Blasphemy laws punish Muslims, too

If asked to prepare a list of mainstream foreign correspondents who "get religion," Pamela Constable of the Washington Post would be in my top handful of names. Simple stated, she does not look at conflicts that are packed with religious language, symbolism and actions and then automatically assume that this is the result of "tribalism" and/or vague "sectarian" forces in the culture. In the past, I have also pointed GetReligion readers toward her evocative memoir -- "Fragments of Grace: My Search for Meaning in the Strife of South Asia." This is not to say that there are no nits to be picked in her work (or in her copy that ends up being published after her editors have done their thing).

In this case, I want to praise her recent story that ran under the headline, "Pakistani Christian official's slaying stirs fear, discord." At the same time, I think it contains either a sin of omission or commission, depending on how one wants to look at it, on a topic of life-and-death importance. Here is the opening of the report:

KHUSHPUR, Pakistan -- For generations, this village in Punjab province has been a rare oasis of religious harmony. Muslims and Christians attend each other's weddings and are buried in the same cemetery. Church bells and Islamic calls to prayer ring out from spires a few muddy streets apart. In recent years, a soccer tournament with mixed-faith teams became a regional attraction.

The man most identified with this achievement was Shabbaz Bhatti, the son of a local Catholic schoolmaster, who grew up to become a passionate advocate for minority rights and, two years ago, the first Christian member of the federal cabinet. When religious conflict flared elsewhere, Khushpur's 5,000 residents felt shielded by Bhatti's high-profile stature.

But since March 3, when Bhatti was gunned down by Islamic extremists in the capital, Islamabad, a jittery gloom has permeated his village and the poison of suspicion has begun to creep into people's thoughts. At the soccer field last week, a sign said, "Play for Peace," but a rifleman was posted to guard the afternoon match and not one Muslim player showed up.

At the heart of the story, of course, is a deadly political and religious question: Should Christians continue to speak out against Pakistan's infamous blasphemy laws, or should they be silent and try to remain in hiding, so as not to provoke more killings? This latter strategy would be consistent with the underground railroad that has long existed to help those who convert from Islam to Christianity hide or escape the nation. Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan are not in agreement on what should happen next.

It is in that context that the Post reports this crucial background material. Note the reference to the recently assassinated Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, a Muslim who spoke out against the blasphemy laws.

Christian legislators and activists close to Bhatti are eager to take to the streets and demand rights for Pakistan's estimated 20 million Christians. Unless new leaders quickly take his place, they warn that religious minorities -- including Hindus, Sikhs and Ahmadis -- will retreat into fearful shells as Islamist groups grow stronger.

Christians in Pakistan have not always faced persecution. For decades, foreign missionaries ran Pakistan's best schools and colleges. Discrimination grew in the 1980s under the "Islamization" campaign of the dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq, but religious minorities found a patron in Benazir Bhutto, the liberal leader who became prime minister twice in the 1990s.

Bhutto was assassinated in 2007 and her widower, now President Asif Ali Zardari, named Bhatti minister of religious minority affairs. He has spoken repeatedly of the need to curb religious intolerance, but after Taseer's slaying met with unexpected public approval, his government backed off from proposals to reform blasphemy laws, which are often used to persecute non-Muslims.

Now, read the last part of that final sentence again. The blasphemy laws, we are told, are "often" used to persecute non-Muslims, as in the previously mentioned Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and Ahmadis, a sect of Islam that is considered heretical by mainstream Muslims.

The problem, I fear, is that most readers will assume that these laws are only used to persecute minorities. Truth is, it is more common for them to be used against Muslims who clash with the often-radicalized mainstream religious authorities. In other words, what we have here is a battle INSIDE the complex world of Islam, as well as a fight over the basic human rights of religious minorities, including converts from Islam to other religions.

Consider the following passage in a Guardian commentary by Shehrbano Taseer, the daughter of the late Salmaan Taseer:

The blasphemy laws were foisted on to Pakistan by the draconian General Zia ul-Haq in 1986. Since then, more than 500 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and 10 others have been charged under the laws.

Thirty-two of those accused -- and two Muslim judges -- have been mowed down by Islamist vigilantes. Since 4 January, the day my father was assassinated, there have been 16 known cases in which 23 people have been affected. Once a law is made in the name of religion, no one can touch it.

Do the math. Yes, this is a story about a Christian martyr and the persecution of minorities. However, it is also a story about essential human rights for Muslims who stand up for their own faith and the rights of others. Always remember that there is no one Islam. There are Muslims being persecuted by other Muslims in a battle for the heart, soul and mind of Islam, itself.

PHOTO: From the All About Pakistan website

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