Malaysia’s revised “sedition” laws crack down on free speech, including new provisions aimed at “protecting Islam”. Turkey prosecutes journalists for illustrating Charlie Hebdo columns with Charlie Hebdo illustrations. In Egypt, a TV preacher who reportedly preaches that the Quran should not be read literally, faces prosecution for “insulting religion”. And in Kuwait, a cartoonist faces “heresy” charges because Muslims can’t be superheroes apparently.
A court in Pakistan denies bail to a woman accused of blasphemy on the grounds that her trial is nearly over – but it’s taken three years to get to this point, and this was her fourth application for bail! In India, Sikh students march in protest against an upcoming movie that depicts a Sikh Guru Nanak.
And the Russian Orthodox Church’s patented War on Theatre continues, spreading from Wagner to Wilde.
Our tenth week of news and views on “blasphemy” laws and related human rights violations and nonsense.
Malaysia has been widely and severely criticised for passing amendments to its “sedition” and “terror” laws, the second of which was approved in the early hours of this morning. Among other things, the revised laws curb online speech, and allow authorities to detain people without charge indefinitely.
Under the banner of prohibiting “inciting religious hatred” or “inter-ethnic conflict” (aims which need not be fundamentally objectionable in themselves) the laws in practice and on the government’s current course look set to be used in a much more restrictive way.
Critics of the Muslim-controlled government, which has seen voter support slide, say it is increasingly falling back on “protecting Islam” to curb speech by members of the religiously diverse opposition.
“This is a black day for democracy in Malaysia. There is no freedom of speech under this abusive law,” opposition lawmaker N. Surendran said.
Rights groups say the definition of “sedition” remains open to wide interpretation and abuse by the government, which has a history of using security laws to stifle dissent.
The United Nations Human Rights chief also blasted the revised laws prior to their approval:
“Silencing dissent does not nurture social stability, but an open democratic space does,” the High Commissioner [Zeid] said. “Curtailing the legitimate exercise of human rights in the name of fighting terrorism has been shown, time and again, to backfire and to only lead to festering discontent and a strong sense of injustice.”
The High Commissioner urged Malaysia, as chair of Asean, to ensure that its leadership role at the regional and international levels is backed up by a firm commitment to ensure the human rights of all in Malaysia.
In Egypt, the Sunni religious authorities of Al-Azhar are pressing charges against a TV preacher for “insulting religion”. According to the complaint filed against Islam al-Beheiry, he propagates extremist ideology in his show, With Islam. Oddly enough…
“…Beheiry is also accused of slandering Al-Azhar scholars and intentionally insulting the institution itself.
…Beheiry has stated that the Quran should not be read literally, but rather interpreted according to the times in which religious followers live. He has also cast doubt on certain sayings that most Islamic scholars have attributed to the Prophet and hold as sacred, as well as questioned women’s rights in Islam, and the belief that those who insult the Prophet should be killed.”
Two journalists who just so happen to work for the pro-secular Cumhuriyet newspaper in Turkey, face sentences of up to four and a half years for featuring Charlie Hebdo cover images featuring Mohammed in their columns. Ceyda Karan and Hikmet Cetinkaya were charged with “inciting public hatred” and “insulting people’s religious values”, AP reported.
Karan told Reuters: “We are being threatened with prison for defending free speech. To threaten a journalist because he or she printed a drawing that does not include an insult can only come from a religious, authoritarian government.
“Neither of us will abandon our defence of free speech.”
The current Turkish government has been often accused of curbing freedom of speech. The country ranked 152 in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index, having dropped 20 positions from the 132th place it gained in the 2010 index.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also accused of trying to replace secularism values with Islamist ones.
A popular TED talker, threatened with death by ISIS, and otherwise both loved and hated by both Muslim and non-Muslim readers and non-readers alike, the cartoonist Naif Al-Mutawa is being prosecuted for “heresy” in his home country, Kuwait. The charges relate to his comic book creation, the Muslim superhero collective known to numerous fans in Kuwait and around the world as The 99.
The books are popular in Kuwait, where there is even a theme park. Nevertheless, under the blasphemy laws, one lawyer has been able to take Al-Mutawa to court, because “the 99” alludes to the 99 names of God.
He is being taken to court by a Kuwaiti lawyer because in 2006 he created a series of Marvel-esque cartoon characters called The 99. They are inspired by the 99 attributes of Allah — for example, Allah is known as The Generous and The Wise, so two of the 99 characters have the attributes of generosity and wisdom.
Their mission, as you might expect, is to save the world from evil — or in this case, Rughal, an Osama bin Laden-inspired baddie. Although you could, Al-Mutawa says, see him as “a representation of what Isis is. It’s the same bad guy with a different cover. They all want to take over the world.”
…As Al-Mutawa explains in that Ted talk, there are “two groups who exist in the Muslim world. Everybody believe the Koran is for all time and all place. Some believe that means that the original interpretation from a couple of thousand years ago is what is relevant today. I don’t belong there. Then there is a group who believe the Koran is a living breathing document.”
The court case continues.
In Russia, an acclaimed modern adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband has been attacked by protesters, and a far from ideal severed pig’s head deposited on the theatre’s doorstep.
As we’ve been reporting in these weekly round-ups, Ideal Husband is the second theatrical production to be attacked as “blasphemous” by members of the Russian Orthodox Church in recent months, after a production of Wagner’s opera Tannhauser was protested against and its director fired by the Ministry for Culture despite the case being thrown out of court in the region.
(Meanwhile in the United States, two current theatrical productions have been described by critics as “blasphemous” — Hand to God at the Booth Theatre, New York, and Figaro (90210) at the Hopkins Center in New Hampshire — but, happily, both in terms more relishing and appreciative, rather than revolted and litigious!)
In March 2012, Waleeha Arfaat was accused of blasphemy in Pakistan under wearily familiar circumstances: following a row with neighbours one of their acquaintances mysteriously just so happened to come across burnt pages of the Quran in her home and then the neighbour kicked up a hellstorm about it. Fast forward three years, and this week, she was denied bail despite being detained over three years in jail already.
Judge Chaudhary Azam has said that the suspect’s release on bail is unnecessary at a time when the trial is near conclusion.
Just in case that sounds reasonable, it’s worth noting that:
Friday’s application was her fourth bail plea since her arrest on charges of defiling Holy Quran.
In India, as we reported last week, the president Mr Kanwarpal Singh of the Sikh independence group Dal Khalsa threatened “trouble” comparable to the “Salman Rushdie” affair over an upcoming film about Guru Nanak, Nanak Shah Fakir.
The film has also been “rejected” by the influential SGPC (Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee) which maintains and manages gurdwaras and other Sikh institutions in parts of India.
Yesterday, hundreds of students and research scholars from Punjab University, Patiala, protested against the movie. Students marched from the Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha library toward the main campus gate, and blocked the road. A PhD student representative said:
“We call know personification of Sikh Guru Sahib is strictly prohibited, still the makers of Nanak Shah Fakir movie want to release their blasphemous movie … We won’t let this happen” he added.
He further said that SGPC’s decision to extend recognition of previous attempts, including Chaar Sahibzaade, has led to current situation. He said that SGPC and Akal Tkaht Sahib Jathedar should withdraw their support and recognition from ‘Chaar Sahibzaade’ movie also.
Not everyone is so opposed, however. Via Bollywoodlife.com, another Sikh responds to the edicts of Dal Khalsa and its president Mr Singh, with cutting sarcasm:
“Just because Guru Nanak spent his entire life making people see logic and stop following religion blindly (the root of our faith), that does not mean that we should actually start using sense in religion, right? We should and we will completely ignore the basic idea behind prohibition of human portrayal of Gurus, which I believe is to not promote idol worship (because if you see someone as a Guru, there are chances that you might picture him in your mind when you’re praying).
So what if the filmmaker has not shown the face of the Guru through out the film even once complying to the logic behind the said tenet? So what? He clearly hasn’t followed the commandment word to word, so we cannot tolerate it. Mr Singh, surely we have to protect our roots.
And how dare he? How dare Sikka try to showcase a story as beautiful and as great as this one? It is truly blasphemous!”
It’s the year’s second big blasphemy kerfuffle over a film in India, after PK (which satirised some aspects of religion) met impassioned protests predominantly from Hindu activists — as well as finding huge critical and commercial success!
And the Diplomat has an interview with senior journalist Veengas Yangeen, who focuses primarily on the situation of minorities in Pakistan. On the use of blasphemy laws against religious minorities in particular, she says:
Unfortunately, those who accuse minorities of blasphemy have the golden coin of religion; they can easily use it for their own interests. First, you call them a minority; second, you put the gun of blasphemy to their heads. Once the accusation is made, it becomes a sacred issue without investigation.
The police arrest the accused and the government remains silent, encouraging people to make the accusations.
How do you view Asia Bibi’s case?
Everyone knows that people use blasphemy laws against minorities; we have the example of Rimsha Masih’s case, in which a cleric tried to entrap her in a blasphemy accusation. Similarly, reports suggest that Asia Bibi is innocent. The government should release her and not let people misuse the blasphemy laws.
How long will this go on? Resolving Asia Bibi’s case could open a positive chapter in the history of Pakistan, if she can receive justice.
Focusing on the “misuse” of such laws, however, Yangeen stops short of suggesting any deeper reform or repeal:
What should the government do to improve the situation for minorities, and to stop their emigration?
If the government of Pakistan wants to improve the situation for minorities, it must first stop the misuse of blasphemy laws and crimes committed in the name of religion. It should ensure that all citizens are equal [in practice]. No one should be allowed to victimize minorities. Then, the situation would improve. Minorities are emigrating because they are not being treated as equal citizens. If they get equal rights and their children can move about freely, they will be less likely to leave.