Pakistani Prime Minister: ‘Blasphemy in the Garb of Freedom of Expression Is Intolerable’

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during the 74th Session of the General Assembly at UN Headquarters in New York on September 27, 2019. - India is planning a "bloodbath" in Kashmir, Khan told the UNGeneral Assembly. The Indian-controlled part of the disputed territory has been under lockdown since New …
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“Blasphemy in the garb of freedom of expression is intolerable,” Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said in a slogan broadcast on Twitter by the Pakistani government’s official account.

Pakistan’s The News reported on Friday that Khan’s slogan came up during a meeting with Bosnian leader Sefik Dzaferovic. 

Khan expressed “brotherly affinity with the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina” and thanked Dzaferovic for Bosnia’s assistance during Pakistan’s 2005 earthquake and 2010 floods. He also thanked Dzaferovic for Bosnia’s support of Pakistan’s position against India in the disputed province of Kashmir. 

According to The News, Khan told Dzaferovic that India has been “taken over by a fascist and extremist ideology” that is persecuting Muslims worldwide — including in France, which Khan denounced for insisting that its citizens are free to say things that hurt the feelings of Muslims.

“Both of us condemned the terrorist acts by Muslims in France, like all other countries would condemn them. But at the same time, we felt that for inter-religious harmony, it is important that the freedom of expression is not used as an instrument to hurt the feelings of any religious community,” Khan said of his meeting with Dzaferovic.

“Any insult, ridicule and mocking of Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) causes the greatest pain to the Muslims community. The European powers and Western countries must understand that you can’t use freedom of expression as a weapon to cause Muslims the pain by insulting our Prophet (PBUH),” he explained.

“Unless this is understood, the cycle of violence will keep happening; there will be provocations, Muslims will react,” he warned. “There will be a reaction against the Muslims living in Western countries and especially in France, which will lead to marginalisation and more radicalism and the cycle will continue unless there is an understanding and respect for sentiments of every religious community and specifically Muslims living in Europe.”

Pakistan has laws against blaspheming Islam, including the death penalty. The blasphemy laws were adapted from British colonial codes in India that criminalized disrupting religious assemblies or insulting religious beliefs. 

Pakistan modified these protections for all religious faiths during the 1980s to “Islamicize” them, and specifically to exclude the Ahmadis, an Islamic sect considered heretical by many other Muslims because they believe their founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was a prophet like Mohammed. The second amendment to the Pakistani constitution was passed in 1974 with the sole purpose of legally classifying Ahmadis as non-Muslims.

Efforts to amend Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to either liberalize them or extend their protections to religions besides Islam have been attempted for decades, without success. The last Pakistani politician of any great stature to criticize the blasphemy laws, Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, was assassinated in 2011 by Mumtaz Qadri, one of his police bodyguards. A significant political party was founded in Qadri’s honor after his execution in 2016. 

Islamic religious leaders applauded Taseer’s murder using exactly the same logic as Prime Minister Khan’s remarks on Thursday. 

“Salmaan Taseer was himself responsible for his killing. Any Muslim worth the name could not tolerate blasphemy of the Prophet, as had been proved by this incident,” Munawar Hasan, the head of one of Pakistan’s largest Islamic religious parties, said in 2011.

Contrary to his claim that he thinks every religion should be protected from hurtful words or blasphemous statements, Khan has given speeches insulting to Christianity and Judaism since he remodeled himself as a devout Muslim during his rise to power. After launching his political career, the former cricket star and playboy became a fiery defender of Pakistan’s laws against blaspheming Islam, including the death penalty, dismaying international observers who hoped he might become a liberalizing force. Human rights advocates blame Pakistan’s blasphemy laws for inspiring dozens of vigilante murders.

“My father was a hero and a champion for change. He wanted amendments in this barbaric law. Imran Khan is a coward; he is supporting murderers and mob violence. This law is persecuting people, it is not respecting our prophet,” Salmaan Taseer’s son Shabaz said in 2018.

Writing at the left-leaning Haaretz on Sunday, Pakistani journalist Kunwar Khuldune Shahid blasted Khan and Turkey’s like-minded prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for “hypocrisy” in claiming they seek protection for all religions instead of special privileges for Muslims. He castigated both for casually smearing critics of political Islam by comparing them to Nazis, as Khan did again during his meeting with the Bosnian leader a few days later.

Shahid denounced Khan and Erdogan’s arguments as another manifestation of anti-Semitism since they are both implying that Jews have arranged special protection against Holocaust denial through sinister means. He was especially disappointed in Khan for using these rhetorical tactics because he was once married to a Jewish woman and is often smeared as a “Jewish agent” by his hardline Islamist critics. He further excoriated Khan for complaining about free speech in France while ignoring Communist China’s brutal persecution of the Uyghur Muslims.

“Pakistan and Turkey’s use of the Holocaust for point-scoring, and the implied justification of violent reactions to ‘anti-Islamic’ blasphemy, underlines a more general failure of Muslim leaders to understand the basic concept of free speech, or even their own duplicitous claims of ‘double standards,’” Shahid wrote.

“Blasphemy is a capital offense only in Muslim-majority countries. 12 Muslim-majority states have established the death penalty with 20 others establishing prison sentences. And lest one thought the idea was to protect all people of faith — these offenses are all Islam-specific, and the laws do not stipulate similar punishments for sacrilege against other religions,” he observed.

“The truth is, if these Muslim leaders fail to see the duplicity of their demands for the exclusive protection of Islam from satire, their own boosting of bigotry, their equation of blasphemy with the genocide of Jews and their implicit endorsement of the righteousness of violent retaliation, then there is no way they should ever be given any veto power over free speech,” Shahid concluded.

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