Notable theologians agree that the further we retreat into history, the more the lines between religion and secular matters begin to blur.
The modern Muslim world often struggles to differentiate between ‘Islam’ – as a timeless collection of religious laws and ideals – from the social-cultural model of 7th century Arabia. This difficulty, according to writers like Karen Armstrong, is the inescapable result of religion and politics being inseparable in history.
‘Deen’ does not mean ‘religion’, but rather ‘way of life’. Looking beyond Islamic history, the word ‘dharma’ does not mean ‘religion’ either, but simply signifies the right way of doing thing.
So what does ‘blasphemy’ truly imply in a system where the word ‘religion’ is a placeholder for both matters of spiritand politics?
Consider the etymology of the term ‘murtadd’ for example, or ‘apostate’ in English. It is derived from the word ‘irtidad’ which means ‘turning back’. In the distant past, turning back on Muslims, Christians, or pagans was not just a religious decision, but a matter of choosing political sides.
According to a report by the Digital Rights Foundation, a total of 7 people were accused of blasphemy in the presence of older blasphemy laws between 1927 to 1986. Following the amendment of the laws under Zia’s regime, the justice system has dealt with 1,335 accusations between 1986 and 2014.
Could it be that the public has became more insolent after 1986? There are other explanations which appear more probable:
The older blasphemy laws existed strictly in the interest of maintaining public order, by penalizing the deliberate incitement of clashes between religious parties. These were religion-neutral laws that were not designed to be employed by the dominant religious party for thought-control of any dissenting minority.
In the 80s, Zia-ul-Haq’s regime ushered in a new era of Islamonationalism. Since then, religion has been diffusing unchallenged into politics – and perhaps more disturbingly – vice versa. The newer laws exist foremost to protect the religious sentiments of the Muslim majority, as evidenced by non-Muslims and close allies being affected disproportionately by these laws.
I claim no expertise on Islamic affairs and do not intend to tutor readers on religious dicta. But the one thing is brutally obvious: in the spirit in which the blasphemy laws presently exist, what Islam says or doesn’t say about the fate of blasphemers has itself become moot. As we step back, we realize that these laws exist only secondarily to protect the religious feelings of ordinary Muslims, but foremost as a political statement on which religion – hence the political organization bearing its flag – rules this country.
Liberals – secular or religious – who aspire to work towards interfaith harmony, cannot do so with blasphemy laws at the fovea of their worldview. The center of attention must be the established political
Religious debates occur entirely outside the domain of the mosque. They place in courthouses, government offices, and on political talk-shows.
Every time a liberal Muslim counters a conservative talking point of “This is Islam” with “This is not Islam”, he reinforces public opinion that it is ultimately our view of religion that unilaterally determines the fate of non-Muslims, and even minority sects. The liberal Muslim challenges a violent, orthodox manifestation of politico-religious imperialism with his own brand of benevolent politico-religious imperialism. That, in the larger scheme of things, does nothing to address the root of the problem.
The liberal Muslim who strives for kinder Pakistan, must refuse to play the game by General Zia-ul-Haq’s rule. For these rules assert that the question is not of equality among citizens or harmonious living, but a matter of the dominant religious group maintaining its privilege of deciding what happens to the minority. The voiceless minority must simply learn to wait outside our mosque, while we figure out what to do with them.
As long as Islam and nationalism remain unified in this country as one force, no religious law purports to be exclusively about religion. When in an accuser’s mind, ‘blasphemy’ is not just a matter of hurting religious sentiments, but also a betrayal of the national interests of an Islamic Republic or the political interests of some of its parties, the liberal Muslim gets nowhere in this discourse armed with religious argument alone.