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Remarks Against Prophet Muhammad: A History Of Blasphemy

Can free speech have any redline? Are taunts at the Prophet of Islam deliberately aimed to provoke reaction? These are vexing questions the world has been trying to come to terms with, in the age of globalisation.

Remarks Against Prophet Muhammad: A History Of Blasphemy
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“There is no God but Allah and Muh­ammad is His Messenger.” This belief is at the core of Islam, and Mus­l­ims view any criticism of the Prophet as sacrilege. The Islamic world is divided on several doctrinal and political issues—there are also various sects of Islam, though Sunnis and Shias are the two most important. Followers of both perceive any negative reference of the Prophet and his immediate family members as blasphemy. The­re have been countless examples of protests and fatwas on this count. Countries that have political differences and do not see an eye to eye on many issues, come together when it comes to any derogatory remarks against the Prophet.

It is not surprising then, that the BJP’s former national spokeswoman Nupur Sharma’s rema­rks evoked strong reactions in Muslim-majority countries, especially in the Gulf. It began with Qatar and Kuwait and spread across the Gulf in countries like Saudi Arabia, Oman, Jor­dan, UAE, as well as in Shia Iran, with official prote­sts registered with the Indian envoys in these countries. Other important Sunni Muslim cou­n­tries like Malaysia and Indonesia also reacted, along with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Maldives. Bangladesh was the one exception and prefer­red to keep quiet. What has to be noted is that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members are considered friendly to India and have excellent economic and political relations with PM Modi’s government. Ironi­c­a­lly, the PM himself has invested time and ene­rgy to improve these rela­tions. India’s reaction to these international compl­aints was to immediately expel Nupur Sharma as the BJP’s national spokesperson.

No Muslim ruler worth his salt can afford to keep quiet when the Prophet is denou­nced. The Gulf countries, which have in the past not reacted to disturbing news from India like vigila­nte kil­lings in the name of cow pro­tection, “love jihad” or the removal of Kashmir’s special status in 2019, used the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) platf­orm­—of which all Gulf nati­ons are members—to do so, bypassing any bilateral response.

One explanation for this apparent anomaly in their reactions is that these king­d­oms do not get involved in the dome­stic politics of other countries. Detractors claim this is because their own human rights records are abysmal. For example, despite Pak­istan’s effort to mobilise the Islamic world over the treatm­ent of Kashmiris, as well as the general state of Indian Muslims, the Gulf nations kept mum and instead worked to cement their political and economic ties with Modi’s India.

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Shadow over Lahore Fourth death anniversary of Pakistan Punjab governor Salman Taseer in 2005

But the slur on the Prophet was another matter. So, does this mean they are going to sever ties with India? Unlikely. Iran, which regards itself as the standard bearer of Shia Muslims of the world, did not cancel the visit of foreign min­ister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. He was the first major leader of an Islamic country to visit India after the fracas. At the end of his three-day India trip, the foreign minister said that the two countries agreed on respecting all religions.

There have been several more serious incide­nts in the past. The most famous was the fatwa (religious decree) issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 aga­inst British-Indian author Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses. The allegorical novel, published in the UK in 1988, was regar­ded by many Muslims as an insult to the Prop­het. Fresh on the back of the 1978 Iranian rev­o­lution, the Ayatollah saw it as an opportunity to project himself as the leader of the Islamic world. So it was natural for  himto issue a fatwa, ordering believers to kill the author for insulting the Prophet.

As a result, Rushdie went into hiding. The Bri­tish government spent millions of pounds prov­iding round-the-clock security to the novelist for over a decade.

Protests against the publication of The Satanic Verses were held across the world, including in India. The book was banned in India and all Isl­a­mic countries.

Notoriety propelled the sale of The Satanic Verses, which is otherwise not considered among Salman Rushdie’s best works.

Meanwhile, notoriety propelled the sale of The Satanic Verses, which is otherwise not considered among Rushdie’s best works. The aut­hor, who was well-known for his contributions to Indo-Anglican literature, became known worldwide thanks to the Iranian fatwa. Critics say he had deliberately courted controversy in his novel, with an eye on sales. Rushdie became a celebrity, with people continuing to show int­erest in every aspect of his life, including, years down the line, his relationship with the Indian-Ame­r­i­can television host, author and one-time model Padma Lakshmi. The fatwa remained in place, but the order to kill was withdrawn in 1998, when moderate leader Mohammad Kha­t­ami took over as President in Iran. Rushdie is a free man today, as the death threat is no longer valid.

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A very different case is that of Salman Taseer, the erstwhile governor of Pakistan’s Punjab pro­vince. A senior politician of the Pakistan People’s Party, he was shot dead by his bodyguard on January 4, 2011, for supporting Asiya Bibi, a Christian who had been imprisoned and convicted on charge of blasphemy. The governor met the woman after she was convicted by a Pakistani court, held a press conference to den­ounce the judgment and announced that he would appeal to then president Zardari for her pardon. Enraged at his compassion for Asia Bibi, his security guard could not contain his rage and fired 28 times upon him from close range, killing Taseer.  

The assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, was hailed as a hero by a large number of Pakistanis, who thought the insult to the Prophet should be avenged. After he was hanged for the assassination in 2016, his funeral was attended by thousands of religious Pakistanis.

Then on April 2017, Mashal Khan, a university student in Peshawar, was beaten to death by 10 others on campus, following allegations of sharing blasphemous content on social media. Such killings happen in many remote, tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as in African nations, often on baseless charges of blasphemy that get little or no national or even internatio­nal attention.

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In Europe, the blasphemy debate revolves around the question of freedom of speech and right to self-expression. Free speech advocates are not bothered that for Muslims, representations of the Prophet are sacrilege. In the name of freedom of expression, Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard made a series of 12 cartoons for the conservative newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005. The caricatures were published with the headline The Face of Mohammed.

The most offending of the cartoons was one that showed the Prophet wearing a turban in the shape of a bomb. The newspaper possibly wished to make the point that Islam’s restrictions on reproducing the image of the Prophet did not apply to the non-Muslim world, especially Denmark.

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But the moment the caricatures appeared, ang­er spilled out to the streets across the Mus­lim world. Many Muslims believed the cartoons were deliberately provocative and insens­itive to Islam. People came out in towns and cities acr­oss the world in angry protests. Danish emb­as­sies became a target worldwide. Death threats were issued and the cartoonist had to go into hiding, with the government offering him sec­urity. But years later, till his death in 2021, Wes­tergaard kept saying he did not regret what he had done, as it was part of Danish culture and he had the freedom to express himself. In 2008, after the arrest of three men involved in a plot to murder the cartoonist, Denmark’s three main newspa­p­ers reprinted the cartoon. The impact of the car­toons continued to simmer across the Islamic world.

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Then in 2015, the Charlie Hebdo incident in Fr­a­nce shook the world and fanned Islamo­ph­o­bia across Europe. Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical magazine known for taking digs at pol­i­tical leaders, the Catholic Church and State institutions. In 2012, it published cartoons of the Prophet. France has a large Muslim population and protests once again shook both France and Muslim nations. France was temporarily for­ced to close missions in 20 countries worldwide in the face of angry demonstrations.

Three years later, two French Muslims brothers decided to take matters into their own han­ds. On January 7, 2015, at a time when all senior editors of Charlie Hebdo had gathered for their morning meeting, they burst into the room with machine guns and killed 12 senior staffers, leaving at least 11 others injured. The gunmen clai­m­ed to be members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula. Later, both were shot dead by French Police.

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But the reverberations did not die down. As late as 2020, French school teacher Samuel Paty was killed for showing a cartoon of the Prophet while teaching his class about freedom of spe­ech. The beheading of Paty in a suburb of Paris led to national and international outrage. Pre­s­i­dent Emmanuel Macron led the mourning for the slain school teacher and said free speech is sacrosanct to the French Republic.

Should there be a limit to free speech? No, according to free speech advocates. But can religi­ous sentiments be set aside? Opinion remains divided. This is much like one man’s freedom fighter being considered a terrorist by another, or the chicken and egg conundrum. The world has not yet come to grips with this.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "A History of Blasphemy")

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