Understanding Blasphemy

Religion and culture outpace politics across all regions as the root cause of tension between Muslims and the Western world. Islamophobia creates prejudice and discrimination in the general population in these countries.

By Nikhat Sattar | February 2021


In 1989, a rather unknown author of Indian origin was catapulted to international fame when he published a ridiculous book called “The Satanic Verses”. The Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Khomeini issued a fatwa for him to be killed and suddenly the world woke up to punishment by death for blasphemy. Had Salman Rushdie’s raves and rants been ignored by the Muslims, much damage could have been avoided.

Blasphemy is “behaviour or language that is offensive or shows a lack of respect for God or religion.” Religious and/or sacred personalities, e.g. prophets and sacred books are also included. As of 2014, about 26% countries in the world, the majority being Muslim states, had laws proclaiming blasphemy as a punishable offence. The maximum punishment has varied widely, from fines to a short period of imprisonment, to death.

Apostasy, the formal renunciation of a religion, also overlaps sometimes with blasphemy. One who commits blasphemy is assumed to have gone out of the fold of religion.

These laws have been criticized for having being used extensively to suppress political and religious freedom as well as persecution of people for personal and/or power-related grievances. As a result, there have been campaigns to repeal or restrict their scope with some success in the West.

Many Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran, lead the world in using blasphemy laws to punish people dissenting against Islam. In the majority of cases that have come to light, the offences were reported on the flimsiest of reasons, mostly on the basis of rumours or personal enmity. Many have resulted in brutally inflicted deaths by violent mobs. Murder is often perpetrated in the name of religious fervour by violent mobs, incited by calls from imams or politically motivated persons. There have been innumerable incidents of brutal torture, followed by vigilante killings and hounding of people, particularly Ahmadis, who were rumoured to have committed blasphemy.

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The writer is a development professional, researcher, translator and columnist with an interest in religion and socio-political issues. She can be reached at nikhat_sattar@yahoo.com

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