How Caste Underpins the Blasphemy Crisis in Pakistan

Interesting and revealing context for Asia Bibi and anti-Christian sentiment in general:

On June 14, 2009, Asia Bibi, a poor Christian woman, was picking fruit in the field of Itan Wali village in Pakistan, about 30 miles from the city of Lahore. On the landowner’s order, Bibi fetched drinking water for her co-workers, but three Muslim women among them accused her of contaminating the water by touching the bowl. An argument followed.

Later, the Muslim women accused Bibi of making blasphemous statements against the Prophet Muhammad — a charge punishable by death under Pakistani law. Despite little evidence, Bibi spent nine years in prison — eight in solitary confinement on death row — till she was finally acquitted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in late October.

Pakistan’s religious right has violently protested her acquittal and Bibi is being held in an undisclosed location to keep her safe. The initial accusation against her was not about religion but caste. Her handling of a drinking vessel was seen to pollute the water inside because she belonged to an “untouchable” Hindu caste that had converted to Christianity.

When this offense turned into the charge of blasphemy, the shift signaled the simultaneous disavowal and internalization of caste discrimination by Muslims who otherwise attribute the practice to Hindus in India. Caste discrimination in Pakistan often involves its non-Muslim population and its Hindu past, and allows Muslims to minimize their own caste differences by projecting discrimination outward.

When Pakistan was created after the partition of colonial India, upper-caste Hindus and Sikhs fled or were forced to leave for India, leaving their poorer and less mobile lower-caste coreligionists behind.

In the southern province of Sindh, some upper-caste landowners stayed, while low-caste Hindus took the religion, its temples and practices into their hands in a startling departure from Hindu tradition that has no Indian counterpart. In Punjab Province, former “untouchables” accelerated their conversion to Christianity, taking given names common among their Muslim neighbors while replacing the caste surnames with appellations like “Masih,” the Urdu word for Jesus in his role as Messiah.

Discrimination and ethnic cleansing reduced the population of non-Muslims in Pakistan from about 30 percent at its creation in 1947 to less than 5 percent now. Yet the nearly absolute majority of Muslims in the country has not reduced religious conflict, but rather displaced, increased and internalized it among Muslims.

It is now Muslims, especially in Punjab, who maintain a caste hierarchy. And since Islamic beliefs don’t include a caste system, the discrimination cannot be defined in terms of caste and is labeled religious. This shift was illustrated by turning Bibi’s quarrel over sharing water into blasphemy.

Perhaps Asia Bibi mentioned to her three accusers how the Muslim prophet and religion did not permit such discrimination. But in Pakistan, neither the Christians, who are understood to have been low-caste Hindus, nor the Muslims, who have adopted the role of their high-caste coreligionists, can refer to the vanished past that mediates their relations.

The increasing refusal of Muslims to share water or food with Christians suggests an inability to come to terms with a past that defies the religious identifications meant to structure all of Pakistan’s social relations.

The debate about blasphemy is also tied to cultural issues assuming unprecedented importance with the emergence of a technologically mediated global arena after the Cold War. But such protests and violence over depictions of Islam’s prophet began during the middle of the 19th century in colonial India, where they had to do with urban politics and competition in newly capitalist societies.

These controversies are about struggles over representation in a public space. What defines Muslim outrage is never the traumatic encounter of the believers with the images of the prophet or his representation, but merely the rumor of circulation of his images and his representation beyond their control.

When controversies over insults to the Prophet Muhammad first arose in colonial India, the cases arising from them were dealt with under the Indian Penal Code written by the British politician Thomas Babington Macaulay, who criminalized the injury of religious and other sentiments in secular rather than theological terms by treating it the same way as defamation, libel and other such offenses.

In post-colonial India and Pakistan, religious offense among Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians continues to deploy the secular language of hurt sentiments rather than the theological category of blasphemy. In Pakistan, Lord Macaulay’s equal-opportunity conception of injury was done away with, and insulting the Prophet Muhammad was made into a specific crime above all others.

In the early years of Pakistan, a group called the Ahmadis, who are accused of not accepting Muhammad as the last prophet, were the first to be charged with blasphemy. But the charge of blasphemy was soon being leveled by even the most acceptable of Muslims against one another, often for petty and personal reasons. Such accusations are ways of legitimizing the individual motives of those who make them, whether these are concerned with quarrels over money, property or marriage.

But the accusations of blasphemy are also related to anxieties about the Muslim prophet’s vulnerability to insult, which have emerged from profound shifts in the life of Muslim societies.

These include efforts by Muslims to create a “modern” Islam by ridding it of “superstitions” like attributing superhuman powers to the prophet. But by becoming more human, Muhammad has also become more vulnerable to insult, and as a result requires the protection of his followers in an ironically secular way.

In contrast to these global concerns, Ms. Bibi’s case is resolutely local and has led to no Muslim agitation outside Pakistan. This is because it emerges from the Muslim disavowal of caste and refusal to acknowledge Pakistan’s ethnic cleansing of the Hindus who are seen to represent it. Just as Muslims take on the character of their vanished Hindu enemies by persecuting low-caste Christians if only in the name of religion, so do Hindu militants in India lynch Muslims by acting the part of medieval invaders who happened to be their coreligionists.

Familiar across the subcontinent, such playacting involves practices such as caste restrictions, forcible conversion and other, more grotesque forms of bodily violence in which a community takes on the role it attributes to its enemies.

Implying a relationship of perverse intimacy with one’s foes, this impersonation also distances perpetrators from their own brutality by turning it into a piece of theater. In all cases it involves the impossible and infinite desire for vengeance against an enemy who has vanished in time, like India’s Muslim invaders of a thousand years ago, or in space, like the Hindus and Sikhs who left Pakistan.

In Pakistan, both the discrimination of caste and the history of religious difference are officially proscribed and forgotten. But for this very reason they continue to haunt the present in disavowed ways that include the charge of blasphemy against Ms. Bibi. In this sense, the passionate defense of their prophet represents a kind of traumatic memory, one that only allows Muslims to obscure a reality that remains unrecognized and therefore unresolved.

Faisal Devji is a professor of Indian history at the University of Oxford.

Source: How Caste Underpins the Blasphemy Crisis in Pakistan

‘Rot at the Core’: Blasphemy Verdict in Indonesia Dismays Legal Experts – The New York Times

More on the arrest and trial of the jailed Christian governor of Jakarta:

Legal experts noted that the verdict seemed to be based more on public reaction to the governor’s comments than what he had actually said, in effect holding him accountable for the mass protests organized against him by hard-line Islamist groups.

“That’s the problem with the blasphemy law,” said Bivitri Susanti, head of the Jakarta chapter of Indonesia’s Association of Constitutional Law Lecturers. “It’s not about the speech itself and whether it’s condemning Islam itself. It’s about whether society believes it’s wrong or annoys them.”

The governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, was convicted on Tuesday for comments he made in September challenging Muslim hard-liners who argued that a verse in the Quran prohibited Muslims from voting for a non-Muslim. Mr. Basuki said those who made that argument were misleading Muslims, a statement interpreted by some as insulting the Quran and Islam.

Mass rallies were organized calling for his arrest, with some zealots demanding that the governor be put to death. Many analysts said that the protests had been orchestrated by his political rivals and that they were a strong factor in his 16-point defeat in last month’s election.

The verdict by the five-judge panel hearing his case repeatedly said that Mr. Basuki, known as Ahok, had caused public unrest and offended the Muslim majority, citing an article in the decades-old blasphemy law banning “words that degrade, harass or insult a religion.”

Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, said the decision “underscored the rot at the core of the Indonesian legal system” and would further polarize the country.

“It isn’t the first time Indonesian judges showed no concern for evidence in a high-profile case, but it could be one of the most damaging,” Ms. Jones wrote in a commentary for the Lowy Institute. “It instantly sent a signal that non-Muslims are lesser citizens.”

Photo

Police officers outside Cipinang Penitentiary in Jakarta, where Mr. Basuki was first taken and which houses violent criminals. He was transferred to a city police detention facility on Wednesday for security reasons. CreditMast Irham/European Pressphoto Agency

“I believe that the street protests influenced the judges’ ruling,” Ms. Bivitri said. “You can really see in the decision, that instead of using other articles, they are using one about condemning religion.”

Experts also expressed concern about the motive for the seemingly vindictive two-year prison sentence. The prosecutors had asked for two years’ probation on a lesser charge, which would have spared Mr. Basuki prison time.

In explaining the sentence, the judges said they determined that the governor “did not feel guilty” about his comments.

“The judges didn’t think Ahok apologized enough,” said Melissa Crouch, a senior law lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

Mr. Basuki apologized publicly months ago for any offense caused, but he has steadfastly denied that he insulted the Quran or committed blasphemy.

On Wednesday, he was transferred to a city police detention facility for security reasons, officials said.

Islam’s Problem With Blasphemy

Good piece by Mustafa Akyol in the NY Times:

Before all that politically motivated expansion and toughening of Shariah, though, the Quran told early Muslims, who routinely faced the mockery of their faith by pagans: “God has told you in the Book that when you hear God’s revelations disbelieved in and mocked at, do not sit with them until they enter into some other discourse; surely then you would be like them.”

Just “do not sit with them” — that is the response the Quran suggests for mockery. Not violence. Not even censorship.

Wise Muslim religious leaders from the entire world would do Islam a great favor if they preached and reiterated such a nonviolent and non-oppressive stance in the face of insults against Islam. That sort of instruction could also help their more intolerant coreligionists understand that rage is a sign of nothing but immaturity. The power of any faith comes not from its coercion of critics and dissenters. It comes from the moral integrity and the intellectual strength of its believers.

Islam’s Problem With Blasphemy – NYTimes.com.

Afghanistan Blasphemy Charge

A reminder that of the limits of all the efforts in Afghanistan, and how deeply a traditional country it remains in Afghan newspaper’s ‘blasphemy’ causes protests after rebuking Isis and Islam.

In Kabul, a crowd of approximately 500 people, including clerics and several members of parliament, gathered in front of the Eid Gah Mosque, the city’s second largest house of worship.

“The government must stop the people who insulted the prophet, the Qur’an and Islam, and prevent them from leaving the country,” said Fazl Hadi Wazin, an Islamic scholar at Salam University who spoke from the outdoor podium.

In an opinion piece published last week in the English-language daily the Afghanistan Express, a journalist named AJ Ahwar admonished Muslims for remaining silent in the face of Isis and the Taliban.

He also criticised Islam for not accepting other religions and minorities such as homosexuals and Hazaras, a Shia minority in Afghanistan.

The article ended by concluding that human beings are more important than God, which seemed to particularly incense protesters.

“The newspaper said God can’t control people and that God is unwise,” said Mangal Bader, 38, one of the protesters. He joined others in calling for the newspaper staff to suffer the same fate as five men who were recently convicted of rape and hanged, after great public furore.

“They need to be executed so humans know that you cannot insult the religion of Allah,” said Ahmad, 22, another protester.

In pauses between speakers, protesters chanted “death to America”. According to one demonstrator, the US instils ideas of freedom of expression in the minds of Afghan journalists, then grants them asylum once they anger their compatriots.

“The international community pretend to be heroes of freedom of expression,” said Wazin after his speech. “They have to come out and say they are not behind this. If they don’t, these protests will grow.”