By Kunwar Khuldune Shahid
On October 31, Asia Bibi, a Christian woman falsely accused of blasphemy, was acquitted by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. The nine-year horrific jail sentence that she undeservedly served was rooted in a glass of water that she was deemed ‘impure’ to touch, while the death row she escaped was founded on Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which deem that insults to Islam and Islam alone are a crime worthy of Constitutionally sanctioned death.
While Pakistan’s apex court has established that Bibi did not utter any insulting remarks for Islam or Prophet Muhammad, the progressive narrative that we are hoping to carry forward is how such an action should not be punished with death in any case. That is only possible if the Islam specific clauses from Section 295 of Pakistan’s Penal Code are removed.
Since sanctioning death for insulting any religion would be akin to etching a murderous civil war in the Penal Code, the logical corollary of treating all organised religion – since we’re still quite some distance from putting non-religion and non-religious ideologies on the same pedestal – would mean the eradication of the capital punishment for blasphemy, which has seen a precipitous hike in both the allegations and the ensuing mob violence.
Even so, while progressives in Pakistan – and the Muslim world in general – are urging legislative secularity by tackling Islamic supremacism that comes with giving Islam legal privileges, in a bid to establish freedom of and eventually from religion, European courts are telling such voices that they are ‘Islamophobic’.
Indeed, six days before the Supreme Court’s verdict in favour of Asia Bibi, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Islam absolutely deserved to be treated as a special case when it comes to asterisks on free speech.
The court stated that insults to the Prophet Muhammad are “likely to arouse justified indignation in Muslims”. These would perhaps be akin to the “justified indignation” of the Muslim women who were outraged by Asia Bibi touching their glass, or the Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) that wants the head of not just Bibi, but the judges who acquitted her, and has been making a habit of violently putting an entire country to a standstill over religious “indignation”.
Pakistan is brimming over with colonies being torched, couples being burnt alive, progressives being hacked to death, politicians being shot and propagation of genocide all owing to what the perpetrators feel is “justified indignation” on their part.
Asia Bibi, still in Pakistan, is one individual looking to escape the bloodlust of the radical Islamists indignant at her very existence. Meanwhile, the UK has refused to offer her asylum, citing “unrest among certain sections of the community.”
Perhaps it is the rights of these very sections that the ECHR – and now evidently the British government – wants to protect: that of violent ‘unrest’ along the lines of what we’re witnessing and hoping to challenge in Pakistan.
Thus, what it boils down to is the reality that, as things stand, the European court – of human rights no less, if the gory irony was to be lost in the first place – is currently endorsing the blasphemy law that Bibi is trying to escape.
Of course, the ECHR wouldn’t uphold the death penalty for insulting Islam – not yet, anyway. But by merely sanctioning the act as a crime that exceeds the “permissible limits” of freedom of expression the European Court of Human Rights has given credence to the Pakistan Penal Code – and laws in at least 12 other Muslim states – by elevating ‘blasphemy’ against Islam as a crime above insults to any other religions.
Once even the ‘champions of liberal and freedom’ consider it a distinct crime, why can’t countries like Pakistan sanction a distinct penalty – death in this particular case – for the crime?
Granted anti-Muslim bigotry – mostly depicted by the dangerous misnomer ‘Islamophobia’ – is a reality in Europe, and not all critique of Islam would be well-meaning, constructive, or reformist. But it is precisely this freedom to offend, insult or mock that freedom of speech ought to safeguard – whether its depiction of historical figures or denial of historical facts, even as gruesome as genocides – as long as there are no calls to take away an individual or community’s rights, spearheaded by the right to life.
One would appreciate the efforts to protect Muslim minorities in Europe – represented evidently, in all such well-meaning gestures, by the most radical of their religious adherents – if any heed had been paid to victims of Sharia that the Islamists espouse.
Implementation of Islamist laws in Muslim states not only target non-Muslims like Asia Bibi, but also the scores of atheists who have abandoned Islam in countries where such exercise of conscience carries death sentence mandated by the penal codes.
As long as Western liberal values are interpreted to uphold special treatment of Islam and its Sharia endorsed blasphemy law, these nonbelievers, apostates, atheists – whichever label establishes their abandonment of Islamic theology – will continue to be persecuted in their silent subjugation across the Muslim world.
In countries like Pakistan where a Christian woman is wanted dead for derogatory remarks she never uttered, imagine being someone whose existence is mandated as a Sharia sanctioned insult to Islam.