Why blasphemy has no place in modern society
This age-old conundrum about the place of blasphemy laws in modern society and at a time of disappearing taboos, declining religiosity and growing emphasis on free speech is being debated again as the country grapples with a wave of violent protests against “hurt” religious sensibilities.
Shaken by the horrific beheading of a Hindu tailor by two Muslim extremists for supporting former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma for her derogatory reference to the Prophet Muhammad, even Muslims are forced to rethink judging by the widespread condemnation of senior Islamic clerics and scholars. And for once, it’s not covered in ifs and buts.
I guess it was the proximity of the foul play – the first such incident to occur on home soil – that shocked even those who previously tended to wink at such acts. It feels like it brought shame to a community that had remained largely immune to the virus of violent extremism. A fact acknowledged by none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria shortly after he came to power in 2014.
He memorably said that al-Qaeda was “delusional” if he thought Indian Muslims would “dance to its tunes”. He added: “Indian Muslims will live for India. They will die for India. They will mean nothing bad for India.
But blasphemy has remained – in fact remains – a difficult issue for Muslims, and even moderates see any perceived “insult” to the Prophet as a red line that must not be allowed to be crossed, as we have seen. several times over the years in connection with the books. and caricatures portraying the Prophet in an unflattering light. I know many liberal Muslims whose liberal instincts suddenly dry up when it comes to profanity.
Salman Rushdie, for example, remains a hate figure for all Muslims who cross the fundamentalist/liberal divide. For the sake of perspective, it is important to point out that there is a gross misconception – created by Muslim extremists and amplified by the Hindu right – that the perpetrator of alleged blasphemy must pay for it with their blood.
There is endless debate over whether this has Islamic sanction and it is legitimately assumed that there must be – given that the perpetrators of such violent acts invariably claim to do so in the name of Islam.
Scholars insist that there is “no reference to blasphemy, let alone the mode of punishment for it, either in the Quran or the Hadith (a compilation of the sayings and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad),” as Professor Tahir Mahmood, an authority on Sharia laws and former chairman, National Minorities Commission, told me.
“There is no concept of blasphemy in Islamic theology and instead there is a Quranic injunction to Muslims not to attack followers of other religions lest they start attacking Islam,” did he declare.
So where does the concept of blasphemy come from?
Scholars say it is a product of Islamic jurisprudence (“Fiqh”) that evolved over a 200-year period drawing on the practices of the rival monotheistic religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Even now, it remains limited to the Hanafi school of Islam, the dominant influence in South Asia, including India and Pakistan.
It is not recognized by the Hanbali school, followed by Saudi Arabia and most other Middle Eastern countries. In much of the Muslim world, apostasy (renouncing Islam) is considered a more serious offence, often punishable by execution, than blasphemy. India theoretically does not have a specific blasphemy law either, but does have elaborate and sweeping provisions in its colonial-era penal code to tackle acts deemed to hurt religious sensibilities of any faith.
Contrary to public opinion, they are designed to protect not one religion in particular (Islam) but all religions and even their different branches. Section 154 of the Indian Penal Code prohibits incitement to hatred in the name of religion. Experts say this article does not protect any religion, but rather an individual’s right to practice their religion. But ultimately, it comes down to the same thing.
But going back to Islam, the problem lies in the ambiguous and often contradictory Quranic verses that allow people to select them to support their argument. Likewise, it is easy to manipulate the Hadith (a compilation of the sayings and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad), another major source of legitimacy for Islamic acts.
Indeed, they are too numerous, were spoken in very different situations, and compiled many years after his death, so that their precise meaning has often been lost in translation. Sometimes they were quoted outside of the original context. They are regularly taken out of context to support outlandish claims.
There is no denying the tendency towards violence in Islam. But all religions have violent histories. The campaigns to “Christianize” pagan Europe in the Middle Ages were not always peaceful, and then, of course, there is the bloody history of the Inquisition and the Crusades.
But what is unique about Islam is that while other religious movements, especially Christianity, overcame their early violent origins, it failed to move forward and put update its theological precepts. There was no Islamic equivalent of the Enlightenment and the Renaissance, and the Islamic mentality remains awkwardly out of step with historical progress, and therefore with modern times. What Islam needs is a New Testament equivalent.
But, meanwhile, sadly, the modern guardians of Hinduism – once the most diverse and pluralistic religion – want it to look more like hard-line Islam and Christianity.
Speaking in a televised debate, BJP spokesman Tom Vadakkan challenged liberals to “dare” to criticize Christianity in America’s “Bible belt” or Islam in Saudi Arabia. Is this what India will become: like the intolerant Christian belt and Saudi Arabia?
Blasphemy has no place in modern society, but it cannot be fought by its detractors who desperately try to imitate it. There is a race to the bottom going on whose religious feelings are hurt more by the other side. If Hindus really want to fight against these regressive practices of other religions, they must stop imitating them and then crack down hard on others.
Hasan Suroor is a freelance commentator. The opinions expressed are personal.
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