Making blasphemy laws international

PAKRivzi18LAHORE, Pakistan – Those convicted of dishonoring the Prophet Mohammed or desecrating the Koran in Pakistan face the death penalty – one of the harshest punishments in the Muslim world.

But the harshness doesn’t stop at the South Asian’s country’s borders. Many Pakistanis expect the same punishments to apply to non-Muslims abroad.

A diplomatic rift has opened between Islamabad and the Hague following populist, rightwing Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders’ now-cancelled Prophet Muhammad cartoon competition – a contest clearly designed to test the tolerance of Muslims who rioted in the past after Mohammed caricatures appeared in foreign newspapers.

Wilders announced the contest and its $10,000 prize in June. Around 200 people entered submissions before his November deadline.

After news of Wilders’ contest spread, demonstrators in Pakistan called for to severe diplomatic ties with Dutch government.

Leading the demonstrations was cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, whose far-right political party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik, aims to protect “the honor of the prophet.” Confident after garnering 2 million votes in the July’s parliamentary elections, Rizvi took to the streets asking the government to launch a missile against Holland.

“The only way to stop the release of blasphemous cartoons is through jihad,” said Rizvi at a rally at Data Darbar, a Sufi Muslim shrine in Lahore. “Pakistan should end diplomatic ties with Netherlands. We demand the government to launch Ghauri missile on Holland.”

His followers agreed. “Dutch are kafirs [non-believers],” said Muhammad Tayab, public school teacher in Lahore. “They dared to humiliate our prophet. They should all be killed for hurting our religious sentiments.”

Prime Minister Imran Khan condemned the contest but tried to calm his angry constituents with a video statement saying that people living in the West didn’t understand Muslims’ religious zeal.

“They [Westerners] have their own way of looking at their religions, while we look at it in a very different way," Khan said, adding that he would bring the issue up at the United Nations.

In late August, Dutch police in The Hague arrested Junaid Iqbal Gujjar, a 26-year-old Pakistani who had threatened to attack Wilders and the Dutch Parliament to stop the blasphemy. In a Facebook video, he vowed to send the Dutch politician “to hell.”

“I am a true lover of Prophet,” Gujjar said in the video, adding that he needs support and help from other Muslims to achieve his goal. “I have come here from France and will not return until I reach to the person who is conducting the competition.”

Wilders cancelled the competition next day.

The Pakistani government claimed the cancellation a victory. “The cancellation of the blasphemous contest is a great moral victory of Muslim Ummah,” said Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in late August.

Wilders pushed back. “Don’t claim victory too soon Pakistan government, I am not finished with you yet,” he wrote on twitter. “I will expose your barbarism in many other ways.”
The outrage reflects Pakistan’s longtime obsession with blasphemy abroad.

In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve satirical cartoons of Prophet Mohammad. The same set of cartoons was reprinted in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and several other European countries in 2006.

Pakistan was engulfed in protests.

Vandals looted storefronts of the Norwegian phone company Telenor, Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants and Western banks. Several people died in the violence. A Pakistani cleric, cleric Maulana Yousaf Qureshi, announced $1 million bounty and a car for anyone who killed the Danish cartoonists. Denmark closed its embassy due to security concerns.

Ten years later, French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, printed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. Protests broke out in Pakistan, with thousands thronging the streets, leading to clashes with police.

“Since independence from India in 1947, Pakistan has made religion, rather than a more inclusive, multicultural and more secular state narrative, it’s raison d'être both at home and abroad,” said Farahnaz Ispahani, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. who specializes in Pakistan’s minorities.

Khan has used the blasphemy issue to improve his standing among voters, she added. Now he needs to follow through with his rhetoric and condemn anyone who appears to trespass against the rule.

“The present and past governments live entrapped by jihadi rhetoric and the Islamist mindset that believes the world would be better off cast in its image,” she said.

Critics of anti-Muslim rhetoric are often ignorant.

Rabi Pirzada, a pop singer who was not even aware of Wilders’ competition, tweeted that

“freedom of expression can never justify blasphemy. We strongly protest against disrespect of our beloved prophet in France. The sketch makers must be hanged immediately.”

A legal expert at the Pakistan International Commission of Jurists, Reema Omer, noted that Christians and other religious minorities are most likely to run afoul of the country’s blasphemy laws.

She noted that the country’s supreme court and the National Commission of Human Rights had raised concerns about the misapplication of the law, but officials have done little to follow up with those worries.

“Change seems unlikely,” she said.

Khan’s support for the laws would only erode Pakistan’s standing abroad, she added.

“The current government’s pretense that its extremist positions will somehow bring the rest of the world round to its point of view will only isolate Pakistan further,” said Isphani.

Photo: Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the leader of the biggest party, Tehrik-e-Labbaik, has led an aggressive campaign that has been garnering the most attention among far-right groups.
Credit: Courtesy of Khadim Hussain Rizvi's official YouTube channel. (08/29/18)

Story/photo published date: 10/14/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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