Accusations of blasphemy and brutality by religious zealots are a historical phenomenon. Religious fundamentalism always had a tendency of opposing different worldviews and responding with cruelty. History has marked many such events since the killing of the philosopher and scientist Hypatia by a Christian mob 1,700 years ago.
However, today’s usage of the blasphemy connects us more directly to the Islamic world.
But what, exactly, is blasphemy?
Common knowledge is that it’s an Islamic provision that imposes restrictions on pursuing a rational debate that challenges or fact-checks the philosophies that are claimed to be divinely true.
Now, let’s see it from a slightly different angle, to be more precise, from the accounts of the Islamic scholars.
Mohammed brought a new religious idea to the Meccans, and it was different. He preached monotheism and asked them not to worship handmade deities.
Quraysh the Meccan elites responded with a campaign against Islam by harassing and persecuting the Muslims, as to them it was not only an insult of their gods and goddess but also a threat to the traditional elitism.
Sumayya bint Khubbat, a poor citizen of Mecca, is famous as the first martyr of Islam, having been killed with a spear by Abu Jahla, a prominent Meccan leader, when she refused to give up her faith. Jahl then kicked her husband Yasir to death.
Bilal, the first Muezzin and treasurer of Islam, suffered torture at the hands of his master by placing a heavy rock on his chest to force his conversion.
Even Abu Bakr, a wealthy Meccan elite who later became the first Caliph of Islam, had to endure cruel tortures as he was buying and setting the slaves who followed Islam free.
The campaign becomes so severe that at one point Mohammed told his companions to say whatever torturers wanted to hear so that they could escape.
In most events, the torture victims were either the poor Meccans or the slaves who joined the Islamic movements because of the message of freedom and equality.
If we put aside the sneaky concept of a creator and see it from an unbiased perspective, those early struggles of Muslims would define Islam as an uprising of the underprivileged against the ruling elites, with Mohammed accompanied by intellectual minds of the time such as Ali and Abu Bakr leading an ideological revolution against the existing orthodoxy.
In the eyes of the Quraysh, this was blasphemy.
Ironically, the role of the oppressed and the oppressor was soon to be reversed.
After the battle of Badr, at the very beginning of its emergence, the Muslim empire adopted the same strategy against the descending voices who dared to debate the authority of the Islamic ruling.
Abu Afak an elderly citizen of Madina became the first victim of blasphemy under Islamic ruling. Being sarcastic was his crime. He was followed by Asma Bint Marwan, a poet and a mother of an infant who protested the killing of Abu Afak and urged her tribesmen not to obey the Islamic ruling.
And this legacy is defended by the Islamic establishment to date.
Which most often are noticed from the acts of radical Muslims attacking individuals for criticizing Islam, a Muslim mob protesting for the death penalty of a cartoonist, or even worse, let’s say a fatwa against an author by an Islamic republic.
These, however, are merely a few dots of a bigger picture. The regime of blasphemy is far greater.
In fact, all the challenges the Muslim world is facing today—discrimination, inequality, injustice—are connected to this singular flash point. It covers every aspect of life in Islamic societies and the cornerstone of political Islam.
For a better understanding, let’s look at some examples:
Say you are a non-Muslim citizen with a political ambition in a Muslim majority country. What challenges would you face?
The answer comes from Indonesia, which has the world’s biggest Muslim population.
In 2017 the popular Christian governor of Jakarta Basuki Tjahaja Purnama—better known as Ahok—cited a verse from the Qur’an which he said was misused to exploit public sentiment into believing non-Muslims should not lead Muslims.
In a bid to demonstrate power, the Indonesian Islamic hard right accused Ahok of blasphemy and endorsed a violent movement.
Indonesia is a democracy and like all other democracies, the constitution of the country propagates the equal treatment of minority groups before the law. Yet Ahok was sent to prison for two years.
Even the president of Indonesia had to abandon his close ally Ahok to remain in power.
For a second example, say equality for women before the law. What would be the obstacles?
Let’s say a woman’s right on inheritance.
The Islamic inheritance law is considered discriminatory toward women as it grants males double inheritance of what females receive.
Tunisia is the only Arab country that, in recent years, made some outstanding progress regarding gender equality.
This year, the president of Tunisia Beji Caid Essebsi recommended a law to facilitate equal inheritance of women, which was fiercely opposed by the Islamists.
They opposed any changes to the law that might be seen as challenging the Islamic laws with threats of dire consequences.
In the end, Tunisia had to recognize the Islamist demand with a halfhearted law that leaves the door open for freedom of choice. It allows individuals to choose if they want their allocations to be shared based on the Islamic law or not.
For a third instance, let’s assume you’re a member of a minority religious group living in a Muslim majority country. What types of injustices would you have to endure?
This brings me back to Bangladesh, the country where I was born. It is a battle-ground between the secularists and the Islamists.
Minority Rights Group International has recently reported, “Since 2013, Bangladesh has experienced a series of violent attacks by extremists.
The victims have included besides atheists, secular bloggers, liberals and foreigners—many Buddhists, Christians and Hindus as well as Ahmadis and Shia Muslims.”
Unlike, other Muslim countries, the share of the vote of the Islamists in Bangladesh is minimal, 3–4 percent of the total population. Having that in mind, the Islamists here have devised a new strategy to keep a firm grip on the political affair of the country—which is violence against minority groups.
And false accusations of blasphemy are their proffered method. It goes like this at first: The Islamists would open a fake Facebook ID under a Hindu name and then upload an edited picture of a Hindu deity onto an image of a Muslim shrine and circulate rumors.
Later, they’ll gather supporters from across the area and attack minority communities.
They blackmail mainstream political parties with violence, which allows them bargaining power including impunity for the perpetrators.
Many might blame the weak Bangladeshi political leadership for the compromises it makes, especially those who have no prior experience of living in such a situation. A statement issued by the U.S. embassy in Egypt after a similar violent event might help them understand the power of violence.
“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims—as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions … … . We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
Let’s not forget that America was not even directly affected by the violence. Yet it had to bow.
All those examples come from moderate Islamic countries with a democratic system. The situation in conservative countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran is easily imaginable.
And that’s what exactly Blasphemy law is: the power tool of political Islam, a regime without a boundary.
International Blasphemy Rights Day is part of CFI’s mission to pursue equality for atheists and non-believers. IBRD is a day to support free speech and the rights of those who disagree with religious views to voice their opinions peacefully. Join the cause and support International Blasphemy Rights Day and work like it today!