Whenever people bring up the loopholes in (or the misuse of) the blasphemy law as a part of a larger discussion about the freedom of speech, they hear two arguments against it. First, the orthodox Muslims proclaim freedom of speech is not a basic human right. It is a privilege hinged upon national security which trumps every freedom, every law and it may even override the constitution.
You may also have heard the argument that the Constitution exists in paper alone. It can only be enforced if the country stays intact: no country, no constitution. Second, even if some countries permit freedom of speech, it is not absolute. Based on the political and religious history, every state puts some limits on it and crossing those limits are deemed illegal. Pakistan is no different. If blasphemy is punishable in Pakistan then in sixteen different countries the denial of holocaust is also punishable. So why do we criticize Pakistan and why don’t we include all of them in our reproof?
Through this piece, I want to bring up a fundamental difference between the laws of Western countries who limit such discussions with what is happening in Pakistan to its religious minorities while also explaining the level of anti-Semitism that had engulfed Europe through the millennia. Once that background is provided, I reckon, it will help us understand why those measures were taken in the first place; and also clarify some of the misconceptions spread among us about the idea of freedom of speech.
Let us look at Spain in 694, to refresh our memories. After the seventeenth Council of Toledo, King Egica-consumed by the idea that Jews are plotting against him- declared that all Jews should be enslaved to their Christian Masters. Their properties were to be confiscated, their children under the age of seven removed from their parents and brought up as Christians. Centuries later, in 1182 King Philip II of France seized all Jewish properties and forgave all the debts owed to Jews if 20 percent fees were paid to him, as Thomas Cahill describes in his book Heretics and Heroes. In1290 again, King Edward I of England expelled all Jews from his kingdom.
Fifty years down the road, when people started dying of plague in Europe, angry mobs burnt hundreds of villages occupied by Jews, sometimes killing whole populations blaming them for the Black Death. Similarly, who does not remember the Spanish inquisition of the late fifteenth century? Thousands of Jews were either expelled after the Alhambra Decree was issued in 1492 or were forcefully converted to Christianity. However, worst still awaited them when six million Jews would lose their lives in the middle of the twentieth century Europe.
I have deliberately picked examples from different parts of Europe at different times to explain how old and how deep anti-Semitism ran in the continent.
Now if Germany after the WWII wants to block a discussion against holocaust, it makes sense as it is banning a majority to threaten a persecuted minority which had undergone a genocide, not the other way round which is happening in Pakistan; a country where the 98 percent majority believes its religion is endangered by a 2 percent relatively poor and powerless minority. A country where Sunnis believe a sane Christian would blaspheme against the Prophet Muhammad knowing very well how he/she and his/her whole family will be torched to death afterwards.
In other words, the right of the freedom of speech is curtailed to protect the people who would otherwise lose the right to live by an insecure and biased majority, like Asia Bibi, who would be put to death if she did not leave Pakistan irrespective of the court’s decision.
Following the same footsteps, Pakistan should also have restricted derogatory remarks by the Sunnis towards Hindus, Christians, Qadianis and even Shias. The ground reality is just the opposite though: Sunnis are allowed to scream from the top of their lungs against any faith while minorities are stifled, instructed to behave in a particular way or be ‘sensitive’ about the emotions of the people around them. In fact, degrading other religions especially Qadianis is considered a virtue since it proves loyalty with the majority. Worse even, people who oppose such activities are either considered immoral, insincere or just plain and simple traitors. I will not be surprised if the ‘traitors’ are labelled as blasphemers one day granting the mob a license to kill with immunity as it was recently extended by the government.
This behaviour stands in contrast with the essence of democracy which is to build a system where majority protects the right of minorities thereby creating a just society, not a system where majority rolls over anyone who falls short in numbers. If that starts happening in a nation, it is not called democracy, it is then called tyranny of majority.