Why we need to stand up for the right to insult religion and beliefs

  • Sunny Hundal
  • Updated: Aug 21, 2016 22:20 IST
Anti-blasphemy laws do far more damage than good to a society. They are used not to promote tolerance but as an excuse to commit violence. (AP)

In March this year, a 32-year-old British man travelled 320 km north from his town of Bradford to Glasgow and stabbed a man he had never met before. The case shocked Britain because it was the first such religiously motivated attack in its history: Tanveer Ahmed, a Sunni Muslim, had murdered shopkeeper Asad Shah for being an Ahmadiyya Muslim.

The case was widely covered in the British media and justice was served last week when Ahmed was sentenced to life in jail. But the case also highlighted a problem that had so far been ignored: Asad Shah was murdered because Pakistan’s poisonous religious politics had started to infect Britain too.

Tanveer Ahmed had been inspired by Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard who had assassinated Pakistani Punjab governor Salman Taseer in 2011. Taseer was a target of hardliners because he opposed Pakistan’s ‘anti-blasphemy’ laws, which were meant to protect Islamic beliefs from being insulted. But rather than promoting tolerance and peace, these laws are primarily used to terrorise Ahmadiyyas, Hindus, Sikhs and other religious minorities.

It’s tempting to dismiss Pakistan as an extremist state, but anti-blasphemy laws are also poisoning India’s climate. A fortnight ago, Outlook Magazine ran a front-page exposé on how the Sangh Parivar was allegedly trafficking young tribal girls from Assam to Punjab and Gujarat to indoctrinate them. But rather than investigate the claims, the police have gone after journalists instead and accused them of ‘inciting hatred’ between different groups. It was a politically motivated charge of course, but it shows how the same laws are also abused here.

I understand why many think a law against insulting or ‘stirring up hatred’ between communities is a good idea. My mother goes to the Gurdwara nearly every day and would feel deeply hurt if she heard someone speak ill of Guru Nanak. People have a right to feel distressed when others insult or ridicule their gods or their way of life.

But anti-blasphemy laws do far more damage than good to a society. They are used not to promote tolerance but as an excuse to commit violence. They do this in two ways: by encouraging extremist groups, and by restricting freedom of thought and religion itself.

Read | Pakistani Christian charged with blasphemy over WhatsApp poem

Without those rights a society inches towards becoming a religious dictatorship, as Pakistan is doing. Iran and Saudi Arabia are already there.

The first point is important. By letting religious groups to get their way, we encourage them like spoilt kids. We end up giving them licence to whip up outrage for their own political agendas or against others. It has happened in Pakistan for decades and it’s increasingly happening in India.

In June the police arrested a member of the radical Hindu group called Sanatan Sanstha, who are prime suspects behind the murders of three Indian rationalists. These activists were targeted simply for campaigning against religious superstition and fake sadhus. And that’s just one example. Remember the controversy around Aamir Khan’s movie ‘PK’? Or when All India Bakchod had supposedly offended Christians? Or when writer Wendy Doniger had her book banned because a Hindu outfit called it “vulgar”? Or when the movie Nanak Shah Fakir was pulled because hardline Sikh groups were angry? The list goes on and on.

Read | Little hope of succour for Pakistan’s religious minorities

India is now full of religious groups who threaten violence if they feel wounded on behalf of their gods.

The second reason to oppose anti-blasphemy laws — to protect freedom of thought — is equally important. Ask yourself: Could Guru Nanak Dev, founder of the Sikhs, be allowed to say today that god is neither Hindu nor Muslim without causing offence? Could he call on people to reject caste and idol worship without facing an angry mob? Would Gautama Buddha be allowed to preach in India today without people accusing him of blasphemy? Or what about the great Hindu reformers such as Swaminarayan or Vivekananda - would they have been allowed to criticise Hindu traditions without controversy?

We cannot have freedom of religion and thought without the freedom to criticise other beliefs. There isn’t a democracy in the world where freedom of religion co-exists peacefully with anti-blasphemy laws. They are incompatible. They will clash until one fades away. In such a climate we can lose the right to live our lives how we want to, and instead become subjected to a self-appointed religious police. Like in Saudi Arabia and Iran.

It took Britain over a hundred years to realise its mistake with anti-blasphemy laws. But the murder of Asad Shah shows how Pakistani politics is pushing progress back again. The same should not be allowed to happen in India.

Read | British Pakistani Christians demand abolition of blasphemy law

The history of this country is of a land where religious belief flourished because they were constantly debated, refreshed and revitalised by reformers. Allowing a climate where people are silenced in the name of religion goes against the very idea of India.

(Sunny Hundal is a writer and lecturer on digital journalism based in London. The views expressed are personal)

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