One of the toughest issues in reporting about any complex subject -- take religion for example -- is knowing how much background material needs to be included in a story for readers to be able to grasp the basic issues surrounding a piece of news.
So before we get to the actual event covered in this international-desk piece from the New York Times -- "Boy’s Response to Blasphemy Charge Unnerves Many in Pakistan" -- let's jump ahead to the background material. I thought this section of the story was especially strong, since the reporter had very few paragraphs to spare in a relatively short story.
By the way, this passage ends with what I considered a major piece of tech news, one worthy of its own story.
Blasphemy is a toxic subject in Pakistan, where a confusing body of laws has enshrined it as a potentially capital offense but also makes it nearly impossible for the accused to defend themselves in court. Even publicly repeating details of the accusation is tantamount to blasphemy in its own right.
Such cases almost never make it to court, however. The merest accusation that blasphemy has occurred has the power to arouse lynching or mob violence.
The governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by his own bodyguard in 2011, after Mr. Taseer criticized the country’s blasphemy laws and defended a Christian woman who had been falsely accused under them. The assassin is a national hero to many devout Pakistanis: His jail cell has become a pilgrimage site, and a mosque was renamed to honor him.
And that tech story? Note the time element here. Apparently, this Google agreement pushed the button for this story to be published.
On Monday, Pakistan lifted a three-year-old ban on YouTube, which it had shut down because of accusations of airing anti-Islamic videos. The government announced that Google, which owns YouTube, had agreed to give it the right to block objectionable content.
So what is missing here? Like I said, this is a solid job by the Times team. In particular, I thought the brief summary of the Salman Taseer case -- with the updates about his killer becoming a national hero -- showed how high the stakes are in discussions of blasphemy in Pakistan.
Now the event that dominates this story, which we will get to in just a moment, does offer readers one example of alleged blasphemy. But that's it. I wished the reporter had been given a bit more space -- one or two sentences would do -- to define the term "blasphemy," as it is used in Sharia law in cultures such as this.
Let's flash back to a lecture in Oxford, England, on this very topic by my Global Media Project colleague Paul Marshall. His work on this subject would eventually, writing with human-rights activist Nina Shea, end up in the Oxford University Press book, "Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide." Among his various duties at the moment, Marshall is teaching on issues linked to religion and human rights at the Graduate School of Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University (UIN) Jakarta, Indonesia.
Here is a key piece of that earlier "On Religion" column, which was linked to a 2006 seminar on blasphemy and freedom of the press.
"If it is blasphemous to discuss charges of blasphemy, then you have in effect a totalitarian system," said Marshall. ... "Blasphemy charges mean that you cannot discuss the blasphemy charges. Hence, seeking to remove, minimize or otherwise immobilize legal bans on blasphemy, apostasy, insulting Islam and insulting public religious sentiments is an indispensable first step in creating the necessary political space for debate that could lead to other reforms. Unless you can get this out of the way, you can't discuss other issues."
It's crucial, said Marshall, to realize that Islamists are using laws against apostasy and blasphemy to threaten liberal Muslims just as often, or more often, than against actual converts.
And here is the crucial language linked to these laws, under Sharia:
One notorious law in Pakistan says: "Whoever, by words either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished by death."
So what does this look like in practice in the context of modern Pakistan? That's where to gripping lede on this Times piece comes into play:
LAHORE, Pakistan -- Late one night, the imam Shabir Ahmad looked up from prayers at his mosque to see a 15-year-old boy approaching with a plate in his outstretched left hand. On it was the boy’s freshly severed right hand.
What led to this?
The boy, Anwar Ali, the son of a poor laborer, had been attending an evening prayer gathering at the mosque in the village, Khanqah, when Mr. Ahmad asked for a show of hands of those who did not love the Prophet Muhammad. Thinking the cleric had asked for those who did love the prophet, Anwar’s hand shot up, according to witnesses and the boy’s family.
He realized his mistake when he saw that his was the only hand up, and he quickly put it down. But by then Mr. Ahmad was screaming “Blasphemer!” at him, along with many others in the crowd. “Don’t you love your prophet?” they called, as the boy fled in disgrace.
Anwar went home, found a sharp scythe and chopped off his right hand that same night. When he showed it to the cleric, he made clear it was an offering to absolve his perceived sin.
Local police arrested the imam for causing this tragedy, but locals protested that what happened was appropriate -- including the boy and his parents.
“We are lucky that we have this son who loves Prophet Muhammad that much,” Muhammad Ghafoor, Anwar’s father, said in a telephone interview. “We will be rewarded by God for this in the eternal world.”
Anwar, too, declined to make any charge against the mullah. “What I did was for love of the Prophet Muhammad,” he said.
So the debates go on and on. The key, however, is the fact that these laws are now affecting debates INSIDE Islam. They affect Muslims seeking change far more often than they affect those who leave Islam for other faiths.
So what is "blasphemy"? Can you give three examples?
It helps to give readers a taste of just how broad, and vague, these laws can be in a culture such as Pakistan. It only takes a sentence or two to provide that content.
Still, let me stress, this was a challenging story and what ended up in print was strong, strong stuff. Read it all.