In the first week of the End Blasphemy Laws Campaign, there have been “blasphemy”-related mob violence and looting, reportedly resulting in two deaths, an attack on a Christian school ostensibly in response to caricatures in the publication Charlie Hebdo, and a senior Pakistani politician publicly placed a bounty on the life of the owner of that infamous magazine.
The news isn’t all bad, though. The campaign itself has received significant coverage and some very high profile people and organizations have been talking once again about “blasphemy” and defending the need to speak freely about religion.
There’s a round-up of all the news, bad and good, below.
Plots, protests, deaths and bounties
An amir of the Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, Sirajul Haq, said after Friday prayers in Lahore, Pakistan, on the 30th, that “blasphemous” cartoons are part of a “Zionist” plot. The influential leader reportedly declared that “inter-faith harmony and dialogue was imperative for world peace” (in the words of the Pakistan Telegraph) – certainly welcome in itself – but further that “Therefore, blasphemy should be declared an international crime”. It’s an all the more upside-down statement considering that Sirajul Haq preaches in a country where “blasphemy” laws and accusations so frequently and viscerally destroy all prospects for “harmony and dialogue”!
Tragically on Saturday, the very day after our launch, yet another protest against depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in Charlie Hebdo broke out in Kabul, Afghanistan, and again turned violent. According to Vice:
“Witnesses reported that police shot and killed at least two people, but Afghan police officials denied claims that anyone died.
Hundreds of protesters gathered in Kabul, chanting “Death to France,” and “Death to Infidels.” There were also reports of demonstrators flying white Taliban flags and burning the French flag.
The demonstrations quickly turned violent when protesters began to attack police with stones, burn tires, and loot nearby stores.”
On Sunday, USA Today reported on the continuing backlash against the burgeoning popularity of atheism among young people in Egypt:
“They’ve been targeted at cafes, harassed on the streets and fired as part of a broader backlash by society and the state against atheism and blasphemy.
“I have to keep my mouth shut when it comes to any criticism or satire about religion,” said atheist Amr Mohammed. “If I wish to make a remark about religion or practice of religion regarding my own beliefs, I keep it to myself.””
It was also reported Sunday, that in northern Pakistan a Christian school was attacked and ransacked by a mob of approximately “300 Muslim students, armed with iron bars and sticks”. Again – ostensibly – they were protesting Charlie Hebdo.
“The protesting students entered the Panel High School after jumping its outer walls and forcibly opened the gates. Four Christian students were injured in the attack. The school has been closed for two days and the Headmaster has decided to take additional security measures.”
Alarmingly, a federal lawmaker and senior member of the Awami National Party (ANP), offered a huge reward to anyone who would kill the owner of Charlie Hebdo. Speaking from the floor of the National Assembly on Monday, Haji Ghulam Ahed Bilour offered the $200,000 bounty alongside “compensation” to the families of those who had carried out the attacks in Paris last month.
““I had already declared that I will not tolerate any attack on the sanctity of the Holy Prophet (pbuh),” said Bilour.”
On Wednesday, the family of death-row convict Asia Bibi appealed again for help over her “blasphemy” charge. Asia Bibi has been jailed pending a hanging sentence since she was accused of insulting the Prophet, after an argument with neighbours, in 2010.
“In Pakistan, the mere accusation of blasphemy can be a death sentence. It is also enough to make the whole family a target.
This is why Asia Bibi’s family members have been in hiding for nearly five years. Soon after her conviction, crowds took to the streets calling for her death, some threatening to kill her if she ever got out.
Asia’s husband Ashiq Massih and her five children have been on the run since she was arrested.
He said the danger of someone killing any of them hung over him every day.”
The Washington Post reported that a Muslim editor who published a Charlie Hebdo cartoon in India, in the pages of Urdu-language paper Avadhnama, has been threatened, forced into hiding, and is now so frightened she’s wearing a burqa for the first time in her life.
The trial of Mumtaz Qadri was also back in the Pakistani media again this week. Hundreds of Islamists rallied for the convicted murderer, who they consider a hero.
“As the two-judge bench of the High Court began Tuesday’s hearing, hundreds of supporters belonging to Pakistan Sunni Tehreek gathered outside calling for Qadri’s release.
They also denounced reported plans by the government to send Qadri’s case to military courts for a speedy trial. “If [the] Mumtaz Qadri case is sent to military courts, millions of faithful Muslims will take to the streets,” warned a cleric leading the rally.
… Meanwhile, Christian activists called for Qadri’s conviction to be upheld and for a review of the controversial blasphemy law.
“It is an obscene law and is being used as a tool of persecution and to settle scores that have nothing to do with religion,” said Sardar Mushtaq Gill, a Christian lawyer.”
In connection with the case there was a strong call for abolition of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, describing how Qadri is considered a “hero” by many, for assassinating Salman Taseer in 2011. Taseer, governor of Punjab, had criticised the “blasphemy laws”. The author of the article argues:
“Societies do not change with the time alone. It takes a change in narrative, a change in thinking process, a change in political outlook and a change in the very definition of right and wrong. It takes the complete annihilation of the thought process that defends murderers like Qadri. It takes the complete annihilation of religion from public sphere…
The day a sitting government in Pakistan removes the blasphemy laws and destroys every legal mode for murderers like Qadri to go free is the day this country will take a turn for the better. Everything before that is only talk. Everything before that reeks of indifference and non-seriousness towards things that truly matter.”
The Free Arabs website carried an excellent article by “blasphemy” law victim Waleed al-Hussein, who fled to Europe after being abused and imprisoned in Palestine following a “blasphemy” accusation in relation to his online postings.
A “capricious, mean-minded, stupid god”
In less serious events, a short video of British omni-celebrity Stephen Fry went viral over the weekend. In response to a question from veteran Irish broadcaster Gay Byrne about what he’d say to God if he got into heaven, Fry replied, “I’ll say: bone cancer in children, what’s that about? How dare you how dare you create a world where there is such misery that’s not our fault? It’s utterly, utterly evil… Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”
Amid thousands of online responses to the video, Pavan Dhaliwal, writing for one of our coalition’s Supporting partners, the British Humanist Association, wrote an article for the UK’s Independent newspaper on Monday pointing out that Fry’s comments could get him arrested “in many countries around the world”, and Dhaliwal referred back to the launch of the End Blasphemy Laws campaign.
This theme was further developed on the Washington Post blog on Thursday, which pointed out that in fact a conviction of blasphemy or apostasy could mandate a death sentence in several countries, and again this article referred back to the IHEU Freedom of Thought Report for its evidence.
On Thursday it was suggested that the sale of Charlie Hebdo in Ireland would test the country’s “blasphemy” laws, and the work of coalition partner Atheist Ireland was again highlighted as a leading opponent of the restrictions.
And finally… A radio station in the United States apologised after it accidentally broadcast a “blasphemy” during a live performance, and subsequently bleeped the phrase out. The local Star Tribune very timidly described the offensive, censored phrase as “the blasphemy that ends with the syllable “damn””.
So that would be ‘God damn’, then.
Signs of change?
Despite multiple high-level recommendations by government-appointed bodies that Ireland should repeals its “blasphemy” laws, a promised constitutional referendum in 2015 was recently cancelled by Enda Kenny. However, on Saturday the Minister for Communications, Alex White, reiterated that it should happen and did not seem to think, as Enda Kenny has said, that ti
Continuing the patchy but important diplomatic pressure by “western” states on Saudi Arabia, Canadian MP Justin Trudeau publicised a meeting with Ensaf Haidar, the wife of imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi, imprisoned and sentenced to 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam”. Since the first of a prospective 20 public flogging sessions was applied in January, Badawi’s punishment has been deferred due to “medical reasons” twice, and cancelled without explanation a further two times. Hopefully, this is a sign that the international diplomatic and NGO pressure appears to be having an impact.
There have been other mixed or ambiguous signs for the future of free expression in Saudi Arabia under new king, Salman. A colleague of Raif’s in the Liberal Saudi Blogging network, Saoud al-Shammary, one of the first female lawyers in the country, had also been jailed on charges of “insulting” religion. However, she was released in what appears to have been a gesture of goodwill by the new king last week, offering to “pardon” various prisoners held on “public rights” charges. However, the Interior Ministry is set to make decision on who is pardoned, which Amnesty International reports as responsible for the crackdown on dissenting voices in recent years. What this means for high profile individual prisoners of conscience like Raif Badawi and his similarly imprisoned lawyer Waleed Abu Al-Khair remains unclear.
A man who reportedly is mentally challenged was acquitted of “blasphemy” on Tuesday after witnesses withdrew their statements.
“Talking to The Express Tribune after the hearing, the complainant, Tariq Mehmood, regretted the registration of a police case against Shah whose mental disability was known to him.
He said he had been misled into believing that the pages that Shah was burning on the day of the incident were from the Holy Quran. Later, he said, he had realised his mistake and appeared before the court to withdraw his complaint.
He added that it was Shah’s routine to collect garbage from the streets and set it on fire early in the morning.”
Though a welcome reprieve for the accused, it is a case in point as to how flimsy and fragile are so many such accusations that are brought before courts in Pakistan. If the pride of the witness had outweighed his conscience, the case could easily have proceeded.
Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders urged religious leaders in France to join their campaign, “Freedom of expression has no religion”, by signing a statement declaring: “no one’s concept of what is sacred may be imposed on others” and that “everyone is free to express criticism, even irreverent criticism, of any system of political, philosophical or religious thought.”