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Wed, March 2, 2011 | Butterflies & Wheels | By R. Joseph Hoffmann

This article was first published in Butterflies & Wheels. It is reprinted here with permission by the author.

Pakistani Christians mourn assassinated leader Shahbaz Bhatti.

My time in Pakistan was glorious. I taught bright, beautiful and hopeful students who saw the world not as a series of entitlements but rather as a steep staircase to be climbed, littered with challenges set up by a crooked government that lunged from disaster to catastrophe. It is easy in such circumstances to forget that Pakistan was founded on a crest of hope that soon dissipated into old rivalries, pissing contests between elites, indifference to the mountain men of the Pashto borderlands, suspicion (much of it justified) of eastern and western geopolitics, and an infrastructure that in every decade after 1950 fell further and further behind its more progressive western neighbor and rival — India.

But that is history. Pakistan treated the Sikhs badly, turning the once Sikh-dominated Punjab and its lead city Lahore into a dying old man with dreams of former glory. In hard times, given the choice between restoring a splendid (Non-Islamic) religious shrine or buying another nuclear warhead, you can bet the bricks will continue to fall from the shrine. I wasn’t in Lahore long enough to know the city well. I was just there long enough to know that it was a city of disappointments. — Symbolic of the country as a whole.

The biggest disappointment was the disappointment of the young. Stuck with a government that looks like it was strung together with character actors from a gypsy jamboree, they wait impatiently while it plods on–blaming the west for the ills it has foisted on itself. Insofar as any nation’s government reflects the average face of the nation, they find it hard to swallow western criticism, not least because western criticism is dull (often duller than they are), uninformed, and monotonous.

There is even a segment of the young and hopeful population that has to be seen biblically: when things got politically impossible for the Jews in the first century of the common era and it was clear to even the most political that their time was running put, they looked to the heavens for deliverance, a messiah. One of those apocalyptic sects was pacifist — the Christians — not all, not uniformly but mainly. Others, like the zealots and sicarii were contract killers and had they lived into the modern era, they would have been suicide bombers. The fallacies of the sociology of history are many; but I stake my claim on the fact that Pakistan is going violently downhill because it has entered into the apocalyptic age.

The assassination of Pakistani Christian Shahbaz Bhatti, the government leader for minority religious affairs, is symbolic of that hopelessness. It follows closely on the heels of the murder of Pakistani Muslim Salman Taseer who had criticized the blasphemy laws.

The laws themselves date from the British era, and were subject to a number of revisions through the time of Independence in 1947. From imprisonment and fines, the law, under Zia-ul-Haq, degenerated further in 1986 with a death penalty for defaming Islam. The current (post-2008) controversy springs from the case of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman, who was sentenced to death last November after being found guilty of insulting the Prophet Mohammed following a row with Muslim women in her village. According to Human Rights Watch, Aasia was “charged under the blasphemy law after a June 2009 altercation with fellow farm workers who refused to drink water she had touched, contending it was unclean because she was a Christian.”

The operant offensive sections of the law are these:

Section 295: Insult

“Injuring or defiling place of worship, with Intent to insult the religion of any class: Whoever destroys, damages or defiles any place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction damage or defilement as an insult to their religion. Shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”

Section 295-A: Deliberate insult — imprisonment for 10 years, fine

“Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting Its religion or religious beliefs: Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of the citizens of Pakistan, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations insults the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, or with fine, or with both.”

Section 295-B: Defiling — life imprisonment

“Defiling, etc., of Holy Qur’an: Whoever wilfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur’an or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.”

Let me repeat my assertion this is not a free speech issue — not yet. It is an attempt to remove from the books laws that belong to a sect that rejects the ability of the human animal to reason.

The day before I left Lahore to return to the States, the country was ablaze with gossip that Christians were stuffing pages of the Quran down toilets. The rumours were (almost certainly) spread by children. Whatever the source, it is a recurrent pathological lie dragged out on cue by troublemakers. There are always thousands willing to believe it, such is the religious insecurity of the country. A fraction of that number will kill Christians because they believe it — behavior according to type.

But there is a lesson here.

It is time for the Pakistani government to acknowledge that only when blasphemy laws are repealed is a religion deserving of respect. Religions will not do that: protected status is their writ of survival and dominance. Only a nation-state can do that. Only when it is no longer an offense against the state to criticize the worst and most repugnant elements of religion can a religion begin to talk about tolerance. Officially, as opposed to the Islamic diaspora currying favor in the west, that has not happened in the Islamic world. And only when a religion is able to define tolerance should it be entitled to suggest (not demand) to any other nation or any world body — like the United Nations — that it deserves respect simply because it is a religion.

Pakistan so far has followed just the opposite course. While practicing intolerance and the murder of innocent nonconformists at home, it deigns to lecture the world on the prerogatives of Islam. Almost bizarrely, it then dances a dance of death and calls it life: defends truth through murder, and righteousness with violence.

I am an unbeliever who knows the sins of the west as well as any citizen of the realm. I will shed a tear for the crusades, or for the Raj, or for the arrogance of the west if I have to. But that is hardly the place to begin modern discussion

So let me remind our Muslim brothers and sisters that there is not nearly as much Muslim blood on Christian hands as there is Christian blood on Muslim hands. I hate to put it so starkly, and I am likely to be bludgeoned with statistics from Iraq and Afghanistan. But bludgeon me as you will, I do not think those conflicts were religious. I do not think they would have eventuated without the apocalyptic mentality that still dominates the religious ethos of the Middle East and other parts of the Islamic world.

And I do not think — believe it or not — that most Americans who had to fight those dirty battles did it as Christians. That is my rejoinder, take it or leave it.

But the murder of Shabaz Bhatti is a pathological symptom of religious dysfunction in real time. By synergy, it includes his family and the not quite 3,000,000 Christians remaining (not for long) in Pakistan. Change the mood, and you can substitute the name “Lebanon,” where the entire absurd Constitution is based on a census taken when almost half the population was Christian.

What of course makes the blame-the-west message harder to sell however is not the death of Christians in an Islamic country. It is the death of so many Muslims who find tolerance, co-existence, and simple justice a “foreign” concept–an un-Islamic one. We have a long way to go before this becomes a matter of free speech.


About the author,

R. Joseph Hoffmann is a historian of religion. He graduated from Harvard Divinity School and the University of Oxford (DPhil, 1982). He teached among others at the University of Michigan, Westminster College (Oxford), California State University (Sacramento), American University of Beirut and Wells College. He has held visiting positions at universities in Africa (Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Botswana), the Middle East, the Pacific (Australia and Papua New Guinea) and South Asia, most recently as Visiting Professor of History at LUMS in Lahore, Pakistan. His most recent books include an edited volume entitled Just War and Jihad: Violence in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2006) and Sources of the Jesus Tradition (2010.) He currently teaches at the New England Conservatory in Boston.

Hoffmann blogs at The New Oxonian.


3 Comments to “Shahbaz Bhatti and the Death of Reason”

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  3. avatar Elisabeth says:

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