The week in “blasphemy” news #39

In Pakistan, rare sort of progress at the Supreme Court on ‘blasphemy’. In Turkey, another rare victory, at the Court of Appeals.

In Indonesia, “sole”-searching leads to a ‘blasphemy’ court case. In India, two distinct ‘blasphemy’-type claims have the Sikh community in turmoil. In Argentina, Barbie and Ken stoke controversy. While the Catholic Church seems to have an internal “heresy” problem.

And in comment and opinion pieces, there’s a reminder of the violence stalking Bangladesh, Roger Scruton defends “the right to insult”, and somewhere between Canada, India and Pakistan, hardliners selectively celebrate liberalism when it suits them.

This is your 39th weekly round-up of ‘blasphemy’ news and views from around the world.

Pakistan: This is quite big! On Tuesday, the Supreme Court of Pakistan issues a ruling that, on the back of a number of recent awardings of bail and the upholding of a terror conviction against Salman Taseer’s killer, looks like a crystallization of some recent progress. AFP reports that the Supreme Court:

… called on the state to ensure that hundreds of people facing imprisonment and even execution under controversial blasphemy laws have not been falsely charged, often by enemies wanting to settle personal scores.

Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in Pakistan, an Islamic republic of 200 million, with even unproven allegations provoking mob lynchings and violence.

However, the language of the judgement is far from perfect and may contain the seeds of its own future downfall:

[The judgement warned] that in Islam a false accusation can be as serious as the blasphemy itself.

… Blasphemy is “abhorrent and immoral”, the judgement said, “but at the same time a false allegation regarding commission of such an offence is equally detestable besides being culpable”.

“It is, therefore, for the State of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to ensure that no innocent person is compelled or constrained to face an investigation or a trial on the basis of false or trumped up allegations regarding commission of such an offence,” the ruling continued.

As well as equating false accusations with ‘blasphemy’, and therefore buying into the whole taboo, the court also appeared to fall short of permitting the questioning of the very existence of the ‘blasphemy’ law:

… the Supreme Court also said that calls for blasphemy law reform “ought not to be mistaken as a call for doing away with that law”.

Instead they should be seen as a call for introducing “adequate safeguards” against “malicious application” of the law.

The verdict against Mumtaz Qadri, Salman Taseer’s killer, has (as predicted a few weeks ago) already lead to backlash.

On Wednesday 500 activists from the Islamist groups Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP) and Jamaat Ahle Sunnat held a rally in northwestern city of Peshawar to denounce the Supreme Court’s Qadri verdict.

In a speech inciting vigilantism, cleric Mufti Meraj-ud-Din of the JUP said that if Qadri is executed those responsible should also be put to death.

Supporters of Fazil Say, protesting outside court

Supporters of Fazil Say, protesting outside court at an earlier hearing

Turkey: In a country in which much of the direction of travel under President Erdogan and the AKP has been toward religious conservativism and restrictions on free expression, there was a rare victory, Monday, as the Supreme Court of Appeals reversed the 10-month ‘blasphemy’ jail sentence of pianist and composer Fazil Say. Hurriyet Daily News reports:

The 8th Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled by a majority vote that Say’s Twitter posts, which had led to his sentence on grounds of “insulting religious beliefs held by a section of society,” should be regarded as freedom of thought and expression and thus should not be punished. … If the court of first instance accepts the Supreme Court’s reversal decision, Say will be acquitted of the charges. If the court of first instance does not accept the Supreme Court’s decision, the judicial process for Say will continue.

… During the retrial in September 2013, an Istanbul court had sentenced Say to 10 months in prison but since Say had no criminal record, the court suspended the sentence and ordered that Say be monitored.

And as is our wont, here’s some of Say’s insulting’ and ‘blasphemous’ content:

Among the lines attributed to [11th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam] which Say retweeted was: “You say its rivers will flow in wine. Is the Garden of Eden a drinking house?”


Indonesia: The “Allah” in the pattern on the sole of a flip-flop case has escalated. We kind of made a joke of it last week, but the Jakarta Post calls it their “Issue of the day”, and they’re right to take it seriously when — thanks to ‘blasphemy’ laws — the complainants have real and serious legal recourse.

A Muslim organization has reported a local footwear manufacturer to the East Java Police for sacrilege for producing sandals embossed with the word Allah. The report was submitted on Thursday despite a public apology PT Pradipta Perkasa Makmur made earlier this week.

“[The company] has violated the law on blasphemy and the legal process must continue,” Islam Defenders Front (FPI) East Java branch head Haidar Al-Hamid said as quoted by

Pradipta Perkasa Makmur has been in the spotlight after people reported they had found the word Allah, written in Arabic, embossed on the sandals made by the company.

One commenter on the site notes, with reference to the sometime Islamic taboo on shoes and the ground and the holiness of the word Allah, that:

The ironic thing is that the sandals, which to them are sacred because they are embossed with the word Allah, were then burned to destroy them!

A reminder of what the divine sole looks like:

It's circled therefore it must be true

It’s circled therefore it must be true

India and UK: While the Sikh hierarchy itself is in “disarray” over the pardon of a Sikh leader for allegedly ‘dressing up’ as a Sikh Guru, those protests we’ve been reporting, demonstrating against the alleged “desecration” of a copy of a scripture linked to Guru Grant Sahib in Punjab state, also continue.

And as routinely happens with Muslim protests in Pakistan, the protest in India appears to be about a single, unsubstantiated copy of a text rumored to have been bashed or ripped up. In this case it has lead to widespread and arguably politically-motivated mobilization of Sikh activists and a sometimes heavy-handed crackdown by police. Hindustan Times reports:

SGPC activists protest the alleged desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib in Punjab.

SGPC activists protest the alleged desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib in Punjab.

Amid rising public anger, Sikh radical outfits on Sunday declared an open war with the Parkash Singh Badal government and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) by announcing a nine-point resolution to intensify protests against sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib.

Thousands of slogan-shouting Sikhs converged at Bargari village of Faridkot — where torn pages of Guru Granth Sahib were found — for the bhog ceremony of Gurjit Singh and Krishan Bagwan Singh who were killed in police firing at Behbal Kalan village while protesting the sacrilege.

Road blockades were lifted by protesters after over two weeks. Sikhs in saffron turbans and black bands were seen heading to Bargari since early morning. A nine-point resolution was read out by radical preacher Baljeet Singh Daduwal and passed by hardliners leading the protests, including Ranjit Singh Dhandrian Wala, Panthpreet Singh Khalsa, Amrik Singh Ajnala, Harjinder Singh Majhi, Daler Singh Keheri and Simranjit Singh Mann of SAD (Amritsar). Opposition parties — Congress, AAP and BSP leaders — shared stage with Sikh jathebandis (outfits).

After last week’s reports of Pakistan Sikhs joining in, Sikhs in London, UK, also joined the anti-“blasphemy” demonstration this week, as can be seen in this slightly over-dramatized video.

Argentina: A Barbie and Ken-themed artwork in Buenos Aeries, featuring 33 plastic dolls in various religious settings, is supposedly “sparking controversy in this Argentine capital and worldwide”, according to Charisma News:

Barbie-Ken-blasphemyThe exhibit, “Barbie, The Plastic Religion,” has infuriated religious organizations globally, especially Catholic ones in Buenos Aires, Pope Francis’ birthplace.

“Barbie and Ken have offered for decades a model of a couple that attracts children of every age to play with them and identify with them,” said Adrian Santarelli, a priest at St. Thomas More parish in Buenos Aires. “The idea of dressing (dolls) with sacred images of sacred persons alters and damages the child’s levels of understanding of the sacred.”

… Artists Marianela Perelli and Emiliano Paolini said the exhibit, on display through Nov. 20 at the POPA art gallery in Buenos Aires, is purely artwork and was not meant to offend. “It was simply the union of the two most popular elements of history: the Barbie doll and religion,” Paolini said.

… The exhibit was canceled last year after a series of threats to the artwork and the artists, as well as religious and conservative groups that called the display offensive. So far this year there have not been any threats.

… “I think that our work was misinterpreted, and (people opted for) a defensive position on an artwork that was not believed to be offensive, but it seemed that it was hiding something terrible, suspicious,” Perelli said.

… Still, the unorthodox artwork has angered other religious denominations as well, including Hindus for its depiction of the goddess Kali. Rajan Zed, a Hindu cleric living in Nevada called the “Barbie-fication of Kali … simply improper, wrong and out of place.”

Not everyone agrees with that view.

“We can’t be stuck in the past with our traditions,” said Elina Aguilar, a retired woman attending the display’s opening. “It doesn’t outrage me.”

Catholic Church: There have been weeks of debate and outright hostility within parts of the Catholic Church centering on the family synod and whether reformism is basically “heresy”. Given the claims of the Holy See to statehood and the law-like censuring and censoring of certain kinds of debate within the church, there’s a very “blasphemy” law-like freeze on progressive moral discourse. Religion Dispatches has something of a summary:

Heresy is a word that gets thrown around a lot on Twitter by people who often don’t understand its meaning and historical context, but for theologians accusations of heresy can have serious implications. Theologians can be censured, banned from teaching at Catholic institutions, andsilenced by the Vatican.

The Twitter war during the synod reached deeply unpleasant levels for anyone who waded in, but the heresy barb was clearly the thing that prodded the signatories to speak up.

The whole piece at Religion Dispatches: ““Own Your Heresy”: The argument over who gets to do public theology takes a sharp turn“.

Bangladesh: An important reminder, from Shubhajit Bhowmik in The Age, that “In once-secular Bangladesh, to write about religion is to risk death from Islamists“:

Strange madrassa students began loitering near my house in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka. I turned the lights off, and they moved away. I turned the lights on and they slunk back to peer through my windows.

Then the phone calls began, sometimes with whispers or quotes from the Koran: “Get ready you infidel, Allahu akhbar.” Other times, chilling silence.

My friends and I were afraid. We were all on a hit list drawn up by holy men who accused us of insulting their prophet and “defaming Islam”.

… The secular and atheist writers of Bangladesh have no way out. Nobody will help them. The police will not investigate the killers. If an atheist is killed for expressing their opinion, nobody cares because the government is now controlled by the Islamist lobby.

Full piece at The Age.

Insulting speech: Many quasi-‘blasphemy’ laws reference ‘offending’ or ‘hurting religious sentiments’ for example, or even appear contained under ‘anti-hatred’ legislation. While not specifically referencing ‘blasphemy’ laws, Philosopher Roger Scruton writes for the BBC on “the right to be offensive”:

It is not falsehood that causes the greatest offence, but truth. You can endure insults and abuse when you know them to be false. But if the remarks that offend you are true, their truth becomes a dagger in the soul – you cry “lies!” at the top of your voice, and know that you must silence the one who utters them.

… Free speech is not the cause of the tensions that are growing around us, but the only possible solution to them. If the government is to succeed in its new measures to eradicate Islamic extremism, therefore, it should be encouraging people to discuss the matter openly, regardless of who might take offence.

… Politicians have not sufficiently examined what they meant by “stirring up hatred”. They have been too keen to show that they are on the side of Muslims and also of homosexuals notwithstanding the manifest conflict between the two.

It is precisely for this reason that they should have been careful about introducing vague phrases that could be used to silence discussion.

Scruton also notes that “Of course, we have moved on a bit from the Middle Ages. It is not the man who is assassinated now, but only his character.” Perhaps he’s unaware of the anti-atheist assassinations in Bangladesh?

Full article at the BBC Magazine website.

Hardliners selectively celebrate liberalism when it suits them: Umer Ali in the Pakistan Nation notes a widespread hypocrisy on Islamism and ‘blasphemy’ laws, arguing “It’s time Islamists realized the double standard in wanting secular liberalism in the West while propagating monolithic theocracy back home“:

Hours after Justin Trudeau became Prime Minister of Canada, [the] internet exploded with his pictures and videos. From sporting Sherwani to speaking in the mosque, from greeting his fans after the win to standing in the boxing ring – he went viral.

… While the sentiments of liberal left can be understood due to the ideological alignment, right-wingers in Pakistan celebrating his win feels awkward, to say the least.

The question here arises – why does the Pakistani right wing rejoice over the victory of a liberal Canadian?

They have got every reason to celebrate. He believes in pluralism, condemns Islamophobia, dresses up in Pakistani attire, visits the mosques and is equally friendly and receptive towards Muslims. One thing being missed out by them is that he attended the annual session of Ahmadiyya community– else, he too would have been declared Zionist and a heretic.

… As India drifts rapidly towards the right with a Hindu nationalist Prime Minister, Hindu extremists resort to the same tactics as Islamists in Pakistan have been using since years – mob lynching, playing blasphemy card, suppressing minorities and their right to practice their religion freely.

After years of doing so, Islamists in Pakistan have the audacity to complain about India. A theocracy is what they strive for here. They campaign for a Muslim theocratic state, India is becoming the Hindu one. Why hue and cry, then?

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Title: The week in “blasphemy” news #39
Date Posted: October 30, 2015
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Category: Round-ups

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