Indian Muslims for Secular Democracy, a forum for the community, on Sunday condemned the beheading of a teacher, Samuel Paty, near Paris on October 16, and called for abolishing apostasy and blasphemy laws.

“We are here to condemn in unequivocal terms, no ifs and buts, not only the man responsible for this barbaric act but all those who had any role in the instigation of the crime as also all those who seek to justify it,” civil rights activist Javed Anand said at a webinar organised by the forum. “We are here not just to condemn the slaying of Mr Paty, but also to demand the abolishing of apostasy and banishing of blasphemy anywhere and everywhere across the world.”

Doctor Zeenat Shaukat Ali, a Mumbai-based Islamic scholar, argued that Islam does not permit killing people for either blasphemy or apostasy. Ali said that Quran stands for peace and justice in a non-violent manner, asking scholars and Ulema, a body of scholars known to have expert knowledge of Islamic sacred laws and theology, to go through the Hadith literature. The term refers to what Muslims believe to be a record of words and actions of the Prophet Muhammad.

“Respectfully, the Paris beheading is a wake-up call to the ulema and leaders of the Muslim world. It is time for both the clergy and the parents to instruct children that such acts of violence are not only detested and abhorred by Islam but are in total contradiction to Islam’s reverence for peace, explicit recognition of tolerance, compassion, social equality, high moral order and spiritual depth.”

— Mumbai-based Islamic scholar doctor Zeenat Shaukat Ali

Arshad Alam, a Delhi-based columnist for New Age Islam, said it was necessary for Muslims to raise their voices against the blasphemy and apostasy laws as they were the worst victims of such decrees. “Those who want to retain blasphemy laws on the statute are basically the same forces which are opposed to the liberal secular tradition and therefore should be rightly understood as indulging in right wing politics,” he said.

AT Jawad, a Chennai-based advocate, showed the similarities between blasphemy and sedition as weapons used by autocracies and theocracies to suppress dissent and to foment mob frenzy.

Jawad pointed out that the ulema in the 11th century started working closely with political rulers to challenge what they thought to be the sacrilegious influence of Muslim philosophers on society. The advocate said that Islamic scholar Ghazali had declared two deceased philosophers, Farabi and Ibn Sina, apostates for their views on the powers of god. Their followers, Ghazali had written, could be punished with death. Jawad claimed that the declaration by Ghazali gave Muslim rulers power to execute thinkers, who they thought to be threats to the conservative rule. This idea continues even today, Jawad added.

The forum also defended Paty’s choice to show the caricature of Prophet Muhammad to the class. Mumbai-based activist and writer Feroze Mithiborwala said the basic argument against the cartoon controversy is that they “mock” and “offend my religious sensibilities” and thus they should be banned. He said that the cartoons of the prophet, which undoubtedly hurt the feelings of ordinary Muslims, needed a non-violent response. This would have been far more effective, Mithiborwala added.

Alam spoke on Charlie Hebdo cartoons and said they should be seen within the ambit of European tradition, which satirises religious customs. He said that the same yardstick should be applied to Islam as it was now a European religion. Charlie Hebdo, a French weekly newspaper, had published cartoon of Prophet Muhhamad, which led to a mass shooting in which twelve people, including eight of the publication, were killed on January 7, 2015. The Paris beheading took place when trials in the shooting were underway.

The killing in Paris

French anti-terror prosecutors said the assault took place on the outskirts of Paris near a school in the western suburb of Conflans Saint-Honorine. They said they were treating the incident as “a murder linked to a terrorist organisation” and related to a “criminal association with terrorists”.

The assailant, Abdullakh Anzorov, was gunned down about 600 meters from where the teacher was killed after he did not follow police orders to put down his knife and behaved in a threatening manner, the police said.

The teacher had received threats over “a debate” about the caricatures around 10 days ago, the police said. A parent of one of his pupils had filed a complaint against the teacher, another police official said. French President Emmanuel Macron called the incident an “Islamist attack”, urging citizens to stand up against extremism. The school said Paty had given Muslim children the option of leaving the classroom before he showed the cartoons.