On August 16, mobs armed with sticks and batons attacked and set ablaze the Salvation Army Church and the Saint Paul Catholic Church in Jaranwala town in Pakistan’s Punjab province. The mob also ransacked and torched homes, leaving around 3,000 residents displaced.

The discovery of torn pages of the Quran with alleged blasphemous content on them near the Christian colony had sparked the violence.

Data compiled by Pakistan’s Centre for Social Justice, an independent group advocating for the rights of minorities, shows that nearly 2,000 people have been accused of blasphemy since 1987, and at least 84 killed on these allegations.

In a world where not everyone believes in god, the idea of “blasphemy” is long past its expiry date. Blasphemy protects the religion of dominant groups and is a majoritarian and anti-democratic concept. Yet, “blasphemy” remains a reality – often with deadly consequences – in several countries, especially in South Asia.

Bangladesh’s Penal Code, for instance, contains Sections 295 to 298 that serve the same purpose as a blasphemy law by allowing for prosecution of alleged instances of religious criticism and offences. In 1993, the influential Jamaat-e-Islami party had unsuccessfully pushed for the introduction of provisions resembling Section 295C of Pakistan’s Penal Code that would include a death penalty for alleged blasphemy. Even so, blasphemy allegations have lead to killings in Bangladesh, though official tallies are not available.

In India, Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code specifies punishment for the deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs. In May last year, suspended Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Nupur Sharma’s comments during a television debate against Prophet Muhammed had prompted international condemnation.

A rally in support of Charlie Hebdo, in Brussels in 2015. Credit: Miguel Discart, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Blasphemy is rarely religious and is more about politics and very often about sex. In Western countries, the feminist and queer rights movement have challenged blasphemy. For instance, in 1984, artist Edwina Sandys’s sculpture of a bare-breasted woman on the cross – “Christa” – was seen by some as blasphemous but a symbol of feminist activism for others.

The poem The Love that Dares to Speak its Name by James Kirkup, too, drew outrage. Kirkup’s poem, about a roman centurion fantasising about having sex with the body of Christ, was published in Gay News in 1976. The editor of the Gay News was prosecuted and convicted for “blasphemous libel in the United Kingdom in 1977.

Gods and kings support each other and demand reverence. The Bible enjoins: “You shall not blaspheme God or curse a leader of your people” (Exodus 22:28).

In Italy, filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasaolini was convicted of blasphemy for his 1963 short film La Ricotta, a powerful satire on religion, colonialism, racism and indifference to poverty.

Jesus and Socrates in the dock

British freethinker GW Foote in 1893 had famously challenged the raison d’etre of blasphemy: “Atheists are often charged with blasphemy, but it is a crime that they cannot commit,” he wrote in Flowers of Freethought. “When the atheist examines, denounces or satirises the gods, he is not dealing with persons, but with ideas. He is incapable of insulting God because he does not admit the existence of any such being.”

One person’s truth is often another person’s blasphemy. The Charlie Hebdo episode underscores this maxim. A French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo intrepidly stood for free speech. But a caricature of the Prophet was deemed blasphemy for some zealots. In January 2015, two armed men stormed the magazine’s office, killing 12 staffers. The assailants had sought to “avenge Prophet Muhammed”.

Over the past few years, many western countries have abolished blasphemy: Denmark in 2017, Canada in 2018 and New Zealand in 2019. English judge Tom Denning said as far back in 1949 that the offence of blasphemy was a “dead letter”.

Yet, in the 21st century, Mauritania has strengthened its blasphemy law to include capital punishment in 2017. In Afghanistan, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Somalia blasphemy remains a crime that can lead to capital punishment.

Ironically, both Greek philosopher Socrates, who revolutionised Western thought, and Jesus, who inspired the birth of Christianity, were victims of blasphemy. Socrates was sentenced to death by drinking hemlock – a poisonous plant – by the court of Athens for aserbia (impiety) and neologia (creating new gods). According to the Gospel of Mark and Mathew, Jesus was accused and tried for blasphemy.

As the Latin saying goes, deorum injuriae diis curae – let the gods defend their own honour. GW Foote adds to this saying that it was highly presumptuous and impertinent on the part of weak men defending the character of Almighty God. It is time to stop shedding the blood of people for god’s vanity.

Faisal CK is Deputy Law Secretary to the Government of Kerala. Views are personal.

Also read: ‘Why repeat Manipur violence here?’: In Pakistan, protests over attack on Christians in Jaranwala