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Vindicating Islam


Salman Taseer's murderer Mumtaz Qadri's supporters outside courtJust before I arrived in Pakistan a few weeks ago, the Governor of the Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, was attacked and killed by one of his own bodyguards. The Governor had declared the blasphemy law to be a 'black law' (kala kanun) because it was being used to oppress religious minorities in Pakistan.

Soon after, when I was visiting the capital city, Islamabad, the Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, was shot dead just a few blocks away. Leaflets left at the scene of the crime stated the reason for the murder: speaking out against the blasphemy law.

There may have been other reasons for these murders but the immediate effect was to provoke fear and insecurity among Pakistani citizens belonging to the religious minorities.

What aggravated the shock and pain for friends from the minority community, with whom I spoke shortly after these murders, was the realisation that their Muslim teachers and professors were keeping silent. Not one protested against the injustice of openly assassinating political figures.

Posters in the streets proclaiming the Governor's killer to be a hero only added insult to injury. Sweets were even distributed in the killer's honour. A similar response followed Bhatti's murder.

I began to wonder what was going on in the minds of these educated persons that would make it possible for them to celebrate the murders of their Provincial Governor and State Minister. How could one explain their readiness to condone the murders of these leaders, who had spoken out against a law which many thinking people knew was the cause of much injustice and oppression?

Muslims in other countries have already stated that blasphemy laws are incompatible with Islam and that, when the Prophet Muhammad himself was insulted, the Qur'an did not order him to retaliate. So why were these intellectual persons in Pakistan so defensive about the blasphemy law?

Nothing much can be gained by examining the moral attitudes of these particular professors and intellectuals. It may be more helpful to consider how the relationship between religion and politics has developed in Islam ever since Muhammad unified the religious, civil and political domains through the example of his own leadership.

Although a distinction between the political leader (Caliph) and the religious scholars ('ulama) began to appear soon after the death of the Prophet, Islam has never recognised a formal distinction between the authority of 'Caesar' and that of God. Ever since the experience of the earliest Muslim society in Medina, the integration of religion and politics has provided Muslims with a sacred memory which has become a model for social and political life in Muslim societies.

Despite the unfortunate use of words like 'crusade' and 'axis of evil' by former President George W. Bush in recent years, political or military action by the West has not generally been couched in moral or religious language. Instead, Western powers justify 'pre-emptive strikes' against a perceived enemy as necessary in order to protect certain 'national' and 'strategic' interests.

Similarly, civilian deaths are regarded simply as 'collateral damage'. Military actions (e.g. 'drone' strikes by NATO in Afghanistan) are not expressions of religious fervour. The absence of religion from political language allows the West to pursue its aggressive policies throughout the world without implicating Christian belief and morals.

In contrast, political leaders in Pakistan routinely use religious concepts to justify their actions and  garner support.

The close connection between politics and religion is evident in the language used, for example, in the daily newspaper Jang, which reflects the more widespread political culture in Pakistan. The English daily newspaper Dawn is far more critical and expresses the viewpoint of the educated elite.

The political culture in Pakistan may throw some light on the behavior of certain professors in Lahore who were responding to the murders of political leaders by distributing sweets. It is not true that these professors have a dislike for the religious minorities. It is possible that they would agree to some way of amending the blasphemy law. But their spontaneous behavior reveals a mentality which tends to see political events such as these murders through the lens of religion.

Just as the mujahidin soldiers, who defeated the Russians invading Afghanistan a few decades ago understood their victory as the victory of Islam, so these professors in Lahore may have felt that defense of the blasphemy law was necessary for the vindication of Islam, at least in Pakistan.

Herman RoborghFr Herman Roborgh SJ completed his PhD in Islamic Studies at Aligarh Muslim University in India in 2007 and now resides in Australia. 

Topic tags: Pakistan, blasphemy laws, Salmaan Taseer, Governor of the Punjab, Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti



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Existing comments

A similar persecution, and character assassination, currently prevails in the Uniting Church in Australia against anyone who complains against the corrupt cover-up of undeniable clergy misconduct. Natural justice and procedural fairness is denied to complainants, clergy are not required to respond to valid complaints and are absolved in secret; and the hierarchy is unaccountable for suppression of the UCA regulations and perversions of justice.

Bob Steele | 30 March 2011  

Useful if distressing article. For more on what liberal intellectuals in Pakistan are thinking I suggest the websites maintained by Raza Rumi. This is a pseudonym to give tribute to a Sufi Saint. However Raza is a real person and publishes in the press (including The Australian) with courage and insight.

Robert F. I. Smith | 30 March 2011  

Disturbingly there are many examples of Mohammed directing his followers to assassinate those who insulted him in such sources as the ahadith, the recorded sayings and deeds of Mohammed. These form part of the sacred memory of which Fr Roborgh wrote. Search on Google for the following names, Ka'b bin Al Ashraf, a young Jewish poet who wrote satirical verses against Mohammed. Then there was Abu Afak, an elderly poet who also mocked Mohammed. Worst of all, Asma Bint Marwan, a mother of five who chided Mohammed for the killing of Abu Afak. She was butchered at Mohammed's urging. The man who had murdered her in cold blood, Umayr bin Adiy al-Khatmi, was told by Mohammed, "That two goats will not butt their heads over it." The assassin then openly mocked the family whose mother he had killed. This response of intimidation and murder to perceived insults was also seen with the rage from Muslim mobs around the world with Salem Rushdie's, The Satanic Verses, and more recently the so-called Mohammed cartoons. Unfortunately, I have to disagree with Fr Roborgh and say the murder of the two brave Pakistani politicians and the subsequent celebrations, have many precedents in Islam, all the way back to its founder.

John Ryan | 30 March 2011  

This is just a totally wild guess, but perhaps the educated elite fear that if they speak out against the so-called blasphemy law they will suffer the same fate as Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti. May they rest in peace.

DJ Byrne | 30 March 2011  

Thank you Herman. Always pleased to hear from you as you offer alternate viewpoints for us to ponder.

Lorraine Murphy | 30 March 2011  

Reading this article has me wonder if a law as adhered to in Pakistan puts its practitoners, ipso facto, above the law.

Joyce | 30 March 2011  

The above article by Fr Roborgh paints a covering gloss over the actions of Islamists in Pakistan and reading the article for the second time it is hard to fathom what the point of all those words are. In other words he has written but really said nothing - except to put the boot into the US and the West by using such emotive words as aggression, crusade and collateral damage when current Western action in Muslim countries is just an extension of the West's long history of responding to Muslim hostility.

Bill Spence | 31 March 2011  

It prompts us to ask ourselves as Christians how we sit with respect to the question of political action as a way of implementing social justice,redistribution of unequal opportunity,addressing moral conflict or proclaiming the Gospel. Whose interest is served by the rigid separation of church and state? Is this the same as separation of proclaimation of Gospel values and the state?

graham patison | 31 March 2011  

I look forward to Fr Herman's items re aspects of Islam, not only because of his PhD, but more significantly, because he maintains an ongoing connection with Islam and with Muslims in his frequent visits to Muslim countries.

"[T]hese professors in Lahore may have felt that defense of the blasphemy law was necessary for the vindication of Islam..."

The battering of Islam in much of the Western press and by an increasing number of Western politicians cannot help but cause a Muslim teacher to feel that Islam needs to be vindicated.

We in the West, along with the moderate majority population in the Muslim world, can and must continue to criticise the hateful aggression by Wahabi militants against their own compatriots (and other) Muslims, who they judge to be other than orthodox.

However, when that criticism is splashed across the entire Muslim world, even the most moderate person is going to be defensive and feel the need to vindicate his/her faith.

A less scatter-gun, more nuanced, criticism is necessary. Criticising Islam for the extreme militancy of some Muslims is criticising the faith of the victims as well as that of the killers. The victims deserve better than that.

Ian Fraser | 01 April 2011  

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