Only religious thugs love blasphemy laws
Blasphemy is not a protector of religious freedom, as the UN maintains, but its mortal enemy
by Nick Cohen
The Observer, Sunday 9 January 2011
If the circumstances were not so hideous, the successful attempt by Pakistan to persuade the UN Human Rights Council to condemn blasphemers who defame religion would have been a black comedy. Every word its diplomats used in 2009 to protest against Islamophobia turned out to be a precise description of the prejudices the Pakistani state was appeasing at home.
They told the UN it must approve a universal blasphemy law to protect religious minorities from "intolerance, discrimination and acts of violence". If they were not the hypocrites they appeared, but honourable men, who wanted to help all minorities and not only Muslims, they must now accept that Salmaan Taseer was butchered for protecting Pakistan's religious minorities from its own blasphemy law.
Taseer did not go so far as to assert that the Qur'an, like the Talmud and the Bible, was the work of men, not God, or criticise the teachings of Muhammad. His crime was to stand up against the persecution of Christians in Muslim countries, a subject that the media of the supposedly warmongering, culturally imperialist "crusaders" of the west barely mention for fear of causing "offence". He denounced the treatment of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five. She had argued with Muslim women who refused to drink water she had carried because she was impure and therefore the drink she carried was contaminated. They told the local cleric she had taken Muhammad's name in vain.
That was enough for the judge to order that she be hanged by the neck until she was dead. Not much respect shown for her minority rights, then. Nor for the rights of Salmaan Taseer, whose last sight on earth was of Constable Mumtaz Qadri firing 26 bullets into his body, while other members of his bodyguard stood by and let him do it.
"Defamation of religion is a serious affront to human dignity leading to a restriction on the freedom of their adherents and incitement to religious violence," thundered the Pakistani officials to the UN in 2009.
Mutatis mutandis, Pakistan has become a country so scared of the inciters of religious violence that liberals stay silent for fear the assassins will come for them; a land so benighted Jamaat-e-Islami and other mobster theocrats can get away with blaming Taseer for his own death and treating his killer as a hero for enforcing the will of god.
"RIP Pakistan," sighed Salman Rushdie after Taseer's murder. "What should one say of a country in which an assassin is showered with rose petals while a decent man lies dead?" Despair is a reasonable response to a failed state. When Islamists have penetrated the bodyguards of leading politicians and threaten one day to capture nuclear weapons, it may be the only response. But the relativism which asserts that human rights are all well and good for us but not for the peoples of the poor world is no response at all.
Pakistan is not a land apart, living in another century. Notice how it was able to dress up its assault on freedom of speech in the modern language of human rights. Notice, too, that the UN Human Rights Council approved its duplicity. Admittedly, the council is not so much a black comedy as a sick joke, whose members include China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and many another human rights abuser. Nevertheless, it remains astonishing that a United Nations the gullible still see as a moral arbiter endorsed blasphemy.
It is the most pernicious of attacks on free speech because defendants can never know the nature of their offence. Who is meant to be their victim? Are they meant to have injured the feelings of believers, whose faith is so weak mockery and doubt can threaten it? Perhaps they stand accused of assaulting whatever god or gods the faithful follow. In which case, are the deities in question so feeble and thin-skinned they demand that criticism be punished with human sacrifices?
In November, Freedom House published a report on the abuses of power that follow the endorsement of such a nebulous offence. It documented how Islamic states and religious vigilantes use blasphemy laws to persecute Christians, Ahmadis and Muslims who believe that Muhammad was not the final prophet and, of course, ex-Muslims such as Rushdie who decide to change or renounce their faith, as free men and women should be entitled to do.
In Iran and Egypt, blasphemy is used to prosecute political opponents of the regime. And everywhere the malicious call on it to pursue petty vendettas, as poor Mrs Bibi learned to her cost. Blasphemy is not a protector of religious freedom, as the UN maintains, but its mortal enemy. If free speech is absent, citizens are not free to argue for and practise their beliefs without the fear of state or clerical intimidation.
Let us forsake pretence and acknowledge that that same fear has caught our tongues. We, too, are scared. But instead of acknowledging our fear we dress up our refusal to speak plainly in woozy therapeutic language. We talk of our "respect" for diversity and our determination to protect "the other" and fail to notice that we are abandoning "the other's" victims and aiding and abetting their enemies. Islamists threatened Ahmadis in Surrey, but the story passed virtually without comment in the British press.
When Ireland published a law that said it was a crime to "outrage a substantial number of the adherents of [a] religion", the Organisation of Islamic Countries took up Dublin's dangerously vague definition to help in the oppression of their own people's freedom of thought. And it is not only brave politicians and intellectuals such as Taseer and Rushdie who suffer.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing the marvellous Norwegian singer Deepika Thathaal (Deeyah). To Norway's shame, religious thugs harassed her and her family and drove her out of the country for the crimes of being glamorous and sexy and singing about freedom.
She came to Britain, and to Britain's shame, our religious thugs called her a "whore" and threatened to kill her too. She fled to America and told me that if white racists had driven an Asian singer from two countries, her case would be a cause celebre. As it was, the bigots who persecuted her had brown rather than white skins, so Europeans looked away.
She has learned what many dissidents from the Muslim world already know: it has become an act of some courage in the 21st century to make the sensible point that there is no god and we should grow up.
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