Approaches to blasphemy across the Muslim world underline the turmoil of an Islamic faith struggling to come to terms with modernity.
Islam is in crisis. And this is evident in the global fight against terrorism and Islamic radicalisation across the globe. One of the world’s most populous religions is going through a turbulent and tumultuous phase as it tries to come to terms with the demands of modernity. This crisis is occasioned by outdated dogmas and dispositions that Muslims have refused to abandon or discard. These are traditions that are incompatible with the canons of human rights and tolerant pluralism. Killings and persecutions for blasphemy are indicative of these difficult and challenging moments in the religion’s history. Reactions to adjudged blasphemies elicit violence, conflicts and bloodshed. And these violent reactions continue to portray Islamic religion in a bad light, as an intolerant faith. Blasphemy is a behaviour or an expression that is considered an insult to religion – in this case Islam, Allah or Prophet Muhammad. Going by this definition, what constitutes blasphemy is unclear, and is mired in vagueness and obscurities. Thus the crime of blasphemy is subject to interpretative whims and caprices of Muslim clerics and faithful. And that is where the trouble lies.
Blasphemy has legal backing in Islam. Under Sharia, blasphemous acts are serious offences that are punishable by death. However, in Muslim dominated societies, those who are accused of blasphemy are seldom tried in conventional courts. They are more often extra-judicially executed. Or better, a lynch mob determines their fate. Indiscriminate killings and violence demonstrate that blasphemy is not only a factor of the Islamic legal system but also a reflection of the way that Muslims have been socialised.
They reveal the conflicts and contradictions within Islam, between Islam’s multiple and competing sects and traditions. Too often, the Islamic establishment has weaponized religious offences using insults on Allah or Prophet Muhammad as mechanisms to oppress, silence and subordinate minorities. For instance, in 2015, a Sharia court in Kano in Northern Nigeria sentenced nine Tijaniya Muslims to death for blasphemy and in 2016, a Muslim cleric was sentenced to death for making blasphemous statements against Prophet Muhammad. The cleric reportedly said at a gathering that the Senegalese founder of the Tijaniya sect, Sheikh Ibrahim Niasse was greater than Prophet Muhammad. Earlier in the year a college student, Khateeb Hussain, stabbed to death a college professor, Khalid Hameed, for making statements that were critical of Islam. Blasphemy charges are used to sanction Muslim individuals or groups that are deemed heretical in their views or positions. Religious minorities including atheists and ex Muslims have also been targets of allegations of causing offence and insulting the prophet. In 2016, an Islamic mob beat a Christian woman to death for insulting Prophet Muhammad in Kano in Northern Nigeria. A state court later acquitted suspected assailants. In Pakistan, riots broke out after a student accused their Hindu teacher of blasphemy in Ghotki. An Islamic mob attacked a Hindu temple, shops, and schools in the region. The schoolteacher is in the protective custody of the police. In Jordan, a local imam, Riad Abdullah, shot and killed a writer, Nahid Hattar, a self-styled atheist, for sharing offensive cartoons on his Facebook page. The cartoon depicted a man who was lying in bed with two women and asking God to bring him a drink. The Islamic establishment considered the cartoon to be offensive and summoned Hattar to court. But the imam shot and killed him within the court premises.
Blasphemy killings reveal an Islam that is at war with itself, with its own adherents and with others, other faith, and non-faith traditions. In an age that is characterised by a rapid flow of information, a reformation of Islam has become urgent and compelling. A review of Islamic teachings and traditions has become necessary for the survival of the Islamic faith in this 21st century. To this end, it is pertinent to repeal the crime of blasphemy because, as long as insulting Islam, Allah or prophet Muhammad is codified as an offence under Islamic law, the indiscriminate murder and persecutions of alleged blasphemers will not stop. The legal codification of blasphemy emboldens fanatics, motivates extremists and sanctifies impunity. Islamic religious education including the Quranic indoctrination that Muslims receive from the cradle to the grave needs to be completely overhauled. As part of the Islamic religious instruction, young Muslims should be taught to believe and embrace the teachings of Islam but also to question, challenge, renounce and critically examine Islamic claims and traditions. Muslims should be made to understand that diverse opinions and views including heretical ideas characterise Islam and the religious universe. These sentiments and values should define and drive the much needed reformation of Islam in this century.
Leo is a blogger, human-rights advocate and a Humanist from Nigeria.