The blasphemy law in Pakistan is, perhaps, from the perspective of US constitution, highly oppressive and runs counter to the very essence of freedom of speech. While preparing for this blog post, I came across an intellectually stimulating blog by Prof. Sheldon Nahmod about free speech and hate speech. I stumbled across a new and equally interesting fact that the First Amendment of the US Constitution “prohibits government from regulating such [hate] speech altogether.”
Nahmod goes onto say that the “First Amendment creates a marketplace of ideas in which everyone can participate.” The central argument is that by exercising rationality, people will be ultimately able to assess the value of a given idea. By including hateful ideas in the marketplace of ideas, one would expect counter-speech to emerge. This will allow people to reason more effectively about the worthiness of a given hateful idea. To quote Nahmod “more speech rather than less is the remedy.”
In Pakistan, however, it is the other way round. Less speech rather than more is the remedy. The blasphemy law is a classic example of this fact. According to Section 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code, defiling the sacred name of Prophet Muhammad is punishable by death or imprisonment for life. Whereas I do not believe in defiling the name of Prophet Muhammad or any other revered personality of any religion per se, I do believe that the death penalty is too harsh a punishment for any person who defiles the name of the Prophet Muhammad.
In fact, and in agreement with the US constitution, I believe there should be no punishment at all for anyone who defiles the sacred name of Prophet Muhammad. I am a firm believer in the cliche that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” No matter how derogatory a remark one may make about Prophet Muhammad, the remark will be, at the end of the day, composed of just a bunch of words that definitely do not cause any bodily injury.
A derogatory remark can offend and infuriate. A derogatory remark may cause some amount of psychological distress. However, as far as I see, a derogatory remark about Prophet Muhammad who passed away 1400 years ago in the Arabian peninsula should not be able to mentally scar an individual of the 21st century for life.
I really believe that Muslims need to be honest with themselves in trying to understand why passing derogatory remarks about Prophet Muhammad should not be an act worthy of death penalty.
Unfortunately, this is not how people think in Pakistan. Individuals are often accused of blasphemy and are punished by the vigilantes even before being brought to the court. Those who sympathize and support the individuals accused of blasphemy often face dire consequences.
The assassination of the former governor of the state of Punjab, Salman Taseer, as well as the Federal Minister of Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, are examples of how rampant the persecution, in the name of Islam, is in Pakistan. More than that, the vigilantes who punish the opposers of the blasphemy law are actually glorified in Pakistan.
“People love Mumtaz Qadri,” who, despite being a body guard of Salman Taseer, ended up killing him. Qadri was showered with rose-petals when we appeared in the court, while the judge, who sentenced him to death, had to flee from Pakistan.
The blasphemy law is indeed a “black law” that needs be expunged from the Pakistan Penal Code. However, Islamic fanaticism is much more deep-rooted. The blasphemy law is just the tip of the iceberg. Islam needs a thorough evaluation and Muslims have to re-learn, if not get rid off, their religious beliefs, if Pakistan is to ever compete successfully in the marketplace of ideas.