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Mehdi Hasan: Not In My Name: Islam, Pakistan and the Blasphemy Laws

Karachi: Members of the Action Committee for Human Rights chant slogans in the support of Rimsha Masih (AFP)

A very strong and forceful article by Mehdi Hasan relating to the persecution of Rimsha Masih. (h/t: Jai):

Not In My Name: Islam, Pakistan and the Blasphemy Laws

by Mehdi Hasan (Huffington Post)

You could not make it up. An 11-year old Christian girl in Pakistan with Down’s Syndrome is in police custody, and could face the death penalty, for allegedly burning pages from the Quran.

The girl, who has been identified as Rifta Masih, was arrested on blasphemy charges and is being held in Islamabad pending a court appearance later this month. She was detained by police after an angry mob turned up at her family’s single-roomed home in a poor district on the outskirts of the Pakistani capital.

“About 500-600 people had gathered outside her house in Islamabad, and they were very emotional, angry, and they might have harmed her if we had not quickly reacted,” Pakistani police officer Zabi Ullah told reporters.

“Harmed her”? Really? I mean, really? What on Allah’s earth is wrong with so many self-professed Muslims in the self-styled Islamic Republic of Pakistan? Have they taken leave of their morals as well as their senses? It beggars belief that they should want to hurt or attack a child in the name of a religion based on mercy, compassion and justice.

Some defenders of Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws – under which anyone found guilty of insulting the Quran or Prophet Muhammad can be sentenced to death – have been keen to highlight the growing number of press reports that suggest Masih may be 16, rather than 11, and may not have Down’s Syndrome.

To which the only appropriate response is: so what?

Whether she is 11 or 16, mentally able or mentally retarded is, frankly, irrelevant. For a start, a child is a child and should be treated as such. Pakistani authorities have legal as well as moral obligations. Second, even if this girl did set fire to pages from the Quran – and there is, incidentally, not a single eyewitness to this alleged ‘crime’ – to sentence her to death for doing so would be, to put it mildly, a grossly disproportionate ‘penalty’.

Personally, I’ve never quite understood why so many of my co-religionists are so keen to kill or maim those who ‘insult’ Islam, Prophet Muhammad or the Quran. What is behind such rage and, dare I add, insecurity? Is their God so weak, so sensitive, so precious, that He cannot withstand any rejection?

Mine, for the record, isn’t. As the Pakistani writer and singer Fifi Haroon noted on Twitter: “You think God needs little old you to protect him from an 11-year-old girl with Down’s Syndrome? Think again.”

It is worth pointing out that there is a misguided assumption among some Muslims that Pakistani-style blasphemy laws are divinely-mandated. They aren’t. They were instituted by Pakistani dictator General Zia ul Haq in the 1980s, says leading Pakistani human-rights lawyer Asma Jahangir, “as a pretext for waging war in Afghanistan and adopting an aggressive stance towards India. By advancing a more orthodox version of Islam, he was able to hold on to a repressive regime and quell any opposition”.

Here is the reality: the books of Islamic tradition are replete with stories of how Prophet Muhammad was verbally and physically abused by his idol-worshipping enemies in Mecca. They threw animal intestines and excrement on him; on one famous occasion, a group of homeless children threw stones and rocks at him. Yet he did not have them killed, tortured or detained. The founder of the Islamic faith, it seems, had a much thicker skin than many of its 21st Century adherents.

So far, in Pakistan, no one has yet been executed for blasphemy but, as the Guardian‘s Jon Boone observes, “long prison terms are common – one Christian couple was sentenced to 25 years in 2010 after being accused of touching the Qur’an with unwashed hands”.

Christians have long been a target of Pakistan’s ultra-conservative Islamic religious parties and movements. The blasphemy laws, in particular, are used again to criminalise Pakistani Christians on the flimsiest of pretexts; Rifta Masih, perhaps, is just the latest victim.

Of course, some of my co-religionists will soon claim that this latest story is all a Western media conspiracy – against Islam, against Muslims, against poor Pakistan. If only. Listen to Jahangir, who says those accused of blasphemy are “almost always helpless in the face of intimidation and a frightened or biased judiciary… Pakistan’s future remains uncertain and its will to fight against rising religious intolerance is waning.”

Listen to Zora Yusuf, head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, who says the law “has been exploited by individuals to settle personal scores, to grab land, to violate the rights of non-Muslims, to basically harass them.”

Masih’s arrest even provoked Imran Khan, the country’s most high-profile politician, to tweet:

“Shameful! Sending an 11yr old girl to prison is against the very spirit of Islam which is all about being Just and Compassionate.”

He added:

“Poor child is already suffering from Down’s Syndrome. State should care for its children not torment them. We demand her immed release.”

Khan is to be commended for his public condemnation of Masih’s arrest. It is a bold (dangerous?) move in a land where politicians – such as the Punjab governor Salman Taseer – have been shot dead for speaking out against the barbaric blasphemy laws.

I, for one, am fed up with politicians, mullahs and mobs using my religion to further their own vicious and sectarian agendas. So here’s my own very simple message to the bigots, fanatics and reactionaries of the Islamic world: whatever intellectual or theological disagreements we may have with them, the fact is that Christians (and, for that matter, Jews) are our brethren; the Quran respectfully refers to them as the “People of the Book“. Nor should we extend our tolerance, compassion and solidarity only to members of Abrahamic faiths while demonising and discriminating against everyone else. Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists – all of them are also our brethren. Don’t believe me? Listen to the verdict of Imam Ali ibn Abu Talib, the great Muslim caliph and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad: “Remember that people are of two kinds; they are either your brothers in religion or your brothers in mankind.”

The imprisonment of this Christian child isn’t only about Pakistan or Pakistanis. Those of us who claim to be members of a global Muslim ummah cannot be silent when such flagrant human-rights abuses are committed in the name of Islam and in the world’s second-biggest Muslim-majority nation. Denial is not an option, nor is turning a blind eye. We have to speak out against hate, intolerance and the bullying of non-Muslim minorities – otherwise we risk becoming complicit in such crimes. “Not in my name” has to be more than just an anti-war slogan.

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  • Mohammad Rashid

    It is a shame that an amazing article by Mehdi Hasan regarding the abominations of the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan and the injustices committed in its name turns into a debate about the semantic minutiae regarding the word “Founder”. There is now a raging debate on this forum of whether the word “Founder” was appropriate or not. Really. Seriously. That is what you got out of this article.

    Muslims really need to take their heads out of their collective asses and realize that we are a religion of Mercy and Compassion, of being Fair and Just in all circumstances even if it be against ourselves.

    We need to work actively to repeal, abrogate, and remove from the books this heinous law and allow our brethren in Humanity and Mankind to leave in peace and without fear of being prosecuted.

    — Mohammad Rashid
    California

  • Ray McIntyre

    @Farhad,

    Courage does not cease to be courage nor truth, truth because of distance.

  • khushboo

    We are nitpicking and getting off topic here! So he made an error. Big deal! Prophet Muhammad SAW was not the founder but he certainly helped spread Islam. Like Solid Snake said, we believe all prophets before him were Muslim and yes that includes Jesus Christ. Whether some of you believe it or not doesn’t really matter here.

    The POINT was Mehdi Hassan, unlike many of us, spoke out against the ridiculous imprisonment of the 11-yr. old girl and his voice will carry, thanks to Huff Post, internationally! So again, thank you Mehdi!!

  • Farhad

    @Steve no, you really can’t tell others what they believe. D’UH!

  • Farhad

    Sure everyone will pat Mehdi Hassans’ back for speaking out. But doing it from 1000’s of miles away smacks of cowardice. Let the little idiot go back and do something about it. Any bitch can bark from the sidelines.

  • Solid Snake

    The more theologically sound position is that Muhammad (pbuh) is not the founder but a messenger and that Islam, in the purest sense, has been the religion of all Prophets and Messengers since Adam. So the spirit of Islam, the belief that there is only One God,has been around since the creation of Humanity. Also the belief in Islam that humans are born with an innate belief in a Creator lends credibility, in a theological sense, to the assertion that Islamic Monotheism was around before Muhammad (pbuh). Sure the finer details and other things we see today were introduced during Muhammad’s (pbuh) time but the main tenant of Islam, belief in One God, was around before him.

  • Garibaldi

    I really don’t care if Mohammad is described as the “founder” of Islam. I don’t think non-Muslims, who clearly don’t accept the claims of Islam have to say Allah is the founder. I doubt Ilisha thinks that as well.

    Take for example from the life of Muhammad when he was signing the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah with the pagan Meccan Quraish. They came to a portion of the treaty when describing Muhammad, Ali, his grandson wanted to write, “Muhammad, the Messenger of God” but the pagans of Quraish objected, saying that if they accepted Muhammad as the Messenger there would be no quarrel or difference between the two groups. Muhammad agreed and ordered Ali, over his objections to erase the portion about him being the “Messenger of God.”

    I do think however that Muslims should be allowed to self-define their faith for themselves, and when they write or give talks to express their belief that God bestowed Islam to them.

  • Ilisha

    @Steve

    Why do you keep writing “mohammad”? Do you not know proper names are capitalized, or is that another subtle manifestation of your irrepressible desire to insult Muslims?

    Stick with it then. You’re rude and obnoxious and proud of it. Got it.

  • Steve

    “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should”

    I am not ridiculing anybodies faith. I am just stating that islam was founded by mohammed, unless you have any evidence to the contrary I am sticking with it.

  • Ilisha

    @Steve

    You can contradict Muslims when they define their own faith. You can call people fat and ugly and spew racial slurs at them, and you can ridicule everything that’s most sacred and precious to them–including their religious beliefs.

    Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

  • rookie

    “Until the Sufis, Drus, sunnis, shias unite together to combat the salafis within their own ranks – forget about EVER convincing the world what Islam really is. They won’t see it and they have no reason to take your word for it.”

    I visit this site because its articles are always based on facts.
    And I am glad that LW has nothing to do with comments like the one above.
    Utter nonsense.

  • Tank

    Pakistan is 41% illiterate (lacks basic literacy) so a large portion of the population could not read the Qur’an much less understand it in context – historical or otherwise

  • Steve

    @illisha, sorry, I wasn’t aware people who aren’t muslims aren’t allowed to have their own opinions on islam.

  • Christian-friend

    Actually Muhammad gave the religion the name, and God was the founder. I think

    He would’ve named dojjihgahu, or something carrier and still would’ve attached a lot of people

  • Ilisha

    @Steve

    It’s really not your place to contradict Muslims when they define their own religion.

  • Steve

    “Mohammed was NOT the founder of Islam he was the MESSENGER of Islam”

    Islam didn’t exist before mohammed. Any rational investigation will show he founded islam or at least sowed the seeds of it – much of it of course was developed subsequently.

  • Xithurel

    Mohammed was NOT the founder of Islam he was the MESSENGER of Islam. He left it in the hands of his fellow man to establish Islams identity. He was never to be worshiped, nor idolized, he lived his life by example not that everyone should follow his LIFESTYLE by example. He married Jewish families, Christian families, Muslims families, and even pegan families – while he remained a mystic ie a Sufi muslim.

    The state that Islam is in is because acts like this one are constantly tolerated by the sufis, the sunni, and shia; when are they going to realize that the salafis need to be confronted once and for all?

    The salafis have all the money that’s why they spread to easily. Sufis and the rest of Islams Muslims remain complacent when they should be confronting the very thing Mohammed warned them against. Instead they just talk about what they are and what they stand for; instead of living up to Mohammed example.

    Until the Sufis, Drus, sunnis, shias unite together to combat the salafis within their own ranks – forget about EVER convincing the world what Islam really is. They won’t see it and they have no reason to take your word for it.

    Speak out and ACT on your convictions Muslims, that was always your duty before ALL others. Help one man you help ALL humanity, hurt one man you hurt ALL humanity – save this girl.

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  • khushboo

    Bravo to Mehdi Hassan for speaking out against this craziness! I hope we get more people to be brave enough to follow his footsteps.

  • Ray McIntyre

    Indeed, when you pray in the name of the Merciful, the Compassionate does it not call you also to be merciful and compassionate?

  • mindy1

    Very well put, may compassion prevail :(

  • Hatice

    Is this not incorrect, talking about our Prophet Mohammed (SAV), as the “founder” ? “The founder of the Islamic faith, it seems, had a much thicker skin than many of its 21st Century adherents.” I am by no means an expert unfortunately in my religion, but I do know He is the Messenger.Those of you who know more, please explain. Thanks.

    And, I am so glad that a lot of supporters are becoming this little girl’s voice :)

  • Brother

    Extremism is rampant in Pakistan. And I am by no means a secular, progressive, overly-liberal reformist type of Muslim, but Muslims need to wake up and address what is happening there urgently.

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