Blasphemy laws: the root of Pakistani extremism

May 10, 2010|By Faheem Younus

The failed Times Square bombing raises important questions.

As a U.S. Muslim of Pakistani descent, I have wondered why so many plots against America continue to be hatched in Pakistan. At least nine people with some connection to Pakistan have been charged with terror plots against the United States in the past two years. What is it that accounts for this disturbing trend?

One can't simply blame Islam. Were that true, Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, would be the epicenter of terrorist plots against America. But it's not. One can't simply blame fiery rhetoric. Were that true, Iran, the most vocally anti-American of Islamic nations, would be breeding terrorists. But it's not. One can't simply blame illiteracy. Were that true, Ethiopia, ranked 170th in literacy, would be at the forefront of terrorist activities. But it's not. One can't simply blame poverty, either. Were that true, Bangladesh, the poorest of Islamic nations, would be leading the charge against America. But it's not.

So, what makes Pakistan so uniquely conducive to extremism?

The answer, I believe, is rather simple. Pakistan proudly prosecutes its own people for a crime that exists in few countries: blasphemy. Section 295-C of Pakistan's penal code, the so-called blasphemy law, states, "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 Mohammed (PBUH) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine."

This law was passed in 1984, and six years later the stakes were raised when a federal Sharia Court ruled that "the penalty for contempt of the Holy prophet is death and nothing else." A component was later added to target, by name, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a minority Muslim group that believes Mirza Ghulam Ahmad to be the messiah of the latter days.

Blasphemy laws are to Pakistan's extremists what Miracle Gro is to one's home garden.

The alleged Time Square suspect, Faisal Shahzad, was a 5-year-old Pakistani citizen when these draconian laws were enacted. His generation knows only one way to deal with a difference of opinion in matters of religion: Shoot the opponent.

Here is Pakistan's record: 650 Christians have been accused under the blasphemy law and more than 20 killed between 1988 and 2005, according to the Pakistan Catholic Bishops' Conference's National Commission for Justice and Peace. Since the promulgation of anti-Ahmadi laws in 1984, 101 Ahmadis have been killed on religious grounds. In June 2008, the entire population of Rabwah (the headquarters town of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Pakistan) — 60,000 people — was charged with committing blasphemy.

And while few Pakistanis actually terrorize minorities and non-Muslims, many others have cheered or remained silent.

Some in Faisal Shahzad's generation seek a new challenge in United States. If drone attacks and back-door diplomacy are not working, what should be our strategy to deal with this threat?

Immediate attention is needed to repeal the blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws in Pakistan. Wasting more time in "bilateral talks" will be a godsend for countries such as Indonesia, where a court only last month upheld the constitutionality of that nation's blasphemy code, which, while less punitive and restrictive than Pakistan's law, still discriminates against minority religions. The U.S. State Department should make all future aid packages conditioned on Pakistan repealing these harmful laws. While it may be difficult for President Asif Ali Zardari to find Osama bin Laden, it sure isn't difficult for him to locate a copy of his country's Second Amendment, which strips the right of millions of Ahmadis to call themselves Muslims.

Once this root cause is removed, a long-term solution of strengthening religious freedom through legislation and establishing a robust educational infrastructure will have a chance to work. After Nigeria, Pakistan has the world's largest number of out-of-school children and youth. School-age children need to be taught, from an early age, how to express a difference of religious opinion — and more importantly, how to respect one. This can be achieved through curriculum reform in both public and religious (madrassa) education systems.

For more than 200,000 peace-loving U.S. Muslims of Pakistani descent, staying quiet or cheering secretly is not an option anymore. We have to make a choice. Let's not bite the hand that feeds us. If we are too weak to maintain our loyalty to the United States, then take the Holy Quran's advice, "… Was not Allah's earth vast enough for you to emigrate therein?" (4:98).

Or, to quote a bumper sticker I once saw: America. Love it or leave it.

Dr. Faheem Younus is medical director for healthcare epidemiology and infection prevention at Upper Chesapeake Health in Bel Air and a clinical assistant professor at the University of Maryland, School of Medicine. His e-mail is dryounus@comcast.net.

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