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The injury of blasphemy

Examining the material gains, hegemonistic benefits and fiction of Islamic identity that are enabled by the blasphemy laws and looking at new frames of analysis

The injury of blasphemy

The Junaid Jamshed blasphemy case has re-opened several sites of debate related to the blasphemy laws of Pakistan. Much of post-9/11 scholarship has focused on touchy-feely Muslim abstractions such as, hejab empowerment, madrasa reform, pietist agency, Islamist charity and, the ‘moral injury’ inflicted on Muslims in the ‘Islamophobic’ West (Mahmood, 2009).

In the process, the direct impact and expanding effects of Islamic laws, politics and policies have been deliberately ignored. With the rising success of the IS though, it seems the after-glow of the romance with Islamist possibilities has been doused somewhat. And so, it may be possible to return attention to the boring reality of Islamic politics in Muslim-majority contexts.

Much of the commentary around the Junaid Jamshed case has advanced beyond the outdated analysis which used to link all Islamist politics to the Gen Zia’s Islamisation policies. This is a welcome shift which recognises the way that organised religious groups and individuals have wrested control of religion from the state and, which acknowledges that the domestic effects have been seismic.

Unfortunately, a new breed of post-9/11 scholars have deflected our attention from this by simplistic sloganeering and blaming all conflict in Pakistan to some vague references to ‘imperialism’ and ‘neoliberalism’. Much of this rhetoric has borrowed obsequiously from western critical theory rather than, examining their specific meanings and relevance in and for Pakistan.

Understanding local change

Specifically, on the domestic front, the respected IA Rehman of the HRCP has observed that the number, or propensity, of blasphemy cases has not changed due to 9/11 but that the reporting of these and the impunity awarded to the punishment exacted by non-state actors, certainly has. Recent too, is the role of social media which blurs the private/public boundaries on matters of faith.

This has influenced the way religious conflict can be sourced from a keyboard now. Social media sites expand the possibility of capturing new faithfuls but also increase the probability of encountering blasphemy or interpreting anything as such.

How is it possible to appeal for compassion for any accused whose intention was not to offend? Since the law criminalises a speech act so it is the injury you have caused that is to be judged, not intent.

Added to this has been the new role of the judiciary as moral crusader and which has fed its prosecutorial hunger for perceived blasphemers. This has resulted in the kind of judicial reasoning that we saw in the Gilgit judgment and in the sentencing of Aasia Bibi. Meanwhile, Islamist hate-preaching has cemented an effective nexus between conservative legal communities and especially, with the khatume naboowat sector. The fact that the majority of blasphemy cases are Punjab-centric is another under-examined feature.

Such multiple angles have been neglected mainly because of the haste to frame all issues exclusively within the high-publicity, ‘War on Terror’ and drone politics. This has been at the expense of studying and addressing the internal jihadist race for hegemonistic supremacy. Or, in some cases, sympathetic analysis for Islamists has been adamant in sanitising jihadist politics, by equalising these to secular groups and parties that may also observe violent politics.

No level field

Progressive legal activists who defend blasphemy-accused admit that they have no expectations of a fair or neutral judicial reception. Despite the risks to their lives and reputations, they defend the accused on the principle of presumed innocence. In stark contrast, there is growing religious dogmatism found in many Bar Associations, some of which have, en bloc, formally pledged conscientious objection and sworn a refusal to defend any blasphemy-accused.

But there seems now to be a growing fatigue for the lazy, empty and disconnected use of ‘imperialism’, ‘neo-liberalism’ type of analysis. Instead, in the Junaid Jamshed case, there has been commentary on the specific misogyny in Islamist preaching, the willing embrace of capitalist Islam and, the appeal for an automated exoneration for any Deobandi lapse. There has also been discussion on the hypocrisy and exceptionalism for theocratic misogyny, populist clerics and sectarian hegemony connected to blasphemy cases.

If nothing else, Jamshed serves as an interesting personification — the modern pop cultural icon who blossomed in the shadows of an Islamised state. He then reinvented himself as the postmodern capitalist-clergyman who captured the glorious, post-9/11 market for all products branded, ‘Islam’. Sometimes, these products have been advertised in a creepy fashion — as in Jamshed’s case where his clothing-line is publicised by headless models on huge billboards. Of course, this evokes subliminal connections to the IS politics of beheadings.

In all these ways, the Junaid Jamshed case represents the legal and social capture of religion and its hold over the ideological landscape of Pakistan as well as, the injustices that come with this.

As a result of these shifts and changes, some continuing challenges are outlined below.

Unresolved contradictions

Some have suggested that the blatant injustices of the blasphemy laws should be reformed but, how is it possible to dilute the effect of the law yet concede that blasphemy should remain criminalised? How is it possible to appeal for compassion for any accused whose intention was not to offend? Since the law criminalises a speech act so it is the injury you have caused that is to be judged, not intent. The crime is the offense of causing injury to intangible faith, not a violation of the material or physical. As long as a blasphemy law is there, offenses of the conscience and faith are legitimately available for regulation, judgment and punishment.

There are other serious analytical fallacies. Some have attempted to divorce the vigilantism against blasphemy-accused from religious motivation and insisted that, it is purely secular greed that inspires faith-based violence and murders. Is moral injury then fake? And, always or sometimes? How is it possible to talk of misinterpretation of Islamic laws but not examine how lawyers actively prosecute and judges enthusiastically adjudicate on blasphemy cases with zealous religious commitment to this law? How is it possible to talk of legislative reform via Islamic praxis when it is Islamists themselves who create a firewall around the law, and shield and reward the accusers and ghazis who kill in the name of the law?

These contradictory arguments crop up due to the unwillingness to see the blasphemy laws for what they are. The blasphemy laws do not offer protection from some abstract moral injury but are levers of control for the material and ideological benefit of the theocratic majority and powerful. They are entrenched because the laws maintain the religious hegemony enjoyed by the sectarian majority.

The laws also allow for a nationalist ideological leverage whereby, the state can promote the abstract and fictional concept of some undefined moral injury to an equally intangible Muslim conceit and, suggest that this can be redeemed through religious outrage and extreme punishment.

Perverse logic

Such woolly reasonings have been given academic cover by several post-9/11 scholars writing from a Muslim perspective. They have been politically rationalised by leaders like Imran Khan, who argue for more criminalisation (for false witnesses). Khan argues for the necessity of blasphemy laws because, according to him, they ‘protect from lynchings and vigilantism.’ Well…, how’s that working out so far?

Interestingly, in their determined campaign to spank ‘liberal-secularists’ at any mindless opportunity, several self-acclaimed ‘progressives’ have even endorsed Imran Khan’s incredible logic. They do so by condemning the critics of Islamist theocracy or politics and labelling them as, anti-Islam, westernised liberals, liberal fundamentalists or, liberal fascists. Others have even defended Khan from these liberal/secularists by arguing that it is because of his “wisdom” (not his sympathies with religious politics or conservatism) that, “Khan has become a target for many urban, secular liberals, even though he has sometimes…demonstrated more willingness than ostensibly secular politicians to condemn religious extremism.”

Condemnation, rhetorical prowess and performative politics clearly impress the Imran Khan generation of activists. Dismissal of all rights-based politics as ‘western’ and ‘secular’ exonerates responsibility to deal with serious violations, while waiting for true religion and clean government to revolutionise Pakistan. According to such bizarre logic then, repealing any discriminatory laws is an unnecessary liberal-secular conspiracy and apparently, Naya Pakistan won’t be incorporating this kind of ‘revolutionary’ change.

Putting others at risk

For the more thoughtful conservatives, however, there is the underlying anxiety that if we allowed freedom of thought and equal practice of all religions, we would become just like any other secular state or pluralist society. This leaves just some remaining members from weak constituencies such as, religious reformists, liberals/secularists and minorities (and not even all within these communities), to challenge a law that benefits only the theocratic majority-powerful.

Members of these sectors also become easy and vulnerable targets. Those who rationalise the blasphemy laws may be sympathetic to victims in theory but they choose to happily name and leave ‘liberal/secular’ critics of the laws and defenders of the accused, out in the isolated cold. If anything, they are abettors of the attacks against the vulnerable because, sympathy and speeches on how ‘true religion’ can defeat spurious secularism are not actual protection or policy. Recall that, Mehr Bokhari lives and thrives while a governor’s family continues to bear this price, long after his murder.

False hopes are not enough

Reformists who recommend criminalising ‘false’ accusations of blasphemy only justify the same law, that is, when the ‘true’ kind of blasphemy may be proven by the more powerful. This approach does not challenge the material benefits nor the moral redemption available in the law. It means that while procedural reform may provide some legal reprieve, the minorities and lower classes will continue to remain socially vulnerable, by virtue of their non-majoritarian faith and weak social status. The blasphemy laws may offer to protect their faith in theory but absolutely refuses to protect their person in case of perceived offense against the majoritarian faith. Sometimes, just being (Ahmadi) is offensive.

As long as a blasphemy law is there, offenses of the conscience and faith are legitimately available for regulation, judgment and punishment.

Reform of procedures while retaining the laws is also not going to alter the offense or the moral injury imagined by ‘true’ Muslims and their supposed collective Muslim grievance. Neither reform nor criminalisation of bearing false witness is going to prevent the competition amongst sects for religious hegemony. Even when no material gains may be available, the hegemonistic benefits of leashing blasphemy accusations is lucrative enough.

In other words, if the procedural reform did happen by some extraordinary act of courage — a Presidential Ordinance or granting a general amnesty or even, a judicial review — it may become more difficult to wilfully and legally prosecute an Ahmadi for alleged blasphemy. But, Ahmadis will continue to be persecuted as a community because it is legally enabled by the constitution and the very law. It is only to be expected that Islamists will continue to exploit the social control offered by the state’s legal definition of who is an adequate Muslim. All others, by definition, become potential blasphemers.

Those who defend Islamists as rational believers and fundamentalists as authentic politicians, argue that blasphemy accusations are mostly for material gain or vengeance. If this is accurate then they should concede too, that offense by blasphemy is not about any moral injury and the ‘hurt’ is consciously constructed and wilfully imagined. So, why have a law to defend something that is imagined, non-existent and impossible to measure? Is there proportionality in a law that is causing and abetting more crime than preventing it? Is there any point in making procedural reform when it will not redress the imbalance in the religious status of citizens, which is the root cause that provides impunity?

As the Junaid Jamshed case shows, the internecine nature of blasphemy accusations allows it to now become a lever for internal sectarian battles for hegemony, too. His case also demonstrates that ‘justice’ in these contests is not based on some genuine religious sentiment but very much on the basis of political power. So much for the decade-long attempt to delegitimise anything ‘secular’ and to sanitise the ‘genuine’ and ‘authentic’, almost innocence, of Islamist proletarian politics and hyping their apparatuses of modernity including, the madrassa and media networks.

Who can rectify the balance?

The reformist impulse that recommends that Islamic scholars should be the participants, and the appellate Federal Shariat Court (FSC) should be the forum for debating blasphemy and to deflect reprisals, is a risky trap. It is true that liberalising religious laws or carrying a liberal reputation in Pakistan has a direct correlation to being murdered. Therefore, to encourage parliamentarians to amend the law would amount to being an accessory to murder.

Instead, only a judicial review would be the most practical and constructive way to deal with the critical failure on the part of the justice system in dealing with the criminalisation of blasphemy. However, to turn to the FSC, Islamists or, any of the very same sectors that are invested in maintaining and sustaining a law which only benefits the powerful theocratic elite against the vulnerable or minorities, would be truly injurious in moral and pragmatic terms.

Instead, it is the lay superior courts that must weigh the proportionality of the laws in a responsible and accountable way, guided by the constitution and sense of justice and equality of all. This should be done by stripping away any disguised method or edict that rewards profane motivations, allows usurpation of material and ideological benefits or, encourages bodily harm against the marginalised and vulnerable.

It is the material harm inflicted by the weapon of religion, more than some imagined and spiritual injury supposedly protected by the blasphemy laws, that is crippling this country today.

Afiya Shehrbano Zia

aafiya sheharbano
The writer is the author of 'Faith and Feminism in Pakistan; Religious Agency or Secular Autonomy.

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