Feisal Naqvi

Learning how to fight

In Uncategorized on January 11, 2011 at 5:16 am

Salmaan Taseer will forever remain a hero of mine for the bravery he showed. But those who wish to change the blasphemy law need to adopt a different course of action.

“The Ornament of the World” is a wonderful book written some years ago by Maria Menocal, a professor at Yale University. The title of the book refers to 13th century Cordoba – a city which in those dark ages had libraries with hundreds of thousands of books, more than in all of England, a city in which Muslims, Jews and Christians all lived in the greatest harmony. But as Professor Menocal notes, even in those days of peace and brotherhood, defamation of the Prophet (PBUH) was regarded as being so completely and utterly unacceptable that death was the only punishment.

Many people who critique the blasphemy law do so on the basis that there is no punishment provided in the Quran for denigrating the Prophet (PBUH). So what? There is no punishment provided in the Quran for many crimes. Surely, nobody can deny that a society has a right to determine the acts it wishes to punish. And as Ms Menocal’s book shows, blasphemy is a crime to which Muslim societies have historically been – and self-evidently remain – uniquely sensitive.

The standard jurisprudential response to my assertion is that society indeed has a right to determine what actions are to be treated as criminal, but only within certain rights provided by the fundamental human rights guaranteed by the Constitution. I concede that point, so let us then look at the next issue: is punishing blasphemy violative of fundamental human rights?

My answer is no. As much as I disagree with the blasphemy law, I do not think that criminalising the act of blasphemy is violative of any fundamental human rights guaranteed by the Constitution. All of those rights are subject to reasonable limitations. And in Pakistan – repeat, in this country – I do not think it is unreasonable for the law to provide that blasphemy shall be a criminal offence. Even in England, the last blasphemy prosecution took place not centuries ago, but in 1977.

Does that mean the blasphemy law cannot, or should not, be challenged or changed? Absolutely not. The blasphemy law, as it stands today, invites abuse and serves as a terrible instrument of oppression. But what it does mean is that the change must be brought about through political means, not legal. And politics, as we too often forget, is the art of the possible, not the art of the desirable.

There are three basic ways to attack the blasphemy law. The first is to argue that criminalising blasphemy is wrong per se. The second is to concede that blasphemy may be punishable but to argue that executing blasphemers is excessive. The third option is to argue that while it is permissible to punish blasphemy with the death sentence, it is not acceptable to kill or harass innocent people.

To begin with, let us recognise the simple fact that any direct attempt to decriminalise blasphemy in Pakistan is doomed. Given the intensity with which the average Pakistani believes in the necessity of punishing blasphemy, there is little point in challenging the law directly. In fact, direct attack makes the situation worse because it leads to an overwhelming negative reaction from the public which in turn makes it difficult even to tinker with the law.

What then can liberals do? The answer is to adopt the third option and attack the law indirectly. The benefit of this approach is that it frames the debate in a completely different manner. The average Pakistani certainly believes that blasphemers should hang but that same average Pakistani also believes that people are entitled to the due process of law. Similarly, the same average Pakistani will also concede that vigilante justice is not normally a good idea. If we do not reframe the debate around the need to protect innocents, we will be helpless when people like the odious Meher Bokhari prove their populist credentials by preening as defenders of our faith.

The liberal response to this approach would be to argue that it is unprincipled and craven. I disagree. It is more important to change people’s lives than to stick to some purist conception of an ideal society. Take, for example, the Women’s Protections Act which was opposed tooth and nail by the feminist lobby but which has successfully defanged the Hudood Ordinance of its worst excesses.

But doesn’t this concede too much room to the extremists: after all, do we really want to live in a country where any person can be declared a blasphemer and then killed? Again, obviously not. I repeat: I do not want to live in a country where people can be executed for blasphemy. But I only get to choose my opinions. I do not get to choose my own facts. And the fact is that the people of Pakistan really want to execute people who they think have committed blasphemy. I can either accept that fact or I can seek to change it. But to act as if that fact does not exist is not sensible.

People also need to understand that the moral outrage of an indignant few is not normally sufficient to bring about legislative change. Instead, laws are changed when the government has a good reason to do so. And in the case of Pakistan, the government has no rational incentive to amend the blasphemy laws. The minorities who tend to be the main victims of the blasphemy law are both politically and socially powerless. The liberals who are outraged by the blasphemy law are so few in number as to be politically irrelevant. And so far as the international community is concerned, Pakistan is that unique country which negotiates with a gun pointed at its own head. Give us money, we say, or else the mullahs will take over. But in order for that threat to be credible, the international community needs to be more scared of the possible alternatives than the kleptocrats currently in power. If the blasphemy law is repealed, it would show that we are a mature, intelligent and sophisticated nation. Unfortunately, that would also mitigate the impression that the loonies are about to take over.

How then should the liberal community position its challenge? The answer is that we must make the establishment realise that the mullahs playing on popular anger have a direct, election-free, bureaucrat-free hot-link to power. Because while the average politician couldn’t care less about fundamental rights, the average politician certainly cares about other people having power. As such, the liberals need to focus on ensuring that those who give fatwas against others are immediately challenged and charged with incitement to murder. That is the only area in which the interests of the liberals coincide with the interests of the establishment.

Patton once said that no person ever won a war by dying for his country; instead, he won it by making the other person die for his country. If we are truly outraged by the death of Salmaan Taseer, then we need to learn to fight. And wishful thinking never won a fight.

This column appeared first in Pakistan Today on 11 January 2010.

  1. My dear sir, I was so impatiently waiting to see your opinion on this issue and your analysis is absolutely right but sir, the average Pakistani that you are talking about is the same who damn cares about the political process and this is proved by every tinpot dictator who also boasts of peoples’ support in the same way as an ordinary elected politician does; and this average Pakistani is the same species who doesn’t care less about the brazen activities of banned outfits and the worst thing is that he even eulogizes them; the same average Pakistani also thinks the entire Western world is after Islam; the same average Pakistani also thinks the re-emergence of Caliphate is the ultimate panacea to bring order in this evil world, not to speak of the fact that average Pakistani also favors apostatizing certain Islamic sects, etc etc. And therefore sir, I personally believe that the term “average Pakistani” carries a very vague meaning and can be likened with the term that the Americans use when they announce war against some country that “the International Community has agreed….”. Whereas no such international community exists.

    You have written:
    “The average Pakistani certainly believes that blasphemers should hang but that same average Pakistani also believes that people are entitled to the due process of law. Similarly, the same average Pakistani will also concede that vigilante justice is not normally a good idea.”

    Dear sir, the average Pakistani might consider the due process of law to be a good option but this same average Pakistani also believes that the Taliban-style speedy and vigilante justice is the need of the hour and close to the tenets of Faith. And this due process could be true for him in other property related cases but when it comes to religious issues, the average Pakistani cannot care less about due process of law.

    Salman Taseer didn’t say a word which could vaguely be termed as blasphemy or would incur your average Pakistani’s wrath. But he was killed nonetheless. His detractors didn’t come only from religious fanatics but his murder is being condoned by all those average Pakistanis from PML-N who thought he was a PPP-stalwart and an staunch opponent of PML-N’s policies in running Punjab; the “average Pakistanis” belonging to any party including his own PPP didn’t burst into tears over his brutal murder because he was seen as Zardari’s friend who, to an average Pakistani, is the cause of all evils the country is facing today. Therefore, “your enemy is anybody who wants to get you killed no matter which side he is on.”

    Dear sir, the ideology we are fighting with doesn’t believe in any political process that might be in your mind: you express by words, they express through bullet. A chronic disease cannot be treated indirectly. The treatment for the organ that has been affected by deadly cancer is only amputation. But I might be wrong, sir.

    “Salmaan Taseer will forever remain a hero of mine for the bravery he showed.” No but, sir.

  2. Very pragmatic.
    Advising outraged-liberals into [deal making with kleptocratic power-elites reminds] and [align their interests with those of rulers] reminds me of Oskar Schindler appealing to enemy’s interests and making deals with sadist Nazi SS Lieutenant Amon Göth to save few more jews. You will appreciate my comparison if you had seen film Schindler’s List http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schindler's_List on holocaust.
    Similar pragmatic deal making can be observed in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hotel_Rwanda (Rwandan genocide) where the hotel manager appeals to the self-interests of genocidal army major to save few more people.

    • It’s not about making deals with the people in power. My point is that the people in power don’t care about this issue and on a purely pragmatic basis, don’t need to. Only the liberals care and there really aren’t that many of them, especially on this issue (where they are in a very small minority).

      And yes, i have seen Schindler’s List (have also read the movie).

  3. Also your overall suggestion resonates with this law of power from Robert Green’s 48 Laws of Power.

    When Asking for Help, Appeal to People’s Self-Interest, Never to their Mercy or Gratitude
    If you need to turn to an ally for help, do not bother to remind him of your past assistance and good deeds. He will find a way to ignore you. Instead, uncover something in your request, or in your alliance with him, that will benefit him, and emphasize it out of all proportion. He will respond enthusiastically when he sees something to be gained for himself.

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