In the European world, freedom of expression and creativity is holier than any religious symbolism while in the Muslim world religious symbols are considered sacred to such an extent that blasphemy is still a question of life and death
Dr Haider Shah
While the French people braved cold weather and held a million man march in Paris, thousands came out in Pakistan protesting against the offensive cartoons. If someone like PK (from the Indian movie PK) was observing these spectacles from his spaceship, he would have concluded that there lived two different worlds on planet earth. With the passage of time these imaginary worlds also change as our physical world transforms but the rate of change is not uniform across the globe. For instance, we see an entirely different world in Athens when the world in general was defined by savage empire builders. Similarly, Spanish Andalus stands out as a different world when Europeans were practicing the inquisition of those accused of having the wrong faith.
In ancient times, religious symbols provided a sense of security, stability and social cohesiveness in a very volatile and insecure world. Those who questioned religious names, stories and artefacts were, therefore, considered to be undermining the stability and tranquillity of the social order. Europe remained a bastion of religious fanaticism where voices of scepticism were suppressed by violent punishments. Until the early 17th century, speaking against God was punishable by death in the UK and other parts of Europe. The old laws of heresy were gradually replaced by blasphemous libel against those who were accused of disrespecting God, Jesus or the church. Any form of obscene depiction of holy Christian personalities was strictly prohibited. Even doctrinal level dissents were not tolerated by the state and the courts. For instance, in 1656, James Nayler, who belonged to the Quaker sect of Christianity and was charged with claiming equality with God was sentenced by the High Court of Parliament that “he be repeatedly set in the pillory and scourged, that he be branded on the forehead with the letter ‘B’, that he have his tongue bored with an iron and be confined afterwards in prison and set to hard labour.” In 1729, a Cambridge academic, Thomas Woolston, was detained until his death in 1733 for writing pamphlets in which he questioned the miracles of the New Testament.
So, we can conclude that Europe was also once in the firm grip of socially accepted norms of punishing those who disrespected symbols of Christian faith. The grip, however, gradually loosened as writers, poets, scientists and other members of intelligentsia launched a spirited campaign against notions of holy symbolism. Indeed, the statement of celebrated British judge Lord Denning, in 1949, quite aptly captures the newly developed social consensus on holiness versus blasphemy: “The reason for this law was because it was thought that a denial of Christianity was liable to shake the fabric of society, which was itself founded upon Christian religion. There is no such danger to society now and the offence of blasphemy is a dead letter.” The law of blasphemy, however, was not formally repealed until 2008 when, through an amendment in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill 2007-08, the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished by the UK parliament.
Recently, Amir Khan’s movie PK made a roaring success in India even though it makes scathing attacks on organised Hindu religion and its symbolism. When some extremist Hindu groups approached the Supreme Court they were curtly told that they better not watch the movie if they felt offended. So, it appears that even Hindu society has evolved over time and finds religious symbolism not holier than the freedom of expression. However, it is entirely a different case with the Muslim world in general and Pakistanis in particular. Though they physically live in the same world, they live in an imaginary world that is still riveted strongly to the medieval era when religious symbolism was at the centre of all social life. They find blasphemy offensive and react violently in the same way as the Christian world used to react a few hundred years ago. The disparity between the two worlds is almost unbridgeable. In the European world, freedom of expression and creativity is holier than any religious symbolism while in the Muslim world religious symbols like names of holy personalities and related stories are considered sacred to such an extent that blasphemy is still a question of life and death.
This unfortunate situation has further been confounded by the impact of globalisation, which Giddens defines as “the intensification of worldwide social relations, which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring miles away and vice versa.” While the modern and Muslim worlds are governed by different notions of holiness, and are situated in two different eras, they feel each other’s impact due to globalisation. If the western world wants a more harmonious world it will have to be more sympathetic to the psychological profiling of the Muslim world with a view to helping it enter the modern era. It has to help the Muslim world soften its links with the medieval period and associated concerns of that era. The Muslim intelligentsia also needs to understand that, while feeling offended is our basic human right, we cannot enforce our notion of holiness on others. The more we react with angry protests the greater will be the likelihood of repeat offences. Instead, by showcasing happy and thriving social communities we can bring greater glory to the names of our holy personalities if we are genuinely sincere in this cause.