Exclusive: Blasphemy: Islam, Christianity and the Law

by ADRIAN MORGAN May 20, 2008

Current Cases

Last week on Tuesday, May 13th, Human Rights Watch urged Saudi Arabia to revoke a death sentence. Sabri Bogday, a Turkish man who had a barbershop in the Saudi kingdom, had been given a death sentence in April this year. Mr Bogday was accused of blaspheming against Allah. The incident allegedly took place 14 months ago during an argument with his neighbor, an Egyptian who ran a tailor's shop.

The Egyptian filed the complaint and then disappeared. Mr Bogday admitted charges of "swearing against Allah," but was not given a chance to repent. Mr Bogday retains his Turkish citizenship, even though he has lived in the Saudi kingdom for 11 years. The Turkish government is trying to assist his attempts to have the death sentence removed.

In Afghanistan this weekend, on Sunday May 18th, an apprentice journalist appeared briefly in court. 23-year-old Parwiz Kambakhsh was sentenced to death in Mazar-i-Sharif in the north of Afghanistan on January 22nd this year for blasphemy. Mr Khambakhsh had downloaded an article from an Iranian website, and brought it into his journalism class.

This article questioned why a man is allowed under Islam to have four wives, but a woman is not allowed four husbands. Khambakhsh maintains that he only brought the article into class for the purposes of discussion. He was given only three minutes to prepare his defense when he was taken to court, and the trial took place in secret. On Sunday, an appeal court judge told him he had one week to prepare for his appeal against the death penalty. Khambakhsh told the judge: "I'm a Muslim and will never allow myself to insult my religion."

Back in March 2006, the West was shocked when a court ruled that an Afghan man, Abdul Rahman, was sentenced to death by an Afghan court. Rahman had converted to Christianity. Apostasy, according to Judge Ansarullah Mawlawizadah, was "an attack on Islam." 500 Muslim clerics demanded the death penalty for Rahman. He was smuggled out of the country and now lives in Italy.

Even the Afghanistan Senate approved the death sentence against 23-year-year old Parwiz Kambakhsh. The trainee journalist's plight may be politically motivated - his brother Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi has written on the atrocities committed by a former leader in the Northern Alliance. This man is Haji Mohammed Mohaqeq. It appears that the harshness of Parwiz's sentence may have been intended to silence his brother's reports. Mohaqeq is head of Afghanistan's Religious and Cultural Affairs Commission, and is based in Mazar-i-Sharif.

In Pakistan, harsh laws against blasphemy were introduced by the Islamist military dictator General Zia ul-Haq, who ruled the country from July 1977 until his death in a plane crash in August 1988. Anyone who is officially accused of any of Pakistan's blasphemy laws is automatically taken into custody. These laws will be discussed in more depth later, but in practice they are frequently used to discriminate against non-Muslims.

People accused of blasphemy in Pakistan often become the victims of lynch-mobs. Last month, on April 8th a young Hindu was lynched to death by his co-workers after being accused of blaspheming against Mohammed, founder of Islam.

23-year-old Jagdeesh Kumar worked at a garment factory in Karachi, a port city in Sindh province. He was beaten to death while a contingent of police stood by and did nothing. It took days for a police report to be filed on the case, but arrests did not happen until weeks later. According to my friend, Pakistani Christian journalist Qaiser Felix, when the three workers who killed Jagdesh were arrested, they were "charged not with murder but with 'failure to inform the police that blasphemy was underway.'" Qaiser wrote that Jagdeesh was the first Hindu to die as a result of Pakistan's blasphemy laws.

On Friday last week, Compass Direct reported on the case of a Pakistani Christian, Dr. Robin Sardar. This man, a father of six, lives in Punjab Province, along with most of Pakistan's small number of Christians. Dr. Sardar appears to have been falsely accused of blasphemy by a street vendor. The doctor argued with the vendor. The next day (May 5th), after the vendor had been reporting that Dr. Sardar had earlier blasphemed against Mohammed, a mob of Muslims arrived at his home, calling for his death. Police arrested Dr Sardar. His house now carries a sign outside it, bearing the words: "This is the house of a blasphemer."

According to Dr. Sardar's nephew, he had been friends with his accuser for years before the blasphemy accusation was made. A police report was filed. Since 1990, an amendment to the law means that anyone found guilty of blaspheming against Mohammed receives a mandatory death sentence. So far, no one has been executed for blasphemy in Pakistan, although at least 22 individuals have been lynched to death after being accused of the crime.

One activist based in Islamabad has said: "Not a single murderer who killed anyone for blasphemy has been punished for murder. In fact, such murderers get hero's treatment in police stations. And those police officials who openly honour such murderers have never been tried for their illegal and reprehensible action."

In Bangladesh this month, a Christian pastor based in Mymensingh district was "punished" by Muslim villagers for being open about his faith and ignoring the death threats that Muslims made against him. On May 2 the 13-year-old daughter of Pastor Motilal Das was gang-raped by five Muslim villagers.

These are just a few recent cases. What do such acts of brutality and laws that support intolerance say about these societies? Why is Islam the only faith to continue to condone the killing of apostates and blasphemers?

Christian Blasphemy

The Judeo-Christian heritage that underpins Western culture did originally uphold the death penalty to those who blasphemed. The justfication for such harshness can be found in Leviticus 24: 15-16, "The man that curseth His God, shall bear his sin: And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, dying let him die: all the multitude shall stone him, whether he be a native or a stranger. He that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, dying let him die."

Even though Jews and Christians have abandoned the death penalty as the punishment for blaspheming, the passage in Leviticus was used by early Christians to kill or cruelly punish the blasphemer. The Christian Roman Emperor Constantius II, a son of Constantine, decreed in 341 that pagan worship should be punished by death. Emperor Justinian (527-565) outlawed blasphemy and swearing, on the grounds that these caused earthquakes, and a constitution from 538 gave city prefects permission to execute blasphemers.

In the late Medieval period, various Inquisitions led to persecution of heresies, including blasphemy. In Iceland in 1343, a Norwegian bishop ordered a nun to be burned to death for blasphemy and communicating with Satan. On August 3, 1546, French writer and printer Etienne Dolet was burned at the stake for blaspheming against Christ.

Spanish theologian Michael Servetus questioned the Nicene Creed of the Trinity and was subsequently burned at the stake in Geneva in October 1553. Philosopher Giordano Bruno was a former Dominican monk, who became a philosopher. He supported Copernicus' view that earth moved around the sun, and even suggested that stars were suns that might have planets circling them, and even life. Bruno taught in various European countries, but he died in his native Italy, accused of blasphemy. He was burned alive in the Campo di Fiori in Rome on February 17, 1600.

A contemporary of Bruno was a miller from the village of Friuli in Italy, called Domenico Scandella. He was also known as Menocchio. He maintained that Godo and angels were formed spontaneously from chaos, "as worms are produced from cheese." For this he was tortured and tried by the Inquisition, and was burned alive in 1599 or 1600, at age 67.

In 1641, Massachusetts legislation punished blasphemy with death. Similar laws made blasphemy and idolatry into capital crimes in Connecticut and New Hampshire. In 1692, the Province of Massachusetts Bay issued statutes that again codified blasphemy as a capital offense. In 1695 the British government repealed the death penalty for witchcraft and blasphemy from the province's legislation. Currently under Massachusetts general law (Chapter 272, Section 36) blasphemy is still a crime. The maximum punishment is a year in jail and/or a fine not exceeding $300. No one has been prosecuted for blasphemy in this state since the 1920s, but in 1977 the state's legislature refused to repeal the law.

In both Catholic and Protestant countries in Western Europe, the burning of heretics and "witches" reached a peak in the mid 17th century. In Salem, Massachusetts, as had often happened in Europe, the prattling of children led to a pogrom against innocent adults. The burnings and hangings of innocent peasants, and even nuns, for the crimes of witchcraft and heresy had discredited religion. Such cases involved torture to secure confessions. Torturers and accusers often gained a share of their victims' goods. As a result, such crimes would eventually disappear from statute books. Blasphemy in many countries became "downgraded" to a crime that could invoke only a jail sentence, and not the death penalty.

Britain retained its Blasphemy Act of 1697 for three centuries. In 1838, it was established that British blasphemy law only related to the Anglican faith. 1881, secularist publisher George William Foote started a magazine called "The Freethinker." Articles in this periodical led to Foote being jailed for a year for blasphemy. His jail experiences were published as a book, and can be found at Project Gutenberg.

The last Briton to be jailed for blasphemy was John William Gott. On December 9, 1921, he was jailed for nine months, with hard labor, for writing that Christ's entry into Jerusalem must have looked like "a circus clown on the back of two donkeys." Gott died less than a year after his release, at age 56.

The last successful prosecution for blasphemy (blasphemous libel) in Britain took place in 1977 when Denis Lemon, a publisher of a gay newspaper,r was fined and given a nine month suspended prison sentence. Lemon had published a poem that described a centurion's lust for the body of Christ.

The 1977 trial was the first to have taken place for 50 years. On February 14, 1989, British author Salman Rushdie was issued with a death fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini. Blasphemy was then regarded as something from a bygone era. When numerous British-based Muslims publicly demanded the death penalty for the author, it became clear that the story of blasphemy in the West had begun a new chapter.

Islamic Blasphemy versus Christian Blasphemy

The Salman Rushdie affair was a catalyst for British Muslims to become radicalized. Fanatical Islamism had been seen as something alien until that time. In 1970, for example, Muslims burned down a British Council library in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, after Times columnist Auberon Waugh called Muslim baggy trousers "Allah Catchers." The Rushdie affair exposed how many British Muslims of Pakistani origin shared the fanaticism of their former countrymen. Their anger led to the formation of an activist group called the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs. One prominent figure in this group, Iqbal Sacranie, became first secretary general of the MuslimCouncil of Britain (MCB).

In 2005 Islamist activists from the MCB in 2005 had tried to have an Islamic blasphemy law introduced in Britain. When that failed, they successfully persuaded Tony Blair's government to introduce the "Incitement to Religious Hatred Act". This would have made a person eligible to seven years' jail for insulting another religion, even if there had been no intention to stir up "religious hatred." This antidemocratic bill was emasculated in the Upper House before it became law.

In February 2006, protests against cartoons published in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten reached their peak. Muslims around the world demanded that non-Muslims should respect their sensitivities. Around 50 people died in riots. Where acts of Muslim terrorism had failed to elicit a great response, Muslim "blasphemy" galvanized people to protest. On October 26, 2006, a lawsuit brought by a coalition of Islamic groups was thrown out by a Copenhagen court. The suit complained that staff at Jyllands-Posten had "libeled" Muslims.

Earlier attempts to invoke Denmark's blasphemy law (not used since the 1930s) were also thrown out of court. The Danish law states that anyone who "publicly offends or insults a religion that is recognized in the country" could receive a four month jail term. This law had not been invoked in decades. Danish judges refused to allow the Jyllands-Posten cartoons to be tried under this law, as they believed freedom of expression was more important than supporting a prohibition against blaspheming.

Two years after the first cartoon protests, Islamists were caught in Denmark. These plotted to kill Kurt Westergaard, one of the cartoonists. The cartoons were republished, and more protests ensued.

As pointed out by Dr. Andrew Bostom in February this year, the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) wanted the United Nations to uphold a universal ban on blasphemy of any kind.

The Secretary General of the OIC, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, made a speech on February 15, 2008, to this end. It is not the first time that Ihsanoglu has argued for the UN to implement a universal ban on blasphemy. On Wednesday February 6, 2008, shortly before that speech was made, Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki announced his expectations that the Vatican should work with his Islamist regime to stamp out blasphemy against all religions.

In February 2006 at the height of the carton crisis, the OIC had argued for a universal blasphemy law. For many Muslims, arguing that their religion should be protected against abuse seems fair. For some Leftists and multiculturalists, who traditionally would have opposed Christian blasphemy laws, they argue for Islamic blasphemy laws out of a misguided sense of "justice". In March 2006, Spain's socialist government colluded with Pakistan to present a draft "universal blasphemy" resolution to the United Nations. Similar notions of cultural relativism inspired the socialists of Britain's Labour government to introduce the "Incitement to Religious Hatred Act."

In practice, no Muslims are hauled up in Western countries and accused of blasphemy against Christianity. And certainly, even if Muslims were found guilty of anti-Christian blasphemy, they would not serve more than a short jail sentence. Muslim countries have shown by example that Islamic blasphemy legislation is frequently applied to non-Muslims. In Pakistan, non-Muslims are deliberately targeted by Muslims, and often (falsely) accused of blasphemy.

In the Australian state of Victoria in 2001, governor Steve Bracks introduced a "universal blasphemy law." This appalling piece of legislation, called the "Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001" has made a mockery of legislative principles of justice. The law was introduced to protect (appease?) Muslims and uphold a spirit of multiculturalism. The Act has failed almost every group in Victoria, and garnered extreme resentment.

In October, 2003 this law was used to persecute a Christian evangelical group called Catch The Fire Ministries led by two pastors, Danny Niallah and Daniel Scot. Mr. Scot had earlier fled from Pakistan, where he had been accused of blasphemy. The ministry was taken to court by the Islamic Council of Victoria, assisted by the Equal Opportunity Commission of Victoria. In one 2002 sermon, heard by three visiting "undercover" Muslims, Christianity had been compared against Islam, with Islam viewed unfavorably.

In December 2004, Judge Michael Higgins ruled that the pair had vilified Islam, in a way that was "hostile, demeaning and derogatory of all Muslim people, their god, Allah, the prophet Muhammad and in general Muslim religious beliefs and practices." He ordered the pair to apologize for the comments.

The tribunal exposed the stupidity of the law. Daniel Scot wanted to mention the verses about Islam's treatment of women during the trial. His opinions on these Koranic verses had led him to be placed on trial. He was told that he could only give the references for such verses, and not read the verses aloud. The verses themselves, the court ruled, constituted vilification.

On May 3, 2005 Daniel Scot announced that he would refuse to apologize for his comments about Islam. Danny Niallah agreed, saying: "Right from the beginning we have stated we will not apologize, we will go to prison for standing for the truth."

The pair steadfastly refused to apologize for telling the truth as they saw it, even though they could have been jailed for three years. In December 2006, the Victorian Supreme Court upheld their appeal and struck off the ruling by Judge Michael Higgins. Any future prosecution of the matter would have to be presided over by a different judge.

The notion of Victorian state law trying to protect every religious group's interests has inevitably led to absurdist situations. Former policeman, now transsexual practicing "Wiccan" (witch) Olivia Watts decided to run for local government in Casey, Victoria. Rob Wilson, a local councillor and Christian, led a campaign against Watts. The witch sued, using the 2001 law, and won the case. Awarded high costs in damages, the local taxpayers of Casey had to foot the bill. The state's attorney general issued a statement, in which he said: "We govern for all Victorians - and that includes witches, magicians and sorcerers."

The Victoria state law demonstrates how bizarre "egalitarian" blasphemy laws are in practice. As a libertarian, I abhor any blasphemy laws. Freedom of speech would be eroded if any blasphemy laws are enforced. Compromised versions of the law which try to outlaw any forms of blasphemy become tools of Leftists and so-called liberals to attack traditional views, and are inherently dangerous and socially divisive.

There is no comparison between Western laws of blasphemy and Islamic law on blasphemy. The latter is far more absolutist and creates appalling situations for those who are accused of blasphemy against Islam.

When Spiritual Worlds Collide

On May 6, 1998 in Pakistan, a native-born Catholic bishop shot himself dead. 66-year-old John Joseph, Bishop of Faisalabad in Punjab province, apparently killed himself in protest at Pakistan's discriminatory blasphemy laws.

Exactly 12 years before, on May 6, 1986, pro-Islamist Islamist dictator General Zia ul-Haq had introduced the most pernicious of Pakistan's blasphemy laws. This addition to the penal code, Article 295-C, states: "Use of derogatory remarks, etc; in respect of the Holy Prophet. Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine."

In its original form this law, included in the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1986, was draconian enough. However, on October 1990, the country's supreme Islamic court, the Federal Shariat Court, made a ruling on Article 295-C. It stated that "the penalty for contempt of the Holy Prophet... is death and nothing else." The court ordered the government to implement necessary changes to the law, adding: "in case this is not done by 30 April 1991 the words 'or punishment for life' in section 295-C, PPC, shall cease to have effect on that date."

The blasphemy laws were introduced in stages. Zia ul-Haq worked closely with the Islamists of the Jamaat-e-Islami party. This party, founded by Syed Abul A'la Maududi, exploited the dictatorship of ul-Haq to exert a power they could never achieve through the ballot. For his part, ul-Haq exploited the Islamists to retain power. Most rural Muslims felt that introducing laws based on Islam were automatically "just". Ul-Haq himself was a frequent worshipper at the radical Lal Masjid or "Red Mosque" in Islamabad.

Other laws introduced by ul-Haq's administration were the notorious Hudood Ordinances. These laws removed the distinction between adultery and rape. A woman who reported that she had been raped put herself at great risk. Unless she could present four Muslim witnesses, she would be charged with adultery and jailed. The maximum penalty under these laws for adultery was "Hadd" - the death penalty. Many women were jailed for reporting rape incidents. As a result, rape incidents flourished. The Hudood laws were only removed in September 2006.

On May 6, 1996, Bishop John Joseph went to the city of Sawihal, and there addressed a group of people who had become victims of Pakistan's blasphemy laws in the afternoon. In the evening he went to a sessions court in the city. It was here, on November 6th in the previous year Ayub Masih, one of his parishioners, had been shot at. On April 27, 1996, Masih had been given a death sentence for blasphemy.

At Bishop Joseph's funeral, two days after his apparent suicide, a message from Pope John Paul was read at the service. This message expressed hope for justice. That justice never came.

Pakistan's blasphemy laws - Sections 298-B and 298-B - deliberately discriminate against Ahmadis (also called Ahmadiyya or Qadiani). These are Muslims, but regarded by many other Muslims as heretics. The Ahmadi swear to "harm no one." However, they believe that the man who founded their sect in 1889 - Mirza Ghulam Ahmad - is a prophet. For most Muslims, Mohammed is the last prophet. The Ahmadi's "heresy" has led to them as being seen by Muslims as apostates at worst, non-Muslims at best. They are banned from attending the Haj pilgrimage in Mecca.

In Bangladesh, the Jamaat-e-Islami party has been involved in active campaigns to harass the Ahmadiyya. In Pakistan, the same party and other Islamists persuaded ul-Haq's regime to legally discriminate against them. Under Pakistan's blasphemy legislation, no Ahmadi can declare himself to be a Muslim. Anyone who does, or who tries to propagate his or her beliefs, can receive a three year jail term.

Article 298-C of the Pakistan Penal Code states: "Persons of Qadiani group, etc, calling himself a Muslim or preaching or propagating his faith. Any person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis or any other name), who directly or indirectly, posses himself as a Muslim, or calls, or refers to, his faith as Islam, or preaches or propagates his faith, or invites others to accept his faith, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or in any manner whatsoever outrages the religious feelings of Muslims, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine."

To date, more than 800 people have been punished under Pakistan's blasphemy laws. In Part Two, I will examine some of these cases, to demonstrate how they are used as a weapon to settle personal feuds and to persecute non-Muslim minorities. I will show how the Clash of Civilizations is causing Western societies to change their legislation on blasphemy, while Muslim countries resolutely refuse to soften their stance towards those who are seen to blaspheme against, or to insult Islam.

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