Is a Muslim duty bound to murder anyone who insults the Prophet Muhammad?

Pakistan Christians felt increasingly vulnerable following the murders of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, both killed because of their support for reform of Pakistan's blasphemy laws.AP

It is the popular belief among the majority of Pakistani Muslims that they are duty bound to murder anyone who insults the prophet Muhammad. It is not just Muslim clerics and scholars who believe this, but also regular citizens, politicians, journalists, lawyers and even judges. Many Muslims are ready to be sacrificed for the honour of Muhammad, and also similarly to kill anyone who insults him.

Justice Nazir Akhtar, addressing a gathering of the Ahle Sunnat religious organisation in Lahore, said that undoing the blasphemy laws would be treason even if done by a majority in parliament. He became famous as a sitting judge when he told a social gathering that blasphemers should be killed and not brought to the court of law.

Malik Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard, was so influenced by such an interpretation of the Koranic verses and hadiths that he was inspired to murder the Governor of Punjab he was hired to protect and so weave his place in paradise.

The extreme views on blasphemy that are commonplace in Pakistan have resulted in attacks on churches, Christian towns and villages being set alight, innocent people being burnt alive, and other forms of vigilante killings. Unfortunately no one has ever been challenged by the Pakistani government or law enforcement agencies to give an account, which only encourages radicals to take the law into their own hands. This strengthens their belief that their actions are justified on religious grounds.

In Britain, by contrast, the broadcasting regulator Ofcom fined Noor TV - owned by Al Ehya - £85,000 for inciting hatred and murder. The fine related to an episode of the programme Paigham-e-Mustafa broadcast on 3 May 2012, in which presenter Allama Muhammad Farooq Nizami answered questions from viewers about a wide range of issues relating to Islam. When one caller asked what the punishment was for anyone showing disrespect to the Prophet Muhammad, Nizami answered that "there is no disagreement about this".

"There is absolutely no doubt about it that the punishment for the person who shows disrespect for the Prophet is death," he said.

Nizami also argued that the actions of Mumtaz Qadri were justified on the grounds that he objected to Punjab Governor Salman Taseer's calls to amend the country's controversial blasphemy law. Qadri was sentenced to death by Judge Pervez Ali Shah but after his verdict the court was besieged by extremists, the judge was threatened with his life, lawyers and extremists demanded his resignation, and it is believed he fled the country. Not surprisingly, Qadri's case has not been touched since then.

There have even been demands from politicians, lawyers and clerics that Qadri should be released unconditionally as he apparently committed no crime but only did what the Koran told him to do. In Qadri's own mind too, he has done no wrong. This much was clear from the 40 page document he submitted to the court referring to 11 Koranic verses and 28 quotes from Sunnah in his defence.

Taseer is not the first one to have lost his life because of such warped theology. Samuel Masih was murdered by a policeman who was on duty to guard him. Christians in Gojra have just marked the fifth anniversary of the mob violence that saw eight Christians burnt to death. In 1992, Naimat Ahmer was stabbed and killed in front of his students in Faisalabad. Two years later, Manzoor Masih was shot dead outside the Lahore high court. These crimes are testament to how long Christians have been pleading and campaigning for a change to the blasphemy law.

Most Islamic countries have blasphemy laws criminalising any disrespect shown to the Prophet Muhammad. The punishment ranges from a fine to imprisonment and the death penalty, but what marks Pakistan out from the rest is that the punishment is an automatic death penalty.

Not all Islamic scholars are of the same opinion and there are some who openly oppose such laws and religious views. Javed Ahmed Ghamdi, a prominent Muslim scholar, has always opposed such an interpretation of Islam. However, he was forced to flee the country after receiving death threats from extremists. There are others who share his views who are still in Pakistan but unfortunately their views are not promoted or understood adequately, and their voices are snubbed.

Noor TV is not the only channel to have broadcast views inciting hatred. There are several Islamic channels in the UK that preach hate in some way, especially against Christians and Christianity. DM Digital is another channel that was fined for airing questionable comments and inciting violence and hatred. DM digital was fined £105,000 last year after urging Muslims to commit murder in the name of their religion. Ghulam Qadir Gillani told Muslims it was their duty to kill anyone who insulted the Prophet Mohammed.

Most Islamic scholars like to quote Koranic references and hadiths and offer their own interpretations to back up what they say. However, there are no direct instructions in the Holy Koran to kill someone who insults the Prophet. Pakistani preachers are zealous, emotional and less reserved about preaching hatred. They enjoy impunity as the Pakistani government has never questioned them, and when they migrate to the UK or other Western countries, they bring these views with them and whenever they get a chance they preach them without knowing the country's domestic laws.

The Pakistan blasphemy laws are incompatible with international human rights standards and over the years, human rights groups around the world and within Pakistan have condemned them, highlighting that they are being used for personal motives, and to oppress and persecute the poor and powerless. These laws are especially being used against religious minorities and Christians are the main target. In 2011 the only Christian minster, Shahbaz Bhatti, was killed for demanding changes to these laws. The then prime minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, instead of condemning any abuse of the blasphemy laws in the strictest terms, issued a statement assuring radicals that the government had no plans to change the blasphemy laws that Bhatti had so passionately campaigned against.

After the incidents like the Danish cartoon and films like the Innocence of Muslims by Sam Bacile, Muslims in the West have become more religiously sensitive and are demanding the passing of blasphemy laws at the international level. This is already happening in the UK and although it is not popular at present, that is not to say that it will not become so in the future.

In Pakistan people who preach hatred and have such extreme views are hailed and respected in society, but in the UK this is a serious matter as the British government has a zero tolerance policy and has laws in place to discourage such activities and punish those who commit such crimes. However, allthough Noor TV and DM Digital have been fined, I think Nizami and Gillani should be too. As evidence against them is readily available, they should be questioned by the police and charges brought against them for inciting hatred and violence as this endangers the lives of innocent people.

If the British government follows the Pakistani government's footsteps and takes no action against these hate preachers, then I am afraid many will be encouraged to hate and in the coming years it could have an adverse effect on British society. To maintain peace and security, and ensure freedom of religion and speech, it is important that the British government stamps out radical elements making anti-social threats and encouraging harm against people who have done no other wrong than to have a different faith. There should be no place for extremists in British society and extremists should be treated in accordance with the law.

More News in Comment