June Issue 2010

By | News & Politics | Published 12 years ago

By banning Facebook completely from May 20 to May 31, Pakistan may have been the country to act the most swiftly and harshly in response to the “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!” group and its offensive images, but is the land of the pure the only country with laws condemning blasphemy?

In the Muslim world, Pakistan is hardly alone. Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria are among the countries that have anti-blasphemy laws. In some of these jurisdictions, a conviction is punishable under the Shariah doctrine and could involve death via decapitation.

But Islamic nations are not the only ones to defend the glory of religion and the sensitivities of the religious. In Ireland, blasphemy is defined as “publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted.” The northwestern European country recently reworked its blasphemy laws but the legislation has attracted criticism from European neighbours and some at home among the predominantly Roman Catholic populace; a constitutional referendum on the matter is likely. Blasphemers there, however, face a fine of up to 25,000 euros instead of death.

The Irish are not isolated in Europe, though. In Denmark (ironically given the Jyllands-Posten cartoons controversy that erupted in 2005) and Finland, hate speech is fought more aggressively than blasphemy, and “hurting religious sentiments” is punishable under their respective penal codes. Elsewhere around the world, Canada also prohibits “hate speech” and “hate propaganda.” Known as a vociferous advocate of human rights, Canada punishes those who incite hatred with a potential jail term of up to two years, while disseminating hateful content on the Internet involves monetary penalties. New Zealand prohibits “blasphemous libel” and violators could face jail terms of one year, however no one has ever been successfully prosecuted for blasphemy in the Antipodean island nation.

In fact, there is a definite move away from blasphemy laws outside the Muslim world. Most European countries have abolished them altogether, with the UK scrapping theirs just two years back. Recently the European Parliament at Strasbourg directed its attention to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and discussed the danger of laws that were open to “misuse.” The parliament said that some of these laws could lead to the death penalty and they could harm certain religious minorities, such as the Ahmedis, Sikhs and Parsis who raise their voices against injustice.

While the western world is carving out a path towards true freedom of expression, Pakistan seems to be on another route. According to Dawn, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (F) Senator Dr Khalid Mehmood Soomro is pushing the government to take up the issue of drawing the Prophet (PBUH) in the UN. Oddly, Pakistan seems to have been abandoned by all its usual friends this time. Bangladesh is the only other South Asian country to ban Facebook entirely, but it strangely did it 10 days after the controversy erupted. Saudi Arabia and Iran also took action but, like India, followed a more pragmatic approach to appease their Muslim populations: the offending page was censored rather than the whole site. There is an eerie silence among leaders within the rest of the international Muslim community.

This silence is odd since it defies precedence. Previously, Islamic nations combined forces, following the publication of the now-infamous Danish cartoons, to lobby for an international treaty to protect religious symbols and beliefs from mockery. Within the UN, Algeria and Pakistan emerged as the torchbearers for international action against blasphemy. Although the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has not delivered a statement directly pertaining to the Facebook ban, the 56-member association is persuading a Geneva-based UN committee to accept its plan of an international protocol against blasphemy. If they succeed, they may have the support to take the resolution to the General Assembly. A General Assembly resolution may be a decade away, but lobbyists remain confident and determined in their ability — what has been described by some journalists as “petro blackmail” — to outlaw blasphemy and Islamophobia once and for all. A non-binding resolution regarding “defamation of religions” already exists in the General Assembly, but it remains to be seen whether Muslim countries can translate their efforts into an international law.

This article appeared as part of the cover story in the June 2010 issue.

Maheen Bashir Adamjee is an APNS award-winning journalist. She was an editorial assistant at Newsline from 2010-2011.