The Economist – Blasphemy, Pakistan and Ireland An evil that resonates
Blasphemy, Pakistan and Ireland
An evil that resonates
An Article from The Economist in October 2104 – see the full article here.
“A DREADFUL possibility moved a step closer this week: somebody might actually be executed under Pakistan’s brutal blasphemy laws. The Lahore High Court upheld the death penalty imposed on Asia Bibi (pictured above in 2010), a Christian woman who worked on a farm in Punjab, for supposedly blaspheming against Islam. As is very common in such cases, she maintained through her lawyers that she was being victimised because of a petty quarrel with fellow farm labourers who were Muslim. A mother of five, she has been on death row since 2010.
At least 16 other people have been condemned to death in Pakistan under similar circumstances, but no execution has been carried out. The country has broadly observed ade facto moratorium on executions (for any offence) since 2008—although a soldier was hanged for murder in 2012. For Ms Bibi’s lawyer, the next step is to appeal to the Supreme Court.
The Bibi case is an especially agonising because two politicians who spoke up in her defence were assassinated in 2011. She was the first woman to be convicted under the blasphemy law, a piece of legislation which has its ultimate origins in the British colonial era but has become much harsher in recent years. The case of Ms Bibi is being followed with anguish all over the world (by no means only the historically Christian world) and it has particular resonance in the Republic of Ireland.
Let’s try to explain why. According to Pew Research, an American research firm, 22% of countries have laws which penalise blasphemy or the insulting of religious symbols. The majority of these countries are Muslim lands which ban insults to Islam’s prophet or holy book; but the list also includes quite a few mainly Christian countries where old laws banning blasphemous or religiously disrespectful speech have remained on the statute books, albeit rarely if ever invoked. Such countries include Denmark, Greece and Germany.
Ireland stands out among Western countries for having introduced a blasphemy law very recently. Since 2009, Ireland has had a law which penalises “the publication or utterance of blasphemous matter” with a fine of up to €25,000. The centre-right government which introduced the law defended its action by pointing out that the Constitution of 1937 requires the country to have anti-blasphemy legislation; the new law was an improvement on previous ones because the penalty was pretty mild and it covered other religions as well as Christianity.
Liberal critics of the government said the law sent just the wrong signal at a time when Pakistan and other countries were lobbying hard at the United Nations for acceptance of the principle that religions (as opposed to individuals who might or might not practise a religion) deserved legal protection. These critics had a point. Islamic governments who were arguing in defence of blasphemy laws in international forums have cited the Irish case to show that Western governments are similarly concerned to protect their historic faith.
In any case, the Irish people will soon have a chance to decide that matter for themselves. Plans were announced a few days ago for a referendum on a constitutional change which would remove the reference to penalising blasphemy. None of that will be much immediate help to Ms Bibi or the people involved in her case. But at least Ms Bibi’s would-be persecutors may soon be deprived of an argument.”