On 20 February, Joe Shea, an American journalist, issued a press release threatening to burn the Koran if Pakistan went ahead and executed a teenage Christian boy accused of blasphemy. On the Internet, the world- wide computer network, he asked other Americans to follow his example. He wanted, he said, to "give Islam the choice of a dead boy or . . . hundreds of thousands of Americans burning copies of the Koran".
This week, however, Shea apologised for "giving offence to Islam". Shea's apology is only partly due to the fact that the boy was acquitted and is now safely in Germany. What surprised Shea was the vast quantity of post he received through the Internet and the intensive discussions that followed his press release in such "newsgroups" as "soc.religion.islam", "alt.religion.islam" and "soc. culture.pakistan". Not a single correspondent supported the decision of the Pakistani courts. Condemnation of the blasphemy law was unanimous. Shea was overwhelmed by "the spirit of compassion, the love of peace, the desire for justice and the commitment to faith" he found in his Muslim correspondents.
It is hardly surprising that most Muslims reject Pakistan's blasphemy law. Indeed, many had not even heard of the term before the Rushdie affair. Blasphemy is largely a product of Christian theology where the person of Jesus is an extension of God. It has no direct counterpart in Islam.
The blasphemy law of Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code is a relatively recent invention ushered in, under pressure from puritan mullahs, by the late President Zia ul-Haq. The original law, enacted in 1986, stipulated "death, or imprisonment for life and fine" for "words, either spoken or written" intended to "defile the sacred name of the Prophet". However, in October 1990, the Federal Shariah Court declared that the "penalty for contempt of the Holy Prophet . . . is death and nothing else".
The legitimacy for such a law of blasphemy, that demands a mandatory death sentence, can only come from two sources: the Koran and the directive of the Prophet himself. Far from prescribing a punishment, the Koran does not even raise the issue of blasphemy. But it does declare that a "corrupt word" uttered against God or His Prophet is like a tree torn up from its roots - ephemeral in its effect, however strong its original impact on the minds of the people who fall prey to it.
The Prophet himself gave no direction that blasphemy against him should be punished. On the contrary, his examples demonstrate that the norm is forgiveness. Nothing illustrates his example better than the story of the old woman Makkah who used to throw filth on the Prophet and abuse him whenever he passed under her dwelling.
The Prophet always responded to her insults with kind words and forgiveness. One day when the Prophet passed under her house and was not greeted by the usual insults, he was disturbed and enquired about the woman. On hearing that she had become ill, he prayed for her health and showered her with blessings. So impressed was the old woman with his action, that she renounced her hostility and converted to Islam.
So why is a blasphemy law that has no basis in Islamic sources on the statute-book? Pakistan appears to be in the grip of religious paranoia. This law and much of what else is going on in Pakistan, is a panic reaction to the determination of the post-modern world to undermine every notion of the sacred. In an atmosphere of panic and paranoia, the more humane and enlightened segments of the Islamic movement have been totally marginalised.
Many Muslims are right in feeling that the honour of the Prophet is being systematically compromised. But our options in handling the tide of post- modern abuse are not limited to death sentences or doing nothing. If Pakistan abandons the present law it would not mean an open licence to defile the name of the Prophet, as some of the more paranoid mullahs have suggested. A more humane and just law, one that reflects the true spirit of Islam, would be more than adequate to tackle the problem.
Those who demanded the death sentence for the Christian teenager wore a green band on their shoulders with the words "Ashiq -e- Rasool" ("Lovers of the Prophet"). They certainly love something but it is not the Prophet. The only way to show love and respect towards him is to reflect his tolerance, kindness and concern for justice. His example can melt the heart of even the most aggressive sceptic. Joe Shea provides us with a living illustration.
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