The week in “blasphemy” news #8

The aftermath of the brutal “blasphemy” lynching of a young woman in Afghanistan, who had done nothing more than standing up to conmen who happened to be mullahs;

Jordan wants a new international convention “to prevent disrespect for religions and religious symbols” — what could possibly go wrong?!;

And in a first for Egypt, an Islamic activist accused of offending against Christianity has had his conviction upheld by the court of appeals.

It’s the eighth of our Friday-to-Friday round-ups of “blasphemy”-related news and views.

Afghan women protested outside the Supreme Court in Kabul on Tuesday, demanding justice for a woman named Farkhunda who was beaten to death last week after being falsely accused of blasphemy.

Afghan women protested outside the Supreme Court in Kabul on Tuesday, demanding justice for a woman named Farkhunda who was beaten to death last week after being falsely accused of blasphemy. (source)

There has been continued international attention, national soul-searching, as well as local protests, in response to the mob killing of a young graduate, Farkhunda, by a large group of men in the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan, last week.

President Ashraf Ghani has ordered a probe, and details have emerged about the nature of the killing. Farkhunda, a theology graduate, was apparently a teacher of Islamic studies, and not mentally ill as had been initially reported (this appears to have been put out  by the family in order to deter any immediate reprisals against them, a pattern that’s been seen before in defence against mob “blasphemy” violence).

An Afghan man writing for the BBC explains that the lynching appears to have been connected to Farkhunda’s criticism against the selling of superstitious “charms” to vulnerable believers:

“That too is a common sight. Women come to ask such men for charms or amulets to help deal with a family problem – to bring good health to their husbands, to keep their sons safe in the army, or to find good husbands for their daughters.

It is a source of income for such poorly educated mullahs – however dubious the service.

In Afghanistan both on television and on social media there is growing criticism of this practice, with people saying that it is not only an abuse of Islam, but also fraud.

Farkhunda, the woman who was killed in Kabul last week, was one of these critics. A theology graduate, she went one step further than speaking out in the media. She actually confronted one of the mullahs selling charms to childless women at the shrine.

In the course of the argument, she was accused of burning the Koran. It seems the crowd overheard this and attacked her.”

More details emerged on Pakistan‘s latest “blasphemy” death sentence:

“Counsel for the complainant, Advocate Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry, told the court that his client was the imam of a mosque situated next to the shrine. He said he woke up early morning for tahajjat prayers and heard a commotion in the graveyard next to the mosque. He said Ali went to the graveyard and saw the caretaker of the shrine directing a devotee to blaspheme. Ali told them to stop but they used abusive language and threatened him with dire consequences, Advocate Chaudhry said. Meanwhile, he said, Ali had recorded parts of the conversation in which one of the two could be heard blaspheming.

The caretaker of the shrine told the court that Ali was trying to implicate him in a false case. He said Ali had visited him and asked him to handover some of the shrine land so that he could build his hujra on it. The caretaker said that he had refused and Ali had threatened him with dire consequences. The devotee told the court that he had no connection with the case and had been falsely accused.

… His counsel had told the court that the audio evidence presented in the case had not been verified by the Forensic Science Laboratory, which had sent back a note saying that they did not have the equipment required to analyse audio evidence. He said that Ali had told the court that he had recorded the verbal exchange from the mosque. “How can a low grade Chinese-made phone record audio from a distance of at least 35 feet away,” he said.

He had said that the sole witness of the incident was a man who lived with the complainant in his mosque.He told the court that it had become a routine matter for people to use the blasphemy law to settle personal scores.”

In another of the slightly more positive signs from Pakistan recently, a judge at the High Court in Lahore threw out a “blasphemy” petition against the administration of a school, for supposedly including a “blasphemous” question in an exam paper.

The judge, in a full courtroom, first discouraged the complainant, saying it was because of such issues that the country was lagging behind. He said they brought a bad name to the country. Later, he dismissed the petition.

Some members of the legal fraternity present in the courtroom told The Express Tribune that they had appreciated the judge for taking the stance. They said that the judiciary could play a decisive role in stopping people from using religion to settle personal scores.

The delegation from Jordan to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), which meets in Viet Nam tomorrow for their annual Assembly, has proposed an “emergency” resolution to the IPU which seeks to establish:

“an international convention to prevent disrespect for religions and religious symbols, which constitutes a fertile breeding ground for disputes between believers and represents a danger to all humanity.”

According to our coalition partners the IHEU:

The resolution also claims that the right to free expression does not “permit insults against religions or their symbols and followers”, and the explanatory memorandum from the Jordan delegation, in what may be an oblique reference to the widespread existence of laws against “blasphemy” and “apostasy” in Islamic states, notes that: “As a gesture of commitment, the religion of Islam obliges all its followers to believe in and respect all prophets, and to believe in holy books.”

In an open letter to IPU delegates [PDF], co-signed by dozens of human rights advocacy organizations including the IHEU and freedom of expression specialists, the signatories dispute Jordan’s false reading of freedom of expression, noting that in fact the “Respect for Religions” resolution “is incompatible with international human rights law”.

Police are “investigating” a video, presented by Aisyah Tajuddin for business broadcaster BFM, which explored the enforcement of hudud laws in Kelantan state, Malaysia. The footage apparently prompted “blasphemy” complaints. There has been a forceful, preemptive defense from the father of the accused presenter:

“Professor Dr Mohamad Tajuddin Mohamad Rasdi said she [Aisyah] was not questioning God’s law, but laws that were written by PAS and would be enforced by the Islamist party.

‎”It’s funny that they can investigate her for blasphemy when the hudud she was commenting on was the hudud as interpreted by PAS,” he told The Malaysian Insider when met at the sidelines of a forum on religious freedom today.

“I thought the police, the authorities are supposed to be non-partisan. But they are taking action based on one political party’s interpretation of hudud,” he said.

Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar today said those behind the video would be called up for investigations under Section 298 of the Penal Code for blasphemy.”

… When asked if he believed Aisyah could have presented the video differently, Tajuddin replied that she had carried it out in the same spirit as the video’s original host.

“That is the style of Kupas – hard-hitting, provocative and satirical. She was given a script and she acted it out as required. She was only a stand-in for the original host.

“And those people who were offended by her style don’t watch Kupas regularly, they don’t understand its philosophy or that it is satire,” said Tajuddin.

There’s been some less than ideal innovation in religion in Egypt, this week, with what is reportedly the country’s first ever conviction of an Islamic leader for offending Christianity, upheld by an appeals court.

Ahmed Mahmoud, popularly known as Abu Islam, was found guilty of violating an Egyptian law against public displays of contempt for religion. His conviction is the first for a Muslim charged with offending against Christianity.

Abu Islam, a militant Salafist, had burned Bible outside the US embassy in September 2012, to protest the burning of a Qu’ran by the American Evangelical preacher Terry Jones. He was originally sentenced to an 11-year prison term for the offense, but that sentence was reduced to a 5-year term. The court also ordered him to pay a fine of about $1,000.

Vice has an informed piece on a worryingly complacent plan to “reform” anti-blasphemy law: “Using Religion for Reform: Trying to Change Pakistan’s Oppressive Blasphemy Law from Within”. The article quotes the project’s leaders delivering a somewhat loaded oppositional comparison between abolitionists, and the supporters of “blasphemy” law:

“With one ill-informed camp obstinately seeking repeal [of the law] and another frenzied group violently insisting it was untouchable by divine sanction, we realized that a lot of nuances were probably missing in the mix,” Zain Moulvi, a lawyer and one of the activists, told VICE News. So Moulvi, along with researcher Arafat Mazhar, decided to delve further into the controversial law and its interpretation and application over the years.

Their initiative, called Engage, ends up advocating the “procurement” of fatwas from more “varied” sources, and:

By doing so, the initiative hopes to open up debate and dialogue around the blasphemy law and eventually pave way for its reform. The team, however, is particularly careful about its approach and emphasizes the use of classical Islamic jurisprudence and the active involvement of local religious scholars, clerics, and prayer leaders to propagate the findings. “We want to use the very same language that the masses use to defend the law,” explained Mazhar. “Instead of preaching at them, we want to work with them to bring about a change.”

Vice quotes others agreeing that reform must come from on the basis of “religious” language, a narrative which already permeates society, whereas a “human rights” discourse would be rejected out-of-hand by advocates of “blasphemy” law. It’s not really a novel approach — religious liberals (for want of any uncontroversial terminology) have long tried to moderate Pakistan’s Islamist commitment to “blasphemy” laws with religious arguments. And appealing to the established religious norms of society to bring reform—instead of appealing to a more universal human rights discourse and advocating repeal—if it is paying dividends, appears to be doing so only very slowly:

The campaign is currently in its initial phase and has been generally well received, but Mazhar admitted that people are reluctant of being openly affiliated with it. “It is a good thing for their own security now, since we don’t want them to be isolated or be perceived as partisan,” he said. “This will automatically change later when we have strength in numbers.”

On Wednesday, leaders of a number of religious parties met in Islamabad, apparently to foster “religious unity”. However, the membership, seemingly limited to “the Ummah”, focused on “blasphemy” and how to deter the supposed wave of it flooding the world from “the West” by boycotting trade and severing diplomatic ties. Such a meeting is unlikely to have any immediate effect on diplomatic relations! But it can be interesting reading how thoroughly destructive are the policies some leaders are willing to advocate in order to hear less “disrespect” about religion.

“The meeting chalked out a 12-point charter, but failed to devise a strategy to combat sectarianism and religion-based terrorism in the country.

The issue of blasphemy and disrespect of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) in the West was the focus of Unity of Ummah Conference organised by the Milli Yekjehti Council (MYC).

Through a resolution, the meeting urged Pakistan and all other Muslim states to take up the matter of blasphemy with France and other European states.

“If they are not ready to take action against the culprits, Muslim countries should boycott products of European countries and suspend diplomatic, cultural and trade relations with them,” the resolution said.

But the leaders did not offer an alternative in the wake of suspension of trade ties with the Western countries.”

There is some further analysis of the murder of Avijit Roy in the context of the broader rise of Islamic fundamentalism troubling the ostensibly secular democracy of Bangladesh “as the country spirals deeper into a political crisis”.

Blogger Asif Mohiuddin was lucky to survive a brutal attack by Islamists, but was arrested for “blasphemous” posts. He was released after three months but still faces charges and continues to receive death threats from radicals. He told that Roy’s killing is another attack that reflects the poor state of freedom of speech in the country. “It is very difficult to voice one’s critical opinion or views in Bangladesh because the fundamentalists have a lot of support in the country.”

Mohiuddin is critical of the government and believes that it has been turning a blind eye to the growing arc of religious radicalism in the country. “Fundamentalists manage to gather a lot of support from madrassas where young people who do not have access to good education are easily brainwashed and instigated to commit violence.”

Mohiuddin says that each time the country goes through a political crisis, the Islamists try to move centre stage. “The Islamists once again want to exploit the crisis to push themselves into the limelight so they can have a space in the political arena.”

Arafatul Islam, writing for Fair Observer, also asks “Can writers in Bangladesh depend on the government to protect them?”

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who is known as the head of a party seen as secular, remained silent after the brutal killing of Roy. This is surprising as Hasina is known for her outspokenness. Many believe she did not comment on the killing to mollify Islamists. However, Bangladesh’s main political opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, condemned Roy’s murder and demanded a fair trial.

Looking back at the situation in Bangladesh, particularly over the last two years, I don’t see any hope that Roy’s real killers will be brought to justice in the near future. In fact, most of the attackers who tried to kill Mohiuddin remain at large, and indictments for Haider’s murder were only recently handed down.

It appears that Bangladesh’s present government is reluctant to punish the killers of bloggers. It wants to keep its regime safe by not annoying Islamists at all cost. However, this political tactic makes the country deadly for writers, especially those who speak out against religious fundamentalism.

An opinion piece in the Chicago Times by Junaid M. Afeef, makes a strong call for the repeal of blasphemy laws everywhere:

“Blasphemy and apostasy laws must be repealed. The leaders in countries that have these laws must take bold action. Muslim scholars must support these leaders by stating clearly and often that killing people for desecrating the Quran, for lampooning Prophet Muhammad, for saying something offensive or negative about God, or for choosing to not believe in Islam is not religiously sanctioned.  This is not a problem that can be solved overnight, but it is one that has to be addressed from the top down through the political leaders, and from the bottom up through the religious scholars.”

Finally, if you agree it’s important to have some philosophical underpinnings to your policy commitments, then Phil Badger writing under the title “Je Suis Libéral” for the magazine Philosophy Now might be a place to start:

“…the issue concerns what seems like gratuitous offence and how we might respond to it. One view is that such offence should be subject to legal penalties. In Pakistan today, blasphemy is a capital crime, and even calling for that law to be reformed is highly dangerous. It was not so long ago that people were prosecuted for blasphemy in the UK too, though with less horrendous penalties, and the forcible suppression of blasphemy still has considerable support in some quarters: the history of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses is a prime illustration of that. But many of us would strongly resist legally penalising religious offence because we combine the desire not to offend with the conviction that there should be no right not to be offended. In other words, we have a perfect right to get angry when people are disrespectful of our beliefs, but not to expect the law to weigh in on our behalf in suppressing them, nor to take matters into our own hands when it fails to do so. The point is that we live in societies in which one person’s deeply-held conviction is another’s absurd metaphysical fairy story, and, in this context, the idea that the sceptic might be silenced is unthinkable. At one extreme the mere continuing existence of people with opinions like mine, even if they were unexpressed, may constitute a living offence to a few people with what I’d call ‘chunky’ metaphysical commitments – but for us to live together harmoniously they have to put up with that or learn not to be offended.”

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Title: The week in “blasphemy” news #8
Date Posted: March 27, 2015
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Category: Round-ups

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