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Blasphemy laws

A thirteen year old girl called Rimsha has been accused in the courts of blasphemy in Pakistan. Rimsha is from a Christian family in Mehrabadi, a poor part of Islamabad.

Rimsha Masih.

Steve Latham

She was accused of burning parts of the Quran. Controversially, not only was she a minor, but she apparently has an unspecified learning difficulty, and therefore her culpability was debateable.

The local population nevertheless began protesting and threatening local Christian inhabitants, who were forced to leave their homes for their own safety.

Both Rimsha and her immediate family were put in prison for their own protection, while the case was investigated.

Christian churches and human rights organisations protested against this infringement of religious freedom, without much hope of success.

Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti and Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who had both opposed the blasphemy laws, had recently been assassinated by extreme Islamists.

In an ironic turn of events, however, a Muslim cleric, Hafiz Mohammed Khlaid Chishti has been now accused of planting the burned pages of the Quran on the teenage girl.

He apparently wanted to provoke a reaction against Christians, and force them out of the neighbourhood.

This development has led to Rimshi being granted bail, although there are still fears for her safety from vigilante reprisals.

But, would this have made it OK to prosecute Rimshi, if she had actually burned the Quran? Should not the blasphemy laws be repealed?

Nevertheless, not only Christians, but all minority religious groups suffer disproportionately under these laws.

Indeed Muslims have also been accused of blasphemy under the regulations. These are part of a repressive state apparatus of social control; and at local level are often used maliciously against neighbours one dislikes.

The principles at stake, however, affect debates in the UK too. Should the law be used to protect people’s hurt feelings? Do we have a right to be protected from being offended?

Hate crimes, which exhort violence against others, should be punished. But what about criticism of our beliefs and opinions?

Shouldn’t we just get over it?

The boundary between intellectual critique and emotional bullying can sometimes be blurred. But at what point should insults to one’s faith receive the defence of the law?

The same argument applies against Christian groups in the UK, who use the courts to defend their right to be offended by theatre shows and TV programmes.

Muslims in Britain are attempting the same tactic. Media and politicians try not to offend the Islamic community, for fear of protests and even violence. But is there not a price to be paid for freedom? TV programmes, theatre plays, yes even newspaper cartoons, which mock our beliefs, are the cost of free debate.

Our right to be offended is exactly that, a right to be offended; not to avenge ourselves for being offended.

Doesn’t our use of the courts to restrict others’ free speech denote a deep insecurity in our own faith in the face of free debate?

Surely God is big enough to protect himself?

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