By Feisal Naqvi
Salmaan Taseer will forever remain a hero of mine for the bravery he showed. But those who wish to change the blasphemy law need to adopt a different course of action.
“The Ornament of the World” is a wonderful book written some years ago by Maria Menocal, a professor at Yale University. The title of the book refers to 13th century Cordoba – a city which in those dark ages had libraries with hundreds of thousands of books, more than in all of England, a city in which Muslims, Jews and Christians all lived in the greatest harmony. But as Professor Menocal notes, even in those days of peace and brotherhood, defamation of the Prophet (PBUH) was regarded as being so completely and utterly unacceptable that death was the only punishment.
Many people who critique the blasphemy law do so on the basis that there is no punishment provided in the Quran for denigrating the Prophet (PBUH). So what? There is no punishment provided in the Quran for many crimes. Surely, nobody can deny that a society has a right to determine the acts it wishes to punish. And as Ms Menocal’s book shows, blasphemy is a crime to which Muslim societies have historically been – and self-evidently remain – uniquely sensitive.
The standard jurisprudential response to my assertion is that society indeed has a right to determine what actions are to be treated as criminal, but only within certain rights provided by the fundamental human rights guaranteed by the Constitution. I concede that point, so let us then look at the next issue: is punishing blasphemy violative of fundamental human rights?
My answer is no. As much as I disagree with the blasphemy law, I do not think that criminalising the act of blasphemy is violative of any fundamental human rights guaranteed by the Constitution. All of those rights are subject to reasonable limitations. And in Pakistan – repeat, in this country – I do not think it is unreasonable for the law to provide that blasphemy shall be a criminal offence. Even in England, the last blasphemy prosecution took place not centuries ago, but in 1977.
Does that mean the blasphemy law cannot, or should not, be challenged or changed? Absolutely not. The blasphemy law, as it stands today, invites abuse and serves as a terrible instrument of oppression. But what it does mean is that the change must be brought about through political means, not legal. And politics, as we too often forget, is the art of the possible, not the art of the desirable.
There are three basic ways to attack the blasphemy law. The first is to argue that criminalising blasphemy is wrong per se. The second is to concede that blasphemy may be punishable but to argue that executing blasphemers is excessive. The third option is to argue that while it is permissible to punish blasphemy with the death sentence, it is not acceptable to kill or harass innocent people.
To begin with, let us recognise the simple fact that any direct attempt to decriminalise blasphemy in Pakistan is doomed. Given the intensity with which the average Pakistani believes in the necessity of punishing blasphemy, there is little point in challenging the law directly. In fact, direct attack makes the situation worse because it leads to an overwhelming negative reaction from the public which in turn makes it difficult even to tinker with the law.
What then can liberals do? The answer is to adopt the third option and attack the law indirectly. The benefit of this approach is that it frames the debate in a completely different manner. The average Pakistani certainly believes that blasphemers should hang but that same average Pakistani also believes that people are entitled to the due process of law. Similarly, the same average Pakistani will also concede that vigilante justice is not normally a good idea. If we do not reframe the debate around the need to protect innocents, we will be helpless when people like the odious Meher Bokhari prove their populist credentials by preening as defenders of our faith.
The liberal response to this approach would be to argue that it is unprincipled and craven. I disagree. It is more important to change people’s lives than to stick to some purist conception of an ideal society. Take, for example, the Women’s Protections Act which was opposed tooth and nail by the feminist lobby but which has successfully defanged the Hudood Ordinance of its worst excesses.
But doesn’t this concede too much room to the extremists: after all, do we really want to live in a country where any person can be declared a blasphemer and then killed? Again, obviously not. I repeat: I do not want to live in a country where people can be executed for blasphemy. But I only get to choose my opinions. I do not get to choose my own facts. And the fact is that the people of Pakistan really want to execute people who they think have committed blasphemy. I can either accept that fact or I can seek to change it. But to act as if that fact does not exist is not sensible.
People also need to understand that the moral outrage of an indignant few is not normally sufficient to bring about legislative change. Instead, laws are changed when the government has a good reason to do so. And in the case of Pakistan, the government has no rational incentive to amend the blasphemy laws. The minorities who tend to be the main victims of the blasphemy law are both politically and socially powerless. The liberals who are outraged by the blasphemy law are so few in number as to be politically irrelevant. And so far as the international community is concerned, Pakistan is that unique country which negotiates with a gun pointed at its own head. Give us money, we say, or else the mullahs will take over. But in order for that threat to be credible, the international community needs to be more scared of the possible alternatives than the kleptocrats currently in power. If the blasphemy law is repealed, it would show that we are a mature, intelligent and sophisticated nation. Unfortunately, that would also mitigate the impression that the loonies are about to take over.
How then should the liberal community position its challenge? The answer is that we must make the establishment realise that the mullahs playing on popular anger have a direct, election-free, bureaucrat-free hot-link to power. Because while the average politician couldn’t care less about fundamental rights, the average politician certainly cares about other people having power. As such, the liberals need to focus on ensuring that those who give fatwas against others are immediately challenged and charged with incitement to murder. That is the only area in which the interests of the liberals coincide with the interests of the establishment.
Patton once said that no person ever won a war by dying for his country; instead, he won it by making the other person die for his country. If we are truly outraged by the death of Salmaan Taseer, then we need to learn to fight. And wishful thinking never won a fight.
This column appeared first in Pakistan Today on 11 January 2010.