I’ve spoken at length before about how, in this country at least, claims of “religious persecution” is more often than not just a complaint based on loss of privilege. To be sure, occasionally there is actual oppression that happens on religious grounds (I have an example of that going up for Movie Friday), and that is certainly deplorable. However, most of the crying that happens over “religious persecution” in Canada doesn’t even glancingly resemble actual persecution.
So what does religious persecution look like?
Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti has been shot dead by gunmen who ambushed his car in broad daylight in the capital, Islamabad. He was travelling to work through a residential district when his vehicle was sprayed with bullets, police said. Mr Bhatti, the cabinet’s only Christian minister, had received death threats for urging reform to blasphemy laws.
To be clear, Mr. Bhatti was not killed because he is a Christian. Mr. Bhatti was killed because he has spoken in opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy law – the same law that claimed the life of another minister. Mr. Bhatti was not killed because he blasphemed against Islam (which, despite being a stupid thing to have a law about, is still law in Pakistan), but because he had the temerity to point out the fact that the blasphemy law was used to persecute religious minorities and settle political scores.
Tehrik-i-Taliban told BBC Urdu they carried out the attack. “This man was a known blasphemer of the Prophet [Muhammad],” said the group’s deputy spokesman, Ahsanullah Ahsan. “We will continue to target all those who speak against the law which punishes those who insult the prophet. Their fate will be the same.”
While I hate the all-too-easy conflation of Islam and terrorism, this is undeniably a case where Muslim religious orthodoxy is being used to fuel terror. This isn’t a group making a political point and using religion as an excuse, which is the default go-to excuse of people who wish to excuse religious fundamentalism; this is a group executing people and promising to execute more until their religious beliefs carry the force of law. This is terrorism, pure and simple.
If this wasn’t enough of a reason to oppose blasphemy laws, Indonesia is reminding us of the principal reason:
Authorities in Indonesia’s West Java have issued a decree which severely limits the activities of a small Islamic sect called the Ahmadiyah. Members will not be able to publicly identify themselves and are being urged to convert to mainstream Islam… Lawyers for the Ahmadiyah say the decree violates a law protecting people’s rights to worship how they choose. But hardline Islamic groups say the order is perfectly legal, claiming that the sect’s beliefs deviate from the tenets of Islam and therefore violate the country’s rules against blasphemy.
Consider for a moment the torturous contradiction of the idea of a country that simultaneously a) promotes freedom of religion, and then b) outlaws a group for deviating from religious tenets on grounds of blasphemy. Religious heterodoxy is an inevitable product of a religiously tolerant society – belief can only be constrained through use of force, and allowing people to believe what they want means that you may not force anyone to believe as you do. By telling the Ahmadiyah (who Christians would probably like since a lot of their diversions from mainstream Islam have to do with Jesus) that their beliefs are illegal, Indonesia is putting to the lie any claim they might have of being religiously tolerant.
Blasphemy laws, like any law banning freedom of speech or expression, will always lead to human rights abuses. When the religious establishment commands state power, blasphemy laws are a thin veil that fails to mask the naked ambitions of the orthodox to punish anyone who thinks differently. As I’ve said before, freedom of religion is good for everyone, not just the non-religious. I am incredibly saddened by the death of Mr. Bhatti, and am depressed by the continued stupidity of the people of Indonesia. I am, conversely, more impressed with Canada’s ability to forebear from actual religious persecution (by and large).
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