Pakistan Must Repeal Its Blasphemy Laws fallacy of the phrase, ‘the Muslim world’

farahnaz-ispahani

Farahnaz Ispahani
Pakistan Peoples Party Member of the National Assembly of Pakistan

In Pakistan, proceedings in the now infamous blasphemy case of Rimsha Masih, a 14-year-old, mentally disabled Christian girl, took a turn for the better after the powerful Muslim Ulema Council backed her against the accuser. Last Saturday, Rimsha, jailed since August 16, was released on bail pending a court investigation into whether there is any evidence that she actually did burn pages of a Qur’an while sweeping out an Islamabad neighborhood school. Rimsha was taken away from jail in an armored vehicle to a helicopter, demonstrating the extent of the threat of violence from Pakistani extremists. Rimsha Masih will not be in the courtroom for the trial, which is scheduled to start tomorrow, September 14.

With luck, she and her family who, as her lawyer points out, still remain in mortal threat from vigilantes, will be kept protected and enabled to start their lives anew, whether in another location in Pakistan or abroad.

Many in Islamabad and Washington alike breathed a collective sigh of relief at the news of her bail. Emerging reports that a property dispute likely underlies the accusation and that the pages burned were not from a Qur’an at all but from a children’s religious textbookdeepen this feeling. But if we exhale thinking an atrocity has been averted, we do so at our own peril.

While Rimsha has been freed, Pakistan itself faces a grave danger from the corrosive criminal blasphemy law regime — to its fragile democracy and rule of law, and to its historically pluralistic society. The case’s resolution or even any ensuing reforms short of repeal cannot spare the country from the extremism that this law’s mere existence feeds.

Rimsha’s case is one of thousands brought since the 1980s when the laws were adopted as part of the Islamization championed by the brutal dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq, and it is all too typical. It exposes many of the injustices inherent in such laws, which carry harsh penalties of life imprisonment for allegations of desecrating a Qur’an, or possibly death for insulting Islam’s Prophet Mohammad, his companions or family members. In most cases individuals, found by human rights organizations to commonly have ulterior motives, have initiated these charges.

The laws are as vague as they are harsh. Intent to commit an act of blasphemy is not required. Illiterates, children and the mentally ill, like Rimsha, have all been put on trial for desecrating Qur’anic pages they could not read. They provide that an offense against the prophet can be committed by “any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly” — in other words, unwittingly.

Testimony, even the bare accusation itself, is often the only evidence, and in such cases is weighted more in court if it comes from a male or a Muslim than from a female or a non-Muslim. Under just such circumstances, Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five from a village outside Lahore, was convicted in 2010 and remains on death row. The upshot is that Pakistan’s Christians, Ahmadiyas, Hindus and Shiite Muslims are disproportionately accused of blasphemy.

But members of the Sunni majority are also victimized. Educators who advocate religious reforms are vulnerable to blasphemy charges brought by their extremist students. One is Dr. Mohammad Younas Shaikh, a professor of Islamabad’s medical college, who reportedly told a student that Mohammad was neither a prophet nor a Muslim before he was forty. An anti-blasphemy vigilante group, the Movement for the Finality of the Prophet, brought charges and also incited a mob that threatened to burn down the college and the local police station. After three years of legal proceedings, he was acquitted and fled to Europe. Another, Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, was not so fortunate; for criticizing the blasphemy law, he was murdered in broad daylight last year, as was Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian.

The law empowers extremists within the society. They invoke it to enflame sectarian sentiment, raise an angry mob, determine what can be said, and thus leverage their own political power. Blasphemy laws are often justified as necessary for social harmony, but they do the opposite. Rimsha’s case stands apart because of significant protest it stirred nationally and internationally and the arrest of its provocateur, local mosque leader Khalid Chisti, whose inflammatory threats nevertheless frightened some six hundred Christian neighbors from their homes, trapped presidential advisor Paul Bhatti inside the Ministry of Harmony, and continues to worry her lawyers.

One rumor, one accusation of a Qur’an desecration over a mosque loudspeaker, can trigger the torching of an entire area as happened in Gojra in 2009, when forty houses were razed and seven Christians were burned alive.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are incompatible with its aspiration of being a modern, democratic, Muslim state respected by the international community. Instead of allowing this travesty in the name of religion to continue, Pakistan needs to revisit the ideas of its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who declared on the eve of independence, “You are free; free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”

Farahnaz Ispahani is a parliamentarian in Pakistan. Nina Shea is director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and co-author of Silenced: How Apostasy & Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide

I often get asked the question – “do you think Arab culture is having an international renaissance?” This question is often a default position in response to the mixed bag of cross cultural events that has most recently developed to supposedly mirror or ‘open up dialogue’ around social conditions in the Arab world. Major film festivals such as Berlin, Rotterdam and Cannes, as well as cross-arts festivals such as the Mayor of London’s Shubbak Festival (http://www.london.gov.uk/shubbak), have developed programming strands that are intended to encapsulate the feelings of a new generation of Arabs. Ebullience, nostalgia and frustration, as such, become the demarcating devices that curators seek to include in their programming.

Answering the question honestly, however, I would argue that contemporary Arab culture is in an incoherent and helpless state.

My pessimism is not directed at the artists or cultural producers who are working locally, but rather, is a response to the hopeless infrastructure in the region, from which culture can operate. At present, there seem to be two dominant strands for the contextualisation of culture outside of the region: the art market (for niche audiences) and identity politics (for mass audiences).

‘The art market in the Arab world is hot’ boasted a curatorial colleague recently, and without irony. While, for the international community, soaring auction house prices may suggest signs of ‘progress’ or a different kind of Western-friendly modernity, the reality is that the art market is a private game that isn’t always accessible for the public to partake in. It baffles me that so many individuals will consider the sale of an Arab artist’s work into a private and ‘non visible’ collection as an emblematic barometer of a supposed ‘renaissance’. If anything, Arab culture is being commoditised and transformed into a form of private equity.

On a different note, there are large-scale international film festivals that attract global audiences, who gather together to indulge in the richness of world cinema. Still, take a look at the Arab-related programmes on these occasions, and the picture becomes fraught. Indeed, the films that circulate are ones that seem only to be tied to a current affairs news slant. Haphazardly constructed feature ‘package’ films such as 18 Days (2011), a film consisting of 10 short films by Egyptian filmmakers about the Arab spring, or Yousry Nasrallah’s cringe worthy After the Battle (2012) find themselves quickly onto exalted platforms such as the Cannes film festival.

Whom do these projects serve? Some will argue that any profile is better than none, but my belief is that we are too often witness to microwave-ready programme development, which leaves the richer sedimentary work too often shielded from the international public’s view.

It is for this very reason that I became interested in exploring Arab popular culture as a means by which to study and develop a different understanding of what constitutes Arab cultural production. Over the years, my research has evidenced that the mass medium of Arab cinema that we receive in Britain and in much of Europe, as well as the USA, does not reflect the authenticity of local tastes in Arabic-speaking countries.

The reasons for this are manifold, but the most explicit explanations relate to a poor system of archiving and distribution locally, and the highbrow snobbery of the purveyors who purport to construct the canon of ‘world cinema’. In my experience of organising Arab film festivals in 2012 alone, my team and I have come up against numerous hurdles. I have found that some of the most popular Arab films of all time have been purchased by private firms such as the Saudi-owned broadcaster, ART, whom decided at the last minute to revoke its offer to loan us film prints, arguing that they were too busy during the Holy month of Ramadan to entertain the idea. One film print was detained due to contentious licensing rights issues, while one filmmaker was too terrified to send us his print in the fear of it getting lost or sabotaged – asserting that he could only afford to ever produce one version of the film print.

Unfortunately, the art house distribution labels that possess the skill set to alleviate these problems are much too concerned with acquiring faux European fare. Melodrama, comedy and culturally specific comedies are in turn sidelined for material that boasts a vérité or documentary aesthetic that can be marketed off the back of much broader socio-political issues.

The challenge of writing popular Arab cinema into world cinema’s history therefore becomes more sophisticated. How do we encourage audiences and distributors to shift their entrenched viewing patterns? How do we encourage local filmmakers and distributors to value local cinema? Arguably, we require an international network of festivals, patrons, funders and filmmakers to come together to develop an infrastructure. This will develop a much more fluid state, whereby different forms of Arab cinema (and more broad cultural production) can come to the fore.

Part of my work has led to a new festival at the ICA; London called Safar: A Journey Through Popular Arab Cinema, which seeks to offer a much more sincere representation of local popular culture. With this as a jumping point, I hope that there will be a much more nuanced engagement with popular Arab culture – with both its it’s history and its future.

It is estimated that less than 0.001 per cent of the so-called ‘Muslim world’ is protesting the film [REUTERS]
On September 12, the day after the attacks on the US diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya, the New York Timesset out to explain what it called the “anguished relationship between the United States and the Muslim world”. According to the Times, the “Muslim world” was prone to outbursts of violence, and the reaction to the 14-minute anti-Islam movie trailer The Innocence of Muslims was both baffling and predictable. “Once again, Muslims were furious,” wrote reporter Robert F Worth, “and many in the West found themselves asking why Islam seems to routinely answer such desecrations with violence.”Other media outlets echoed the claim that “the Muslim world” was consumed by anger, and had long been so. TheAssociated Press offered a look back at “Five other incidents that inspired rage in the Muslim world”, crediting over a billion people for the actions of a few thousand in their search for historical continuity. Others took a psychoanalytic approach. “Why is the Muslim world so easily offended?” asked Washington Post columnist Fouad Ajami. “Madness in the Muslim World: Help Me Understand,” pleaded a blogger for the Houston Chronicle.

It is time to retire the phrase “the Muslim world” from the Western media. Using the phrase in the manner above disregards not only history and politics, but accurate reporting of contemporary events. The protests that took place around the world ranged in scale and intensity, in the participants’ willingness to use violence, and in their rationales. The majority of the “Muslim world” did not participate in these protests, nor did all of the Muslims who protested the video advocate the bloodshed that took place in Libya.

 

By reducing a complex set of causes and conflicts to the rage of an amorphous mass, the Western media reinforce the very stereotype of a united, violent “Muslim world” that both the makers of the anti-Islam video and the Islamist instigators of the violence perpetuate.

Misleading generalisations

Essentialist views of Islam and Muslims are nothing new. In Western media, Islam is often presented as a contagion, with Muslims as the afflicted, helpless to their own hostile impulses. What is different about the current crisis is that it comes in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring” – another series of intricate events depicted as interconnected and inevitable. Democracy would “spread” from one Muslim country to another, analysts argued, regardless of the unique historical trajectories of individual states. Some analysts went so far as to suggest it would spread to Central Asia, a region of largely isolationist dictatorships uninfluenced by Middle Eastern politics. The current protests are being portrayed as an “Arab Winter” – a simplistic reversal of a simplistic perception of success, with Muslims, undifferentiated, receiving the blame.

There is, of course, cohesion among Muslims, in the sense that there is cohesion among followers of any faith. The notion of the ummah is an essential part of Islamic doctrine. But the way the idea of “the Muslim world” is expressed within Islamic communities is different from the way it is expressed outside them. It is rare to hear the phrase “the Christian world” used in the English-language media, because doing so would generalise about the motives of over 2 billion people. No such respect applies to the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. Googling the phrase “the Christian world” yields 5.8 million results, while the phrase “the Muslim world” gives over 87 million results, many of them wondering what is “wrong” with the queried target. When the phrase “the Muslim world” is invoked, it is usually to reduce, denigrate or impugn.

The Western media’s broad-stroke regionalism means that conflicts within individual Muslim-majority states become marginalised. Syrians posting on Twitter wondered how the world could give so much attention to a conflict that killed seven people while dozens of Syrians are killed by state security forces every day – documenting, as one commenternoted, their own demise in videos that receive far less attention than the bigoted pseudo-cinema of one American. Similarly, the violence at the diplomatic missions in Cairo and Benghazi was initially conflated, with “Muslim rage” being presented as a root cause for two distinct conflicts. The tendency to see “the Muslim world” as a problem in general means that specific problems within Muslim countries go unseen.

Essentialist views of Islam and Muslims are nothing new. In Western media, Islam is often presented as a contagion, with Muslims as the afflicted, helpless to their own hostile impulses. What is different about the current crisis is that it comes in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring” – another series of intricate events depicted as interconnected and inevitable. Democracy would “spread” from one Muslim country to another, analysts argued, regardless of the unique historical trajectories of individual states. Some analysts went so far as to suggest it would spread to Central Asia, a region of largely isolationist dictatorships uninfluenced by Middle Eastern politics. The current protests are being portrayed as an “Arab Winter” – a simplistic reversal of a simplistic perception of success, with Muslims, undifferentiated, receiving the blame.

There is, of course, cohesion among Muslims, in the sense that there is cohesion among followers of any faith. The notion of the ummah is an essential part of Islamic doctrine. But the way the idea of “the Muslim world” is expressed within Islamic communities is different from the way it is expressed outside them. It is rare to hear the phrase “the Christian world” used in the English-language media, because doing so would generalise about the motives of over 2 billion people. No such respect applies to the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. Googling the phrase “the Christian world” yields 5.8 million results, while the phrase “the Muslim world” gives over 87 million results, many of them wondering what is “wrong” with the queried target. When the phrase “the Muslim world” is invoked, it is usually to reduce, denigrate or impugn.

The Western media’s broad-stroke regionalism means that conflicts within individual Muslim-majority states become marginalised. Syrians posting on Twitter wondered how the world could give so much attention to a conflict that killed seven people while dozens of Syrians are killed by state security forces every day – documenting, as one commenternoted, their own demise in videos that receive far less attention than the bigoted pseudo-cinema of one American. Similarly, the violence at the diplomatic missions in Cairo and Benghazi was initially conflated, with “Muslim rage” being presented as a root cause for two distinct conflicts. The tendency to see “the Muslim world” as a problem in general means that specific problems within Muslim countries go unseen.

Dispelling stereotypes

Soon after the destruction of the US embassy in Benghazi and the deaths of four Americans, a protest was held against the men who murdered them. Libyan citizens held English-language signs declaring “Benghazi is against terrorism” and “Sorry Americans this is not the behavior of our Islam and Profit [sic]”. Photos of the protest, distributed by Libya Alhurra Livestream, went viral on Facebook and Twitter.

The Libyans protesting were aware that not only Libyans, but Muslims in general, would be blamed for the violence that took place, because the small group of Muslims who stormed the embassy would be seen as representative of all. They gave the rare apology that Western commentators often encourage Muslims to make on behalf of others who commit violence in the name of Islam. But while the sentiment of the protestors is appreciated by many Americans – and the photos likely assuaged some prejudices – such explanations should not be necessary. Ordinary people should not be assumed to share the beliefs of violent criminals who share their faith.

The Innocence of Muslims was made by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian-American who hates Muslims. It was found on YouTube and put on Egyptian television by Sheikh Khaled Abdullah, a man trying to convince the world that Americans hate Muslims. This was a perfect storm of gross and deceitful parties depicting each other in the most vile terms, and then living up to each others’ worst expectations.

The answer to such invective is not to reinforce it through media portrayals of “Muslims” as a collective. The media should instead pay more attention to individual states, conflicts and leaders, since dictatorship and factionalism have been as essential in shaping politics in Muslim-majority regions as has religion. The current crisis demonstrates how corrupt parties use religion as an incitement to violence and a means to political gain. The Western media should not play party to their prejudices.

We will be discussing Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law with journalist Shehrbano Taseer whose father – Punjab governor Salman Taseer – was killed for speaking out against it.

The killing ignited a debate in Pakistan with many critics calling for the law to be amended or scrapped,saying it was being used to victimise liberal politicians and religious minorities.We will be iscussing Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law with journalist Shehrbano Taseer whose father – Punjab governor Salman Taseer – was killed for speaking out against it.

The killing ignited a debate in Pakistan with many critics calling for the law to be amended or scrapped, saying it was being used to victimise liberal politicians and religious minorities

But extremist groups have celebrated Taseer’s killer, calling him a hero who is defending Islam.So has the blasphemy law become a political tool and should it have a place in today’s Pakistan?

Also joining the discussion will be Asma Jahangir, a well-known human rights activist, and Amjad Waheed, an Islamic scholar

readmore http://muslimjournalmalaysia.blogspot.com/2012/09/pakistan-blasphemy-laws-first.html

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