Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, was gunned down on January 4, 2011 by one of his security guards, angry over Taseer’s advocacy for reforming blasphemy laws. While Taseer was being buried, five hundred Pakistani religious leaders praised the killer, saying, “One who supports a blasphemer is also a blasphemer.” Seemingly murder is fitting, for some religious leaders, when it helps to perpetuate blasphemy laws.
Nations and religions have wrestled with the question of blasphemy for centuries. In Jewish history, Mosaic Law tells us that death by stoning was the appropriate punishment for blasphemy. When Jesus forgave a man’s sins (Luke 5:21) the religious leaders asked, “Who is this who speaks blasphemy?” In England in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, blasphemy was punishable by death. In early U.S. history, a few states had blasphemy laws and corresponding punishments. Although the laws have disappeared from the books, the popular sentiment lingers. When a Muslim community center and mosque were proposed in New York City a few blocks from the 9/11 site last year, there were some who cried blasphemy, claiming the center would desecrate the sacred site. Feelings run deep in the face of perceived irreverence toward that which is considered most Holy.
Pakistan, an Islamic republic with a large Muslim majority, has had two distinctly different phases in its approach to blasphemy. From its birth in 1947 until 1986, blasphemy laws were written primarily to protect minority religions, considered a “sacred trust of Pakistan.” Pakistan’s current blasphemy laws, enacted in 1986 by President General Zia-ul-Haq and amended in 2005, abandoned that ideal, condemning anyone convicted of defaming the Prophet to death. The strictest in the Muslim world, the new laws favor the sensibilities of the majority religion.
How have the laws played out? Since 1986, over 650 people in Pakistan have been accused of blasphemy (by one male witness or by four females, considered the equivalent of a male). The largest number executed have been Muslims, followed by Ahaidis, then Christians and others. The everyday intimidation factor is equally terrifying as the occasional executions.
What lies at the core of the best blasphemy laws is the question, “Is nothing sacred?” People want to create a special attitude and culture around the highest, deepest Truth, Beauty, Being they know. If nothing is sacred, all life drifts toward the profane. But this rationale for blasphemy laws suffers from one crucial fallacy: that humans can decide what is offensive to God, and mete out the justice. Shouldn’t God decide what is offensive? If human beings begin to act on behalf of the Divine and speak as if they are God, is that not the ultimate overreach? Isn’t that in itself the height of blasphemy?
I have sat with members of the Pakistan Supreme Court and discussed this issue. These men are erudite, sensitive, religious, sophisticated, and they probe deeply in all of the attendant arguments. In their daily work, in their deliberations, they try to demonstrate that their young country can be both Islamic and democratic. But their quiet efforts are often overshadowed by the voices of aroused zealots and actions of blood-thirsty mobs.
Despite the vitriol over blasphemy laws, Pakistan as a nation is receptive to peace among religions. Anti-discrimination laws are also written into its constitution, and URI (United Religions Initiative), a global interfaith network, has spread fastest and most fully in India and Pakistan, making deep inroads into government and society. I believe that the voices of reason will prevail, that Pakistan will some day unite around a sane, respectful approach to blasphemy. Until then, however, the stakes are high.
How high? The debate around Pakistan’s blasphemy laws represents the struggle for Pakistan’s soul. And its soul controls an atomic trigger that could affect billions of lives and ignite a holocaust among Muslims, Christians and other religions. It is crucial that Pakistan gets it right. We must join together, all over the world, to pray for and support this beautiful, troubled, young country.