Blasphemy Laws vs. Freedom of Speech

There is a new hero in Pakistan. Tanveer Ahmed. He’s a murderer in prison in Scotland. He took the life of a man named Asad Shah in Glasgow last summer and now he has an army of followers, praising what he did.   Why did he kill him? By all reports Asad Shah was a nice man, but he had begun making claims to be a prophet. In Islam there were many prophets, but according to the Quran, Mohammed was the final one.   Anyone who says they are a prophet today is …..what would you say? A liar? Delusional? A conman? And deserves what? Death? Treatment? Jail?

Tanveer Ahmed took his cue from the Quran and believed death was the only answer, and also that he could be judge, jury, and executioner. His followers in Pakistan agree. He is “the Defender of Islam” and a “Ghazi”—a warrior in the cause. This is the same group that praised the murder of a Pakistani politician who was trying to reform the blasphemy laws a few years ago.

Obviously not all Pakistanis support this kind of thinking, but the voices that do are powerful.   They also have used the blasphemy laws to imprison a Christian woman , Asia Bibi, for drinking out of a well reserved for Muslims. Her case goes to the Supreme Court soon, and the judges are reported to be in fear for their lives. It’s a powderkeg.

There is a parallel to this in U.S. history. In the segregated South white people were furious about the attempts to roll back the Jim Crow laws that kept blacks separate. When the whites felt threatened, they lashed out in many ways, sometimes even killing those who were trying to make change. The intimidation didn’t work in the end, and though we’re still not by any means at a place where hate crimes have ended, we’ve made a lot of progress.

It’s an old story: the comfort of tradition vs. the threat of innovation. Making change takes courage, particularly in this case in Pakistan where those resisting it feel they have God on their side.   Could they ever be convinced otherwise?  It would be difficult to even talk about it because to even raise the question is blasphemy in their view.

So there’s the dilemma: A Reformer wants to exercise his freedom of expression but the Believer says those words threaten his and his community’s entire way of life.   Until the world figures out a way to walk the line between freedom of speech and freedom of religion, we’re going to continue to have murdered politicians and the lionization of their killers. There’s no sign that Reason will become dominant over Belief anytime soon, but in the meantime, I’ve suggested that we can all rally around the word “respect”—don’t mock others’ beliefs, but do allow thoughtful criticism. This, however, is anathema to those who can’t imagine the faith of their fathers needs any revision, and by the way,  stop talking or I’ll kill you.

There is hope. Lest we forget, the Bible also tells us to kill blasphemers , by stoning no less (Levitcus 24: 13), but (hopefully) we’ve moved that verse into the trash heap of history.


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