By now I’m sure you’ve heard this story, since it is now 2 weeks out of date:
A 24-hour strike organised by Sunni Muslim clerics is taking place across Pakistan to protest against possible changes to blasphemy laws [emphasis mine]. Rallies were staged in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and Quetta after Friday prayers. The government has distanced itself from a bill to change the law, which carries a mandatory death sentence for anyone who insults Islam.
At first when I read this story, I thought I was getting it wrong. Surely, these people were demonstrating for the changes. After all, what kind of society would tolerate the legalized oppression and execution of people simply for criticizing a religion. After all, don’t people in Pakistan read this blog? I’ve already explained why a separation between church and state is to the benefit of everyone, including the religious.
But of course Pakistan is a religious country, which means that logic and good sense can take a vacation, and we can blow the dust off our trusty psychology textbook (with the dog-eared chapter on Stockholm Syndrome). The people who are held captive by the brutal ideology of religious conservatism, in this case under the banner of Islam, are the ones who flock to save the very chains that keep them locked up.
I am not a proponent of the death penalty in general, mostly because it doesn’t seem to work to reduce rates of violent crime, all the while being a huge waste of money. However, even if I could be persuaded that there are some people whose crimes are so heinous that the world would be a better place if they were murdered (and I am not so liberal as to make such persuasion a total impossibility – my objections to the death penalty are chiefly practical ones rather than ideological), I cannot imagine any circumstance under which I could be convinced that blasphemy is a crime so dire that the maximum penalty is warranted.
As I’ve said before, and (hopefully) modeled regularly here, no idea is above criticism. There is no such thing as a ‘sacred’ idea or something that is not allowed to be discussed. To be sure, I find myself occasionally defending an idea with so much vigor that I have an emotional reaction to it. It is completely understandable, albeit regrettable, that someone would be offended if an idea they hold dear is held up to criticism. Ridicule is a close companion of criticism, and as such I have no difficulty imagining that someone may take personal offense to having their beliefs ridiculed. Since, to many, being ridiculed is tantamount to being called stupid (and nobody likes that), it can sting to be on the receiving end of a particularly sharp barb that pierces one or another closely-held idea.
However, at this point I am mindful of an old adage about sticks and stones. Blasphemy does not actually cause harm to anyone – it is essentially a victimless “crime”, which I put in quotations because it is only a de jure crime. I would argue that passing laws banning blasphemy are a greater de facto crime, since free speech is both an intrinsic human right and an essential component of building a society. If your religious sensibilities are so fragile that just speaking words can throw them into disrepute, then maybe you should be taking a closer look at how seriously you take your religion.
One Sunni cleric in Islamabad warned in his Friday sermon that any change to the blasphemy law would happen “over our dead bodies”.
You take it too seriously.
The perverse(r?) thing about this whole thing is that the proposed changes to the law wouldn’t even make blasphemy legal:
The strike was held to protest against a private member’s bill submitted to parliament. It seeks to amend the law by abolishing the death sentence and by strengthening clauses which prevent any chance of a miscarriage of justice.
That’s right, they’re protesting to protect their right to murder people for saying things that they don’t like about their religion, and to fix the legal process in favour of the religious establishment. More chains, please!
Of course once they’ve rounded up and murdered all of the people who genuinely criticized the religion, they’ll shift the goalposts and start going after people who are religiously heterodox, then after those who oppose a particular religious leader, and so on until there is nothing left but one angry man standing in a pool of the blood of his former brethren. Like the ouroboros, intolerance devours itself until there is nothing left.
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