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From Blasphemy Law to Freedom of Speech

Are there personalities in life that are sacred?

Are there books in the world that are holy?

Do people have the right to challenge and criticize things that other people consider holy and sacred?

Do people have the right to kill those who offend their religious beliefs?

These are some of the questions hidden behind the political dialogues, social discussions and religious debates about blasphemy law and freedom of speech.

For centuries, in many religious communities, countries and cultures, blasphemy was considered a religious crime punishable by death. The common way to kill anyone who committed blasphemy was by hanging or stoning. Leviticus 24:13-16 states that God said to Moses:

Take the blasphemer outside the camp. All those who heard him are to lay their hands on his head, and the entire assembly is to stone him. Say to the Israelites, “If anyone curses his God, he will be held responsible, anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord must be put to death. The entire assembly must stone him.”

But in the last century, many such religious, autocratic and punitive traditions have been challenged by atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and human-rights activists who want to create a democratic, secular and humanist world. The irony is that while some communities are becoming more liberal, others are becoming more fundamentalist. While some countries are abolishing blasphemy laws, others are becoming more punitive. Some cultures are becoming more secular and separating church and state; others are becoming more theocratic and merging mosque and government.

In the last few decades, thousands of men and women have been arrested and punished under blasphemy laws all over the world. In some countries, people have taken the law into their own hands and killed those accused of blasphemy.

The Pakistan Penal Code prohibits blasphemy against God, prophets, scriptures and organized religions; and the penalties range from fines to death.

Penal Code 298 states: Uttering of any word or making any sound or making any gesture or placing of any object in the sight with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person. The penalty is one year in prison or a fine or both.

Penal Code 295 B focuses on: Defiling of Quran. The penalty is imprisonment for life.

Penal Code 295 C states: Use of derogatory remarks, spoken, written, directly or indirectly that defy the name of Muhammad. The penalty is mandatory death and a fine.

Between 1986 and 2007, the Pakistani authorities charged 647 people with blasphemy offenses. Half of these were non-Muslims, who comprise only 3 per cent of the Pakistani population. Many innocent people from Christian, Ahmedi and Shiite communities were murdered by angry and violent mobs in Pakistan, creating terror among religious minorities.

Pakistani laws became more punitive in the 1980s during the government of General Zia-ul-Haq who tried to Islamize Pakistan. Now in Pakistan we have the Federal Shariat Court that ensures that no law can be made in Pakistan that goes against the teachings of Islam (Constitution Article 203 D).

The Blasphemy Law in Pakistan has many tragic stories attached to it. Let me share a few:

1. In October 2000, Pakistani authorities charged Dr. Younas Shaikh with blasphemy on account of remarks that students claimed he made during a lecture. A judge ordered that Dr. Shaikh pay a fine of 100,000 rupees and that he be hanged. Fortunately, Dr. Shaikh was able to leave Pakistan in 2003 and now resides in Switzerland where the government gave him asylum.

2. In 2006, Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code and the film based on the book were banned in Pakistan as they were considered blasphemous. Culture Minister Ghulam Jamal said, “Islam teaches us to respect all the prophets of God Almighty and degradation of any prophet is tantamount to defamation of the rest.”

3. In 2014, Muhammad Asghar, a 70-year-old British man from Edinburgh, was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death by a court in Rawalpindi, as he declared that he was a prophet. There were many who defended Mr. Asghar as he suffered from mental illness.

4. In 2010, Asia Bibi was sentenced to death by hanging, on a charge of blasphemy. When Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, a secular humanist, supported her publicly, he was shot dead by his fundamentalist security guard Mumtaz Qadri for supporting Asia Bibi. It is a sad state of affairs that there are so many lay people and lawyers in Pakistan who are more sympathetic to Mumtaz Qadri than Salman Taseer.

In the last decade, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has tried to introduce a blasphemy law in the United Nations. The campaign ended in 2011 when the proposal was withdrawn in Geneva, in the Human Rights Council. The proposal did not get much support, as it was obvious that a blasphemy law could not be defined, and furthermore it would violate human rights and would be abused by religious fundamentalists all over the world.

Many humanists and human rights activists oppose blasphemy laws because they conflict with the values of freedom of speech and expression that are central to the traditions of secularism, democracy and humanism. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the United Nations, states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

The tradition of freedom of speech and expression originated in Greece in the 5th century B.C. That tradition was promoted by many democratic countries including England and France. England’s Bill of Rights in 1689 legally established the right of freedom of speech. In France, in 1789, the French government included in their constitution the Declaration of the Rights of Man for all citizens.

Over the centuries, while many secular organizations, institutions and constitutions supported freedom of speech, many religious organizations and fundamentalist institutions curtailed it. One such example is the Catholic Church. Over the centuries the Catholic Church has prohibited many books. Those censored books included the writings of well-respected scientists and philosophers including Rene Descartes, Galileo Galilei, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire. Voltaire’s belief is shared by his biographer Evelyn Hall in these words: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Noam Chomsky, the American linguist and political philosopher, shared his view on freedom of speech: “If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like.”

Many Canadians are unaware that a blasphemy law is still present in the Canadian Criminal Code. This year many atheists and agnostics, humanists and human rights activists are signing a petition to send to Ottawa requesting the Canadian government to remove that law from the Canadian Criminal Code. They believe that such a law is in conflict with the values of secularism and democracy that Canadians value and cherish.