of course in Ireland, you are at least free to protest such a silly law and can probably do so without fear of being lynched or gunned down. Still, such anti-freedom measures can only serve to embolden the theocratic instincts of others. Recently, a coalition of Muslim nations introduced an anti-blasphemy law before the General Assembly of the United Nations. The law, if passed, would make the “vilification of religion” a crime internationally. This proposed law makes no mention of Islam or the Holy Prophet. Indeed it is dressed up in the harmonious language of religious ecumenism, but let’s not be fooled. It is an attempt to both criminalize speech, and to utilize laws and the power of the state to coerce the “correct” views about religion. It is an offense to human dignity and a blow to freedom.

*Update -- On March 2, 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated in Islambad. In response,Pakistan's delegate to the United Nation's Human Rights Council said that freedom of speech does not justify blasphemy. 

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