By Luis Granados
Like clockwork, on August 11 the news agencies clicked on their coverage of the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. What they’re skipping over, though, is the 10th anniversary of an event that tells us far more about what’s truly wrong with Islam than what happened on September 11.
It is true, as Islam’s defenders maintain, that nothing in the Koran or the traditions of Muhammad sanctions the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, especially those Muslim civilians who died in the World Trade Center. There are concepts of holy war as part of a sustained campaign to spread Muslim rule over specific locations, but there is nothing to recommend killing thousands of innocent people outside the context of territorial conquest just to make a political point. This isn’t to say that religion can’t be blamed for the massacre; there are varieties of thought under the Islamic umbrella, some of them more violence-prone than others, and nearly all of them elevate doing the will of God (once you decide what that is) above mere laws designed by humans. Still, it is fair to conclude that the attacks fell outside the parameters of conventional, mainstream Islam.
Conventional, mainstream Islam, though, does quite explicitly provide for a death penalty for blasphemy. Muhammad himself authorized the execution of anyone “who reverts from Islam and leaves the Muslims.” Clearly this covers the offense of apostasy, i.e., deciding not to be a Muslim anymore. But Sharia experts over the centuries have concluded that the line between outright apostasy and blasphemy, normally defined as irreverent words or behavior, is too fuzzy to worry about, and thus in many jurisdictions extended Muhammad’s death penalty to blasphemy as well.
That’s certainly the view of the God experts who took over Pakistan in the late 1970s. Section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code was amended to state that:
Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.
Younus Shaikh was a medical doctor, teaching at a university in Islamabad. He had spent many years working in the United Kingdom, but returned home to give what he could to people who needed it most. He brought back with him UK Enlightenment ideas. After his return founded a group fittingly called “Enlightenment,” affiliated with the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), the international umbrella group to which the American Humanist Association belongs. As Dr. Shaikh put it, “One of my reasons for returning to Pakistan was to campaign for Human Rights and civil liberties in Pakistan: to work for the Pakistan-India peace movement, to struggle for liberalism, secularism and humanism, and to counter the forces of religious extremism and fundamentalism.”
He was particularly interested in urging a peaceful solution to the troubles between India and Pakistan, especially after the Kargil War of 1999 that had both countries brandishing their newly-minted nuclear weapons. Even aside from the threat of nuclear war, Dr. Shaikh knew that from the first day of its existence, Pakistan had devoted a staggering proportion of its government spending to the military – as much as 80% – while shortchanging critical needs like medical care.
In a meeting of the South Asia Union in October, 2000, Dr. Shaikh expressed the shocking view that the 50-year old conflict between India and Pakistan should end, that both sides should start treating the de facto Kashmiri border like the real border, and that if Pakistan kept supporting terrorists inside India then perhaps the Indians might start doing the same thing inside Pakistan. Apparently, a military intelligence officer was in the audience, who threatened to “crush the heads” of people who thought like that.
Next thing you know, Dr. Shaikh is fired from his job, then thrown in jail. Not for being a peacenik, which is not a crime in Pakistan, but for blasphemy, which is. Since nothing he had said about the conflict with India was blasphemous, it became necessary to invent something. Thus, a student was found to allege that Dr. Shaikh had mentioned in class that Muhammad was not a Muslim before his chats with God in the cave, and that he probably didn’t even shave his armpits before then, since that was not a custom of his tribe. Dr. Shaikh was confined without bail for nine months; then, exactly ten years ago last Thursday, he was tried before a panel of God experts, convicted of blasphemy, and sentenced to death (plus a fine of 100,000 rupees, so his family would suffer as well).
What’s puzzling is why they didn’t invent something a little juicier. If I were trying to frame someone for blasphemy, I’d have him calling Muhammad a liar, or a pervert, or a commie. Hairy armpits would be pretty far down on the list; I guess I’m just not cut out for this sort of thing.
Pending appeal, Dr. Shaikh was held in solitary confinement in a filthy, tiny death cell, without access to books, newspapers, exercise, medication, or treatment for his worsening diabetes. His first appeal, before two mullahs, resulted in a split decision, which got him nowhere. On his subsequent appeal to the High Court, he was unable to find a lawyer willing to buck the establishment, so he represented himself, with the aid of law books smuggled into his cell. He chose not to attack the stupidity or inhumanity of the blasphemy statute, as an ambitious lawyer might have, but instead relied on a simpler “I didn’t do it” strategy. In fact, the school schedule showed that he wasn’t even teaching a class at the time the crime was supposed to have been committed.
Showing some courage, the High Court agreed that there was no evidence against Dr. Shaikh, and reversed his conviction. So they all lived happily ever after. Not in Pakistan, though. Dr. Shaikh soon realized that his life wasn’t worth a plugged nickel in a land where God experts don’t like being shown up by smartasses, and have plenty of power to do something about it. So he took his family and decamped for Switzerland, a civilized country.
Dr. Shaikh’s case is far from an isolated instance. It is Exhibit A for why President Obama was so wrong to go to al-Azhar University in 2009 and proclaim that: “America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” Tell that to Dr. Shaikh. Terrorist bombing may not be a central principle of Islam, but blasphemy law undoubtedly is, as Obama could have confirmed with his al-Azhar hosts. So is the symbiotic relationship between God experts and the state, which America withstood for so long but is rearing its ugly head again, thanks in no small part to Barack Obama’s political ambition. America and Islam had better be in competition – and we had better win.