That old conundrum about the place of blasphemy laws in modern society and in an age of vanishing taboos, declining religiosity and increasing stress on free speech is being debated again as the country grapples with a wave of violent protests over “hurt” religious sensitivities.
Shaken by the gruesome beheading of a Hindu tailor by two Muslim extremists for supporting former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma over her derogatory reference to Prophet Mohammed even Muslims are being forced to rethink judging from widespread condemnation by senior clerics and Islamic scholars. And for once, it’s not hedged with “ifs” and “buts”.
I guess it’s the proximity to the criminal act — the first such incident to happen on native soil — that has shocked even those who previously tended to wink at such acts. There’s a sense that it shamed a community which had largely remained free from the virus of violent extremism. A fact acknowledged by none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi in an interview to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria soon after coming to power in 2014.
He memorably said that al-Qaeda was “delusional” if it thought Indian Muslims would “dance to its tunes”. He added, “Indian Muslims will live for India. They will die for India. They will not want anything bad for India.”
But blasphemy has remained — indeed 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 repeatedly over the years in relation to books and cartoons depicting the Prophet in unflattering light. I know many liberal Muslims whose liberal instincts suddenly dry up when it comes to blasphemy.
Salman Rushdie, for instance, remains a hate figure for every Muslim cutting across the fundamentalist/liberal divide. For the sake of perspective, it’s important to point out that there’s a gross misperception — created by Muslim extremists and amplified by the Hindu Right — that the perpetrator of alleged blasphemy must pay for it with their blood.
There’s endless debate on whether it has Islamic sanction and it’s legitimately assumed that there must be — given that perpetrators of such violent acts invariably claim to be doing it in the name of Islam.
Scholars insist that there’s “no reference to blasphemy, let alone mode of punishment for it either in the Quran or Hadith (a compilation of Prophet Mohammad’s sayings and teachings),” as Professor Tahir Mahmood, a leader authority on Sharia laws and former chairman, National Minorities Commission, told me.
“There’s no concept of blasphemy in Islamic theology and on the contrary there is a Quranic injunction to Muslims not to attack followers of other religions lest they should start attacking Islam,” he said.
So, where did the concept of blasphemy come from?
Scholars say it’s a product of Islamic jurisprudence (“Fiqh”) which evolved over a period of 200 years drawing on practices in Islam’s rival monotheistic faiths, Christianity and Judaism. Even now, it remains restricted to the Hanafi School of Islam, the dominant influence in South Asia including India and Pakistan.
It’s not recognised by the Hanbali School, followed by Saudi Arabia and most other Middle Eastern countries. In much of the Muslim world, apostasy (renouncing Islam) is regarded as a more serious offence, often punishable by execution, than blasphemy. Theoretically, India too doesn’t have a specific blasphemy law but has elaborate and sweeping provisions in its colonial-era penal code to address acts seen as hurting religious sensitivities of any faith.
Contrary to the public perception, they are designed not to protect a particular religion (Islam) but all the religions and even their different branches. Section 154 of the Indian Penal Code prohibits the incitement of hatred in the name of religion. Experts say but this section does not protect any religion but rather it protects the right of an individual to practice his or her religion. But ultimately, it boils down to the same thing.
But coming back to Islam, the problem lies with the ambiguous and often contradictory Quranic verses allowing people to cherry-pick them to back their argument. Similarly, it is easy to manipulate Hadith (a compilation of Prophet Mohammed’s sayings and teachings), another major source of legitimacy for Islamic acts.
This is because they are too numerous, were pronounced in vastly different situations, and compiled many years after his death with the result that their precise meaning was frequently lost in translation. Sometimes they were quoted outside the original context. They are routinely plucked out of context to support bizarre claims.
There is no denying the streak of violence in Islam. But all religions have violent histories. Campaigns to “Christianise” Pagan Europe in the Middle Ages were not always peaceful, and then, of course, there is the bloody history of Inquisition and the Crusades.
But what is unique about Islam is that while other religious movements, particularly Christianity, got over their early violent origins, it failed to move on and update its theological precepts. There has been no Islamic equivalent of Enlightenment and Renaissance, and the Islamic mindset remains awkwardly out of step with historical progress, and therefore with modern times. What Islam needs is an equivalent of the New Testament.
But, meanwhile, unfortunately the modern guardians of Hinduism — once the most diverse and pluralistic of religions — want it to become more like hardline Islam and Christianity.
Speaking in a TV debate, BJP spokesman Tom Vadakkan challenged liberals to “dare” to criticise 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 a modern society but it cannot be fought by its critics trying desperately to emulate it. There’s a race to the bottom going on whose religious sentiments are more hurt by the other side. If Hindus are serious about fighting such regressive practices of other faiths, they must stop imitating them and then crackdown hard on others.
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