American Muslims Must Protest “Blasphemy” Laws - updated 9/3/12

American Muslims Must Protest “Blasphemy” Laws

by Sheila Musaji

Over the years, we have published many articles on what are called “blasphemy laws”.

Salam Al Marayati of MPAC in Blasphemy Laws Are Against Islam perhaps stated the issue most clearly

Blasphemy laws or laws prohibiting defamation of a religion are incompatible with Islamic thought and philosophy. The concept of Defamation of Religions denies a person their free will to choose—one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity—and deprives individuals of their right to free speech and expression. It also creates a climate of intolerance that can breed discrimination and violence.

This was the message I delivered during a Human Rights First panel discussion in Geneva, where the United Nations Human Rights Council is expected to discuss a resolution seeking this week to criminalize “defamation of religions,” as it has done several years for the past decade. However, this year’s debate comes at a unique and particularly tumultuous time.

Earlier this month, Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs, Shabbaz Bhatti, was murdered for speaking out in favor of amending the nation’s blasphemy laws. His assassination came less than two months after the murder of Governor Salmaan Taseer, who was assassinated by one of his own body guards. Taseer’s killer tried to justify his act by citing Islamic law. Taseer was an outspoken defender of a Christian woman who sentenced to death in Pakistan after being accused of blasphemy. The assassin, now in custody and facing murder charges, has been called a “hero” by a vocal and influential minority of Pakistanis who echo his misguided reasoning and support brutal blasphemy laws.

Blasphemy laws were first introduced to Muslim countries during the days of colonialism and are now a major obstacle to Islamic reform. Often used to restrict freedom of expression and to settle personal scores, these laws have led to devastating consequences for religious minorities and others whose views differ from the majority. It has become all too common and acceptable to file an accusation of blasphemy, claims that can include insulting the Quran or Prophet Muhammad, and to condemn those who speak out against such abuses.

Those who support the “Defamation of Religions” resolution first introduced at the United Nations over a decade ago by the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), argue that it serves to combat the rise of hatred and discrimination against Muslims in the world. They are wrong. In fact, this resolution does the opposite. Its implementation would illustrate Muslim suppression of Western standards of freedom of speech

The Quran mandates “there shall be no coercion in matters of faith” (2:256). This Quranic injunction is meant to protect freedom of religious belief and expression for all people; it is also meant to prohibit any government or group of people from intruding on the private lives of its people. Islam calls for the freedom, not for the suppression, of free speech and it condemns violations of fundamental human rights.

In fact, the Quran documents the criticism of Islam by poets and political leaders at the time of its revelation. Though the Prophet was accused of sorcery and mania, in each and every case, God did not order him to punish the blasphemers. Instead, His order to the Prophet was to respond to their hate speech with good speech and good work. In other words, Islam calls for freedom of speech and for competing freely in the marketplace of ideas. No one has the right to play the role of God on this earth.

In the Quran, there is no provision for the absolute protection of (any) religion nor any punishment mandated for those who defame religion. Just like current standards of international law, the Quran calls for the protection of individuals and their rights. It is this protection that should be at the heart of any resolution proposed to combat religious intolerance and discrimination.

People of all faiths need states and international bodies to protect them when they are discriminated against based on their religion. Unfortunately, they are not getting any such protection. For example, Europe has not faired well on guaranteeing freedom of religion for its Muslim citizens. A recent referendum voted on by Swiss citizens banned the construction of minarets on mosques, and government intrusion on religious practices in France has become pervasive.

By contrast, in the United States where secularism means neutrality of government on religious matters, Muslims are protected by the government, especially when discrimination occurs against women who decide to wear a headscarf. When Rep. Peter King held a hearing on “radicalization of American Muslims” attempting to stereotype all American Muslims, many elected government officials, opinion leaders and civil society organizations collectively called out his behavior and rhetoric as counter to American values and protections for all its citizens.

The proposed U.N. resolution on “Defamation of Religions” will certainly not prevent discrimination against Muslims, nor will it fight religious intolerance. Its passage would only further fuel anti-Muslim stereotyping and hatred.

We must earn our respect as Muslims by working for the prosperity of our societies. We must seek essential reforms that, along with our own honorable actions, will protect and exalt the name of Islam. The Quran provides a response to defamation in general: “Good and evil are not equal; so repel evil with something good and better so that the one with whom there is enmity will become a close friend.”

Human Rights First has an article Blasphemy Laws Exposed: The Consequences of Criminalizing “Defamation of Religions that lists cases from around the world of such violations of human rights.  Many countries are listed.  Although there have been cases in Sri Lanka, Poland, and Austria, sadly, the majority of these cases are from “Muslim countries”, and of those countries Pakistan has the most cases of such incidents.

Once again, in Pakistan, a case has come up that defies any understanding.  An 11 year-old child with Down’s Syndrome, Rita Masih, has been arrested under the Pakistani Blasphemy laws for allegedly burning pages of the Qur’an.

A rumor about this supposed incident went out in her neighborhood, and a very large crowd of 400 to 500 people showed up threatening the family.  The police came and took the girl into custody.  The Pakistani police say that the crowd might have harmed the girl if they hadn’t taken her into custody.

As Mehdi Hasan points out:

Harmed her”? Really? I mean, really? What on Allah’s earth is wrong with so many self-professed Muslims in the self-styled Islamic Republic of Pakistan? Have they taken leave of their morals as well as their senses? It beggars belief that they should want to hurt or attack a child in the name of a religion based on mercy, compassion and justice.
Some defenders of Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws - under which anyone found guilty of insulting the Quran or Prophet Muhammad can be sentenced to death - have been keen to highlight the growing number of press reports that suggest Masih may be 16, rather than 11, and may not have Down’s Syndrome.

To which the only appropriate response is: so what?

Whether she is 11 or 16, mentally able or mentally retarded is, frankly, irrelevant. For a start, a child is a child and should be treated as such. Pakistani authorities have legal as well as moral obligations. Second, even if this girl did set fire to pages from the Quran - and there is, incidentally, not a single eyewitness to this alleged ‘crime’ - to sentence her to death for doing so would be, to put it mildly, a grossly disproportionate ‘penalty’.

The Christian Science Monitor reports on an encouraging development

In this case, Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari has stepped in early, saying he is taking “notice” of the issue and directed officials to investigate. Some analysts here see that as a silver lining in the case.

“The case … demonstrates the growing bigotry in the society where people cannot even spare a mentally challenged child,” says Raza Rumi, a noted columnist, adding that efforts to even conduct a debate on the colonial-era blasphemy law have resulted in murders and threats to progressive Pakistani Muslims. “However the intervention by the president is a healthy sign indicating that the moderate coalition parties in the government may take up the issue of reforming the blasphemy law again,” he adds.

Mehdi Hasan closes his article mentioned above with

I, for one, am fed up with politicians, mullahs and mobs using my religion to further their own vicious and sectarian agendas. So here’s my own very simple message to the bigots, fanatics and reactionaries of the Islamic world: whatever intellectual or theological disagreements we may have with them, the fact is that Christians (and, for that matter, Jews) are our brethren; the Quran respectfully refers to them as the “People of the Book”. Nor should we extend our tolerance, compassion and solidarity only to members of Abrahamic faiths while demonising and discriminating against everyone else. Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists - all of them are also our brethren. Don’t believe me? Listen to the verdict of Imam Ali ibn Abu Talib, the great Muslim caliph and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad: “Remember that people are of two kinds; they are either your brothers in religion or your brothers in mankind.”

The imprisonment of this Christian child isn’t only about Pakistan or Pakistanis. Those of us who claim to be members of a global Muslim ummah cannot be silent when such flagrant human-rights abuses are committed in the name of Islam and in the world’s second-biggest Muslim-majority nation. Denial is not an option, nor is turning a blind eye. We have to speak out against hate, intolerance and the bullying of non-Muslim minorities - otherwise we risk becoming complicit in such crimes. “Not in my name” has to be more than just an anti-war slogan.

I am certain that he speaks for a majority of Muslims. 

Earlier this year, we reported that ISNA was working with religious authorities to develop protocols to protect religious minorities.

Last week, ISNA President Imam Mohamed Magid and ISNA Director of Community Outreach Dr. Mohamed Elsanousi met with high-ranking religious authorities and scholars in Morocco and Tunisia to discuss the rights of religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries across the globe. Working in consultation with these authorities, they presented the idea of developing Islamic standards and protocols to guarantee equal participation of various religious groups in Muslim-majority countries.

ISNA is deeply concerned about the rights of religious minorities and among those with whom they met were Dr. Ahmed Toufiq, Moroccan Minister of Islamic Affairs and Endowment; Dr. Noureddine Khadmi, Tunisian Minister of Religious Affairs; and Dr. Abdul Aziz Othman al-Tuwaijri, General Manager of the Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (ISESCO). All of them remain solidly committed to addressing this issue.

...  ISNA is committed to religious freedom and seeks to promote it not only in the United States, but also abroad. We deeply appreciate the partnership of religious leaders of all faiths, particularly the way religious leaders and community members from Jewish and Christian faiths have wholeheartedly demonstrated their support for Muslims through the institutionalization of the campaign, Shoulder-to-Shoulder: Standing with American Muslims; Upholding American Values.

Similarly, ISNA is dedicated to standing in solidarity with people of other faiths everywhere, whether they constitute the majority or the minority. Following this trip to Morocco and Tunisia, stay tuned for news about a series of activities, as ISNA works to promote a mechanism for developing standards and protocols on religious freedom and the role of religious minorities in the Muslim world.

This statement expresses wonderful ideals, and I would expect that it would be followed with some sort of action. 

As the largest umbrella group representing American Muslims, and after having strongly expressed their intention to protect the rights of religious minorities, it would seem that ISNA would take the lead on speaking out strongly and clearly against such cases as this one in Pakistan.  And, yet, to date, I cannot find any statement, petition, or even a media interview on this issue.  This is more than disappointing. 

One of the things that the Prophet Muhammad taught us was that it is our duty to try to correct injustices in the world. If you see something wrong, change it with your hands. If you’re not able to change it, then speak out against it. If you’re not able to do that, then feel bad about it in your heart. But, that is the weakest form of faith. Wherever possible, the Muslim should try to take action and not let an injustice go by without calling it what it is, and asking for change.

What we can do to make our voices heard and put pressure on countries like Pakistan to reform such barbaric interpretations of the law is an open question.  We must at least try. 

Ingrid Mattson’s words in an article, American Muslims Have a ‘Special Obligation’ ring just as true today

The terrorist attack on Sept. 11th exacerbated a double-bind American Muslims have been feeling for some time. So often, it seems, we have to apologize for reprehensible actions committed by Muslims in the name of Islam. We tell other Americans, “People who do these things (oppression of women, persecution of religious minorities, terrorism) have distorted the ‘true’ Islam.”

And so often we have to tell other Muslims throughout the world that America is not as bad as it appears. We say, “These policies (support for oppressive governments, enforcement of sanctions responsible for the deaths almost 1 million Iraqi children, vetoing any criticism of Israel at the United Nations) contradict the ‘true’ values of America.”

But frankly, American Muslims have generally been more critical of injustices committed by the American government than of injustices committed by Muslims. This has to change.

...  American Muslims, in particular, have a great responsibility to speak out. The freedom, stability, and strong moral foundation of the United States are great blessings for all Americans, particularly for Muslims.

Moreover, we do not have cultural restrictions that Muslims in some other countries have. In America, Muslim women have found the support and freedom to reclaim their proper place in the life of their religious community. And Muslims have pushed and been allowed to democratize their governing bodies. Important decisions, even relating to theological and legal matters, are increasingly made in mosques and Islamic organizations by elected boards or the collective membership.

But God has not blessed us with these things because we are better than the billions of humans who do not live in America. We do not deserve good health, stable families, safety and freedom more than the millions of Muslims and non-Muslims throughout the world who are suffering from disease, poverty, and oppression.

Muslims who live in America are being tested by God to see if we will be satisfied with a self-contained, self-serving Muslim community that resembles an Islamic town in the Epcot global village, or if we will use the many opportunities available to us to change the world for the better—beginning with an honest critical evaluation of our own flaws.

Because we have freedom and wealth, we have a special obligation to help those Muslims who do not—by speaking out against the abuses of Muslim “leaders” in other countries. ...

For those requiring some textual proof that Islam affirms the freedom of expression and belief, here is an article by Haris Aziz Affirmation of Freedom of Expression and Belief in the Quran:

And had your Lord so willed, all those who live on earth would have attained to faith - all of them, do you then think that you could compel people to believe?- The Holy Quran (10:99)

In recent years, a lot of disinformation has been spread concerning Islamic principles. One assumption in public discourse has been ‘Islam’s inherent opposition to freedom of belief or expression’. This has been not only been latched upon by Islamophobes but also readily accepted by Muslims of a fascist and extremist disposition. Perhaps they are not aware that Imam Shafi, the founder of the Islamic jurisprudence tradition when issuing a Fatwa [legal opinion] used to say that I think I am right although I may be wrong and I think that the opposing opinion is wrong although it may be right. Moreover the Islamic tradition is based upon Shura [mutual consultation], debate and discussion. Tomes have been written on Adab-Ikhtalaf [Ethics of Disagreement] by classical Islamic scholars. Moreover in Islam, personal freedom and liberty are such lofty ideals that once Caliph Omer Ibne Al Khattab asked the rhetorical question: “When (implying by what right) ... when did you enslave the people, knowing that they were born free by their mothers?”

This article does not ignore the malicious media trial of Islam as a whole due to the misguided acts of some Muslims in the current political turmoil. There should be no excuse in invoking freedom of speech to make hateful, racist and ignorant comments about Muslims. Similarly there is no intention to condone any bigotry in Muslim discourse or the misuse of ‘blasphemy charges’ to silence non-Muslims and Muslims alike. The legal and moral constraints in freedom of expression are part of a complex debate which must be discussed by Muslim intellectuals and the jurists in the light of the new developments. However, so much is being written nowadays about Islam as criticism by well wishers along with virulent propaganda by Islamophobes that the essence of the Islamic message is lost in the deluge of voices. What one aims to highlight here is that the Holy Quran, the foremost authority among Islamic sources affirms the freedom of expression and belief:

Let there be no compulsion in religion (2:256)

Said (Noah): O my people - what do you think? If ( it be true that) I am taking my stand on a clear evidence from my Lord . . . to which you have remained blind, can we force it on you even though it is hateful to you? (11:28)

And so (O Prophet) exhort them; your task is only to exhort; you cannot compel (88:21-22).

If then they run away, We have not sent thee as a guard over them. Thy duty is but to convey (42:28)

Whether We shall show thee (within thy life-time) part of what we promised them or take to ourselves thy soul (before it is all accomplished),- thy duty is to make (the Message) reach them: it is our part to call them to account. (13:40)

And to recite the Qur’an. And whoso goeth right, goeth right only for (the good of) his own soul; and as for him who goeth astray - (Unto him) say: Lo! I am only a warner.(27:92)

Say, “The truth is from your Lord”: Let him who will believe, and let him who will, reject (it) (18:29)

Verse 2:256 is indeed the Magna Carta of religious freedom. Muslims believe that a religious belief is not meaningful if it does not come through personal conviction, contemplation and a conscious effort to love and obey Allah [God]. The general message is exhorting and sincerely advising instead of using coercion. In the face of such clear verses concerning religious freedom and also the Sunnah [example] of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him), it is surprising that some Muslims have no qualms in demanding execution of any Muslim who is perceived to leave Islam. This appears to be based on a couple of ahadith [sayings attributed to the Holy Prophet]. These ahadith must be seen in the light of the cited verses and the general dealing of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). The Quran talks about apostasy at least twenty times but does not mention any worldly punishment. The only warning given is about the consequence in the life here after. Moreover there is a good possibility that the referred ahadith have a specific context of hirabah [high treason], breaking away from the authority, breaking a treaty, defying the direct commands of a living prophet in violent times and incitement to wage war against Muslims when the very survival of a small Muslim community was in danger. Many celebrated jurists have alluded to this kind of takhsis [specification] to conclude that an apostate should be re-invited to Islam but not condemned to death. It is critical that the Ulema [scholars] address this issue. Moreover if some Muslim country does not allow non-Muslims to observe their religion freely, it is totally against Islamic principles of justice and fair play and should be tackled.

The Quran also demands that Muslims should discuss with non-Muslims in a courteous and patient manner and act admirably even in the face of ignorance and insults:

Call to the way of your Lord with (great) wisdom and solicitude and argue with them in ways that are most appropriate. (And remember that) your Lord knows best those who have strayed from His path and (also) those, who are rightly guided. (16: 125)

Nor can goodness and evil be equal. Return (evil) with what is best. Then will he, between whom and you was hatred become as he was your friend and intimate. And no one can exercise this except those, who are steadfast (in the way of God); no one except persons of the greatest good fortune. (41: 34 - 35)

Ye shall certainly be tried and tested in your possessions and in your personal selves; and ye shall certainly Hear much that will grieve you, from those who received the Book before you and from those who worship many gods. But if ye persevere patiently, and guard against evil,-then that will be a determining factor in all affairs?(3.186 )

Hold to forgiveness; command what is right; But turn away from the ignorant. (7:199)

These foundational verses seems to be in direct contrast to the prevailing attitude of some Muslims who are keen to kill any one who might say something offending about Islam. There is no adherence to basic Islamic values of mercy, tolerance, patience, inviting to goodness and allowing for repentance. This is surprising considering that Rahmah [mercy] is one of the most used word in the Quran. Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) said:

Have mercy on those who are on earth, the One in heavens will have mercy on you. (Tirmidhi).

The sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) shows how he tolerated all kinds of insults and taunts with extreme patience. Moreover, even if there is insistence on some kind of penalty for serious blasphemy, Islamic tradition demands that a proper trial be held. The Quran (5:8) also requires that any contract or agreement made, based on the free will of the person, has to be adhered to by the person. Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) established this by his example through out his life. This means that all national and international laws must be adhered to. Therefore it is disturbing that violent and illegal acts of vigilantism are sometimes done in the name of Islam. Muslims need to speak out against criminality if they are true to their faith.

It is evident that the Quran provides a foundation for Muslim societies to allow freedom of religion and expression. These fundamental values must be encouraged if we want to recapture the true spirit of Islam.

UPDATE 8/24/2012

Imam Mohamed Magid, the President of ISNA, as well as the organizations ISNA, MPAC, and CAIR have all had statements to make about this.  We will continue collecting these in American Muslim Organizations’ Issue Statements on Pakistani Blasphemy Arrest.

UPDATE 9/3/2012

A very strange development in this case.  The Pakistan Tribune reports

In a dramatic turn of events, Khalid Jadoon Chishti, the cleric who claimed to have ‘busted’ a blasphemy case involving an 11-year-old Christian girl allegedly burning pages containing verses from the holy Quran, has now been sent to jail on a 14-day judicial remand under the very same charges.

Earlier on Friday, in a rare show of courage, a man, identified as Hafiz Zubair, came forward as a witness and told a law officer that Chishti had planted evidence against Rimsha Masih, saying that the cleric deliberately put charred pages inscribed with Quranic verses in the ashes brought to him by a young man.

Ramna police arrested Chishti on Saturday night and produced him before a duty judge on Sunday before booking him under section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code, on charges of desecrating the holy Quran.

If found guilty, he can be imprisoned for life, said a police official. Police said the charges of tampering with evidence and filing a false case were also being investigated and would be included in the case against the cleric later on.

“We tried to stop him but he said this would strengthen the blasphemy case against Rimsha,” said Zubair, a resident in the area, in his statement. He said they were sitting in Aitikaf in the mosque when they witnessed the incident.

A police officer closely associated with the investigations told The Express Tribune that the cleric not only tampered with the evidence, he made up the whole case.

The only possible good that could come out of so much shameful behavior is that this might help the people of Pakistan see the wisdom in getting rid of the blasphemy laws altogether.  At the very least, they might consider Tariq Ramadan’s call for a moratorium on capital punishment.



A defense of free speech by American and Canadian Muslims

A Dissenting Voice on Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan (after murder of Salman Taseer), Yoginder Sikand

Affirmation of Freedom of Expression and Belief in the Quran, Haris Aziz (provides many Qur’anic quotes)

Al-Ghazali on Theological Tolerance, Asma Barlas (PDF)

Amnesty Urges Pakistan To Reform Blasphemy Laws, Protect Detained Christian Girl

Blasphemy Before God: the Darkness of Racism in Muslim Culture, Adam Misbah al-Haqq

Blasphemy Laws Are Against Islam, Salam Al Marayati

Blasphemy Laws in Muslim Majority Countries, Asma Uddin

The Blasphemy of “Anti-Blasphemy” Laws, Hesham A. Hassaballa

Danish Cartoons Wars, If at First You Don’t Succeed ..., Sheila Musaji

Indonesia Restricting Free Religious Expression, Asma Uddin

MPAC Supports Effort to Combat Hatred Through Free Speech, Releases Critique of Global Blasphemy Law

MPV Responds Vehemently To News Of Extradition Of Saudi Blogger Hamza Kashgari

Muslims Condemn Blasphemy Charges Against Christian Girl in Pakistan, Mike Ghouse

Not In My Name: Islam, Pakistan and the Blasphemy Laws, Mehdi Hasan

Pakistan : The Meaning of a Moratorium, Tariq Ramadan

Prominent Pakistani Islamic scholar, Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, condemns Pakistan’s blasphemy laws

Rethinking the Use of Muslim Law, Tariq Ramadan 

Tariq Ramadan Calls for a Moratorium on Corporal Punishment, Sheila Musaji

Tariq Ramadan’s Response to Muslim Scholars and Leaders Comments’ to His Call For a Moratorium on Capital Punishment, Tariq Ramadan

Stop in the Name of Humanity, Tariq Ramadan

Video:  Prof. John Voll on blasphemy laws and violence

What is the Punishment for Blasphemy in Islam?, Khalid Saifullah Khan

With A Girl Jailed, Pakistan Law Again Under Scrutiny, Lauren Frayer

Who Benefits From Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law?, Malik Siraj Akbar