The Curse of Blasphemy Laws
Aasia Bibi must be very special. She is only one out of an estimated 4.75 billion people who live in countries that have what the Pew Forum terms "high restrictions on religion." Yet in November, Pope Benedict XVI drew attention to her case and in January called on the government of Pakistan to repeal the blasphemy laws under which she was sentenced to die. The pope pointed to the assassination of Pakistani governor Salman Taseer, who had asked Pakistan's president to free Aasia Bibi. Blasphemy laws, the pope said, served primarily as a pretext for violence against religious minorities.
He was proved right this week as Shabaz Bhatti, the government's minister whose job it is to represent those religious minorities, was assassinated on his drive to work. Leaflets at the scene, reportedly left by Bhatti's killers, said he was targeted because he was "a Christian infidel" who was working to reform the blasphemy law.
In the West, 21st-century Christians find it hard to understand how Pakistan can have blasphemy laws. But blasphemy laws were long an integral part of Christendom's own legal framework.
James Nayler was England's most famous blasphemer. He led a splinter group within George Fox's rapidly growing Quaker movement at a time when it was, in the words of historian Meic Pearse, "fearlessly provocative." The Quakers' "madcap sectarianism" threatened "established order, hierarchy, and property" and provoked harsh responses.
In 1655, in an apparent reenactment of Jesus' triumphal entry, Nayler rode into Bristol, England, on horseback while his followers sang "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth." After a 13-day trial, prosecutors asked for the death penalty, but the Puritan Parliament voted it down 96 to 82. Instead, they sentenced Nayler to be whipped through the streets of London (310 lashes, one for every gutter he crossed), branded on the forehead with a blasphemer's B, have his tongue pierced with a hot iron, sent back to Bristol riding backward on a horse, whipped again, then imprisoned indefinitely at hard labor. Horrified at the severity of this punishment, 100 eminent citizens tried to intervene on Nayler's behalf, but he persisted in his outrageousness, and "they left him in wrath."
Although England abolished the death penalty for blasphemy in 1676, it did not repeal its blasphemy laws until 2008. As recently as 1921, a British court sentenced a blasphemer to a fatal nine months' hard labor, and in the 1970s evangelical activists bullied comedy troupe Monty Python with the law while they were producing The Life of Brian.
Pakistan's blasphemy laws are a holdover from British colonial government, which hoped to keep the peace by banning people from attacking each other's religions. But when military strongman Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq came to power in 1977, he supercharged the law to demonstrate his allegiance to Islam and bolster his authority. In 1986, Zia's government added the death penalty to the blasphemy law—not a sign of piety, but an instance of cynical demagoguery.
Pakistan has not yet executed anyone for blasphemy. Death sentences are usually commuted. But vigilante bullets have killed many who have escaped the government's noose. The laws are popular. Mobs have rallied to show support for Governor Taseer's assassin. And Pakistani Muslim leaders have offered only the most tepid of condemnations of Bhatti's murder, with several saying it was a U.S. government plot. One prominent newspaper assured its readers that his death "has nothing to do with the blasphemy law" and that Bhatti actually supported the execution of blasphemers.