On Friday 17 March, many Twitter users became rather exercised by this tweet:
What is the right punishment for blasphemy?
— BBC Asian Network (@bbcasiannetwork) March 17, 2017
Some tweeps took offence for obvious reasons. It was no surprise to learn that @ZacGoldsmith thought the tweet ‘a joke’, not least because the presenter, Shazia Awan, was publicly critical of his campaign to become Mayor of London. The gist of most negative retweets and replies was a sense of horror that the BBC seemed to be implying that blasphemy should be punished — another case of the biased, liberal BBC pandering to the antediluvian views of radical Islamists. Many of those expressing outrage have timelines full of tweets apparently supporting free speech, which would seem to lead to a charge of logical inconsistency.
Those who like to imagine that one of the ‘Bs’ and the ‘C’ in ‘BBC’ stand for ‘biased’ and ‘communist’ are unlikely to be happy with anything they broadcast, but although the BBC should certainly not be immune from criticism, for the BBC Asian Network to discuss blasphemy in a phone-in was entirely appropriate and necessary. I shall try to explain why.
My own view, for what it’s worth, is that blasphemy laws are unjust, unnecessary and counter-productive. I am not a Muslim, but I am a theist, and it seems obvious that any deity capable of creating the universe out of nothing does not need any earthly legal system to protect his sensibilities. I have no doubt that many people set out to insult religious believers by attacking what they hold dear — God and his prophets — but freedom of speech requires this be permitted. It may be cruel, unkind or simply bad manners, but it must be allowed.
The Pakistan Situation
What many of those expressing their righteous indignation about the BBC Asian Network discussion apparently missed was that it was very clearly a discussion about the situation in Pakistan, not in the UK. That seems entirely reasonable, and it was made clear in the tweet to those who bothered to listen to it. Around 1.7m British citizens have family ties to Pakistan. Many British Indians and most British Bangladeshis are also Muslims. Moreover, Muslims account for more than 5% of the population of the UK (although the programme featured callers who were Christians, Hindus and Sikhs, too). Few would object to a serious discussion about gender identity or prisons, even though transexuals and prisoners represent far tinier proportions of the population.
Articles 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code define a range of words, gestures and acts considered ‘blasphemous’. They lay down mandatory punishments, beginning with a year’s imprisonment (for ‘wounding someone’s religious feelings’ §298) and increasing in severity right up to execution (for ‘defiling the name of Muhammad’ §295C). This law has a tortured history which mirrors that of Pakistan itself (as anyone who has been to see Gurinder Chadha’s moving film Viceroy’s House will be aware).
Although Pakistan was originally conceived of as a safe-haven for the Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent, it began its relatively recent nationhood as a secular state. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the cadaverous Bombay barrister who served as both midwife and first Governor General of the newly independent Pakistan, said in a speech to the Constituent Assembly:
“You are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”
Wars with its eastern outpost (later to become Bangladesh) and with India inevitably led to an ever increasing stress upon the Islamic foundations of the Pakistani nation. In the first decades of its existence, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs served as judges, senior politicians and high-ranking military officers. In fact, the Chief Justice of Pakistan for most of the 1960s was Alvin Cornelius, an Anglo-Indian Christian. It was largely the secular minded military that allowed such tolerance. Ironically, it was the avowedly ‘secular’ Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who lit the touchpaper of Islamism. Weakened and under threat from genuine secularists like Khan Abdul Wali Khan of the ANP, he faced growing opposition from Islamist clerics such as Maulana Maududi. In an attempt to buy Islamist support, Bhutto moved the weekly holiday from Sunday to Friday, banned alcohol and even ordered the army to fire on a peaceful protest of Christians.
In 1977, General Zia-ul-Haq, a man Bhutto had promoted because he was ‘no threat’ (the Oxford man Bhutto had thought Zia stupid), overthrew him in a coup. He would later execute him. Thereupon he set about a programme of reimagining history. Any idea that Pakistan was ‘supposed’ to be a liberal, secular state was stamped upon. Photos of Jinnah showing him with his trademark glass of Scotch were removed from government offices. Suggestions that Jinnah enjoyed ham sandwiches (which he did) became a new heresy. Islamist parties were emboldened and for the first time, minorities really began to feel threatened. Somewhat counterintuitively, the only region of Pakistan which clung to thoroughgoing secularism was what was still called the North West Frontier, on the border with Afghanistan. The Pathans may have been the most conservative in their religious views, but they had a long tradition of secularism and they had been split 50:50 over whether to join Pakistan or India.
Most of the clauses of the Pakistan Penal Code dealing with blasphemy were added under Zia-ul-Haq between 1980 and 1986. At the same time, war against the Soviet Union was raging in next door Afghanistan. The West, keen to keep Zia as an ally against the Commies, were muted in their criticism of his increasingly intolerant regime at home. Of course, when they had no further need of him, the CIA (allegedly) disposed of him by secreting a bomb into a box of mangoes, bumping off their own ambassador into the bargain.
The return from exile of the cultured and secular Benazir Bhutto might have meant an undoing of the hardline Islamism of the Zia period, had it not been for Afghanistan. The Western powers had enthusiastically encouraged young Saudi ‘mujahideen’ (including a young Osama Bin Laden) to take up arms in support of their beleaguered coreligionists in Afghanistan, using them as fodder in a proxy Cold War. As history has subsequently demonstrated, losing a vast, ungovernable country with few natural resources to the Soviets might have been a price worth paying. What actually happened was that, thanks to idealistic Saudis, an alien and indurate form of Islam (Wahabism) took hold of what had previously been a relaxed and tolerant part of the Muslim world. In the 1980s, around half of the all the refugees in the world were Afghans, and most of those were in Pakistan, in camps in the North West Frontier. The secular mindset of the Pathans crumbled, replaced by a new, intolerant Islamism.
Thus, although the government and middle class in Pakistan is still overwhelmingly liberal and secular, hardline Islamism had achieved a new popularity among the masses. That is as much the fault of the politicians themselves as it is of Saudi influence in Afghanistan, unwittingly abetted by the West. Pakistan’s politicians may be liberal and secular, but they are hopelessly corrupt, beggaring a country that already experiences grinding poverty. The people rightly believe that the political system needs to be purified and, unsurprisingly, as Muslims, they think this means real Islamic government.
Pakistani newspapers and public intellectuals frequently denounce the injustices of the blasphemy laws, and privately most politicians agree with them. Yet these concerns are dismissed as the rantings of ‘westernised’ liberals, the enemies of true Islam. The Governor of the Punjab, Salman Taseer, went on the record over the plight of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy, and pleaded for clemency (criticising the laws themselves at the same time). Soon after, he was assassinated by his own bodyguard.
Thousands of Pakistanis are incarcerated on blasphemy charges, a majority of them Muslims. Many of those ‘Muslims’ belong to a sect of Islam (‘Ahmadiyya’) that is regarded as heretical by Sunni Muslims. In other words, simply being an Ahmadi implies blasphemy. Every case represents a tragedy and an injustice, but those who suffer most are Pakistan’s tiny Christian and Hindu minorities. They are mostly poor (as in the Middle East, those with any wealth left long ago) and are easy targets. Most cases of ‘blasphemy’ are nothing of the sort, but allegations made over disagreements about land and politics.
Imagine you want to extend your house, or your cultivated land, and all that stands in the way is your Christian (or Ahmadi or Hindu or Sikh, etc.) neighbour. Accuse him of blasphemy and he is immediately removed from the picture. He may protest, but his testimony (under Sharia) is only worth half of yours. Or perhaps you get into an argument with a non-Muslim neighbour about politics, or some local issue, or even cricket. Accusing him or her of blasphemy and you wreak the ultimate revenge. The well-known case of Asia (Noreen) Bibi arose out of an argument about whether an ‘unclean’ Christian should be permitted to drink from the same well as Muslims. Those who accused her of blasphemy (asking ‘What did Muhammad ever do for humanity?’) had long been engaged in a feud with her family. Now she is on death row.
Many of the cases are literally unbelievable. A teenage boy was accused of daubing a mosque with blasphemous graffiti, despite being illiterate to the extent that he was unable to sign his own name. In 1998, the Catholic Bishop of Faisalabad shot himself outside a courthouse in a desperate attempt to draw attention to the plight of a young man, Ayub Masih, who was facing the death penalty on trumped up charges. Ayub’s lawyer, the impressively brave Asma Jehangir, was wavering over continuing to represent him because her family were receiving credible death threats. A district judge in the case had already been assassinated. Ayub Masih had been due to hang the night that Bishop John Joseph killed himself. He was eventually acquitted, but many people died as a direct result of that case.
A Suitable Topic?
There can be no doubt that Shazia Awan should have chosen her words more carefully. “What should the punishment for blasphemy be?” might be read as implying that there should be some sort of punishment. However, it is clear when one listens to the programme that Shazia Awan’s view is certainly that free speech trumps blasphemy and there should not be any sort of punishment. In others words, I have little doubt that her own, personal, answer to the question would be, “None.” It also strikes me as a perfectly reasonable topic for discussion.
The BBC Asian Network also admitted that the trail was clumsily phrased in a tweet the day following broadcast:
Faced with pictures of Social Justice Warriors marching in support of the hijab, of feminism, or human rights, against Trump, against Islamophobia, etc. Twitter has plenty of users asking why these same SJWs are not venting their anger against FGM in Africa, lack of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia or the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, and so forth. This radio discussion of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, and their rightness or wrongness, was surely an attempt to do exactly that.
One caller to the programme felt that the death penalty was a fitting punishment for blasphemy and that Islamic sensibilities should receive similar protections in the UK. Although this contribution led to yet more indignant calls for his identification and immediate arrest, he was fairly swiftly cut off by Shazia Awan, who described his view as ‘extreme’. Some callers and those who tweeted the programme felt that ultimately it was Pakistan’s business if the government there wanted to punish blasphemy, but were clear that it had no place in the West and the UK. The majority of (the mostly Muslim) callers, however, took the view that while blasphemy may be on occasions hurtful, free speech had to be protected. They took the view, therefore, that the answer to the question was, also, “None.”
It wasn’t a programme that only heard views from ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ (or, perhaps, ‘Offended of Small Heath’). Considerable air time was given to the distinguished Pakistani Military Scientist Ayesha Siddiqa, who spoke with great care and insight. Dr Siddiqa has written numerous articles in the Pakistani press criticising the country’s blasphemy laws. Shazia Awan herself made the point that ‘minorities are obviously being persecuted in Pakistan.’
I suspect few of those who got so angry about the programme bothered to listen to it. Perhaps they assumed that, because Shazia Awan is a ‘Feminist, Muslim, Equality Activist’, they would encounter a screeching Islamist sermon on how Kaffirs should be beheaded. But Shazia Awan is also a former PPC for the Conservative Party, a Welsh businesswoman who markets ‘body shaping underwear’ and someone who wrote recently that she watches ‘the growing puritanical attitudes of young Muslims with apprehension.’
Blasphemy is not a crime in England and Wales, though it remains on the statute book in Northern Ireland and (perhaps) Scotland. I hope and assume that most British people would like to see blasphemy being abolished as an offence in all four of our nations. The UK remains a major donor of development aid to Pakistan (which is a member of the Commonwealth) and large numbers of our citizens hail from Pakistan and travel back and forth between the UK and Pakistan. The iniquitous blasphemy laws of Pakistan are and affront to human freedom, but they also are a major cause of migration. There are 3.6 million Ahmadis in Pakistan, as well as over 3 million Christians. If they fear for their lives, they will seek a life elsewhere. Similarly, therefore, I hope and assume that most British people (both Muslim and non-Muslim) would wish to see Articles 295 and 298 removed from the Pakistan Penal Code. Logic demands, therefore, that we must be free to discuss the issue. There will, of course, be people who think that Pakistan has got it right, and those who ‘insult’ Muhammad deserve to be executed. They must be challenged.
Zac Goldsmith tweeted ‘Next week on the BBC; “what is the correct punishment for being gay?”‘ A very amusing dig at the BBC, but we would do well to remember that our history of tolerance for gay men and women is comparatively recent. In 1954 more than one thousand men with an average age of 37 were in prison for ‘committing’ homosexual acts. Gay sex only ceased to be a crime in 1967. It wasn’t until the middle of the 1990s than the proportion of the population who thought that ‘sexual relations between adult of the same sex were “always” or “almost always” wrong’ dipped below 50%. This is an example of something that used to be a crime and no longer is, in part thanks to our tradition of free speech that allowed open debate.
As you might expect, the programme wasn’t up to the standard of The Moral Maze, perhaps, but it was rather better than the ‘I want to hear what our audience think’ sections of the increasingly tedious Question Time. The most serious criticism of the programme and presentation was that it provided very little background information beyond the news story about the Government of Pakistan’s request to Facebook. The case of Asia Bibi might have been mentioned, for example. Yet, those who thought it was an example of the BBC pandering to the sentiments of ‘hardline’ Muslims have missed the point. It was challenging them, and in so doing it struck a necessary blow for freedom of speech.