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Blasphemy Charges: An Instrument of Repression in Troubled Afghanistan
by Rene Wadlow
2008-10-28 09:21:39
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On 21 October 2008, An Afghan appeals court overturned the death sentence on Parwez Kambakhsh, a journalism student accused of blasphemy for asking questions in class about women’s rights under Islam.  The court modified the sentence to 20 years in prison, always for the same charge of blasphemy for questioning discrimination against women.

Kambakhsh was studying journalism at Balkh University in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and writing for a local newspaper where his older brother was a professional journalist.  At the time of Parwez’s arrest in October 2007, there was speculation that he was targeted because his brother, Yaqub Ibrahimi, had written about the human rights violations of local warlords and that the warlords had pressured the court.

However, in the appeals court the discussion focused only on the blasphemy charge as a student and three professors testified that Parwez Kambakhsh had blasphemed by questioning tenets of Islam on the position of women.  The fear of the consequences of blasphemy is very deeply rooted in the collective unconscious of humanity.  The gods, God, the spirits etc which are offended may inflict punishment, illness and disasters not only on the guilty person but against whole communities or tribes.  It is this concept of collective punishment which creates an ever-present fear, even if partly unconscious and makes people want to lash out at those accused of blasphemy.  The theme of collective punishment for the fault of one is the theme of one of the earliest of Greek tragedies, Sophocles Oedipus Rex, which itself is based on earlier Greek rituals to ward off the collective punishment of offended gods.  Today, we see the same fears in the rituals of largely Buddhist Burma where nat spirits of nature must be calmed for having been disturbed during the harvests.  What is pleasing or offensive to the spirits, gods, God, or the Divine is a topic of endless discussion, argument, and debate.

It is not argument on what is blasphemy, idolatry, or licit behaviour that is dangerous; it is State intervention into that debate that is destructive of human rights.  We need only recall the blasphemy trial of Socrates accused of “teaching men not to receive the gods whom the city acknowledged and of having new gods. (See Plato’s Apology).

What subjects are covered by the charge of blasphemy in Afghanistan is not clear and seems to be left to the views of the judges.  In neighboring Pakistan, the blasphemy laws (295B and 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code) are more precise as to both subjects and punishment.  The mandatory death sentence was introduced as a result of the Amendment Act N° III (1986). Thus in addition to God, his angels, and the Koran, blasphemy includes “whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, directly or indirectly defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death”. (Section 295C).  However, Section 298B goes on to add the “sacred name of any wife (Ummul Mumineen) or members of the family (Ahle-bait) of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him), or any of the righteous Caliphs (Khulafa-e-Raashideen) or companion (Sahaaba) of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) shall be punished with imprisonment or with fine or with both”.  We will look at the consequences of the Pakistan blasphemy laws in a follow-up article.

Here we focus on the trial of Parwez Kambakhsh as an indication of what may be a dangerous trend toward an ultraconservative view on religious and individual freedoms, especially concerning the role of women.  Muslim clerics welcomed the court’s decision, and there were even public demonstrations of support.

At a time when there may be a need to reach a compromise agreement with the Taliban in order to reduce violence, limitations on the expression of religious ideas or criticism of religiously-based practices may be one of the concessions made for Taliban cooperation.

Because blasphemy can be interpreted very broadly, it can serve as an instrument against those which a government or faction opposes. The trial and condemnation of Parwez Kambakhsh is a warning symbol of what may be a trend.  The situation of freedom of thought in Afghanistan must be closely watched and the defences of liberty strengthened.

Rene Wadlow, Representative to the UN, Geneva, Association of World Citizens and Editor of www.transnational-perspectives.org

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Emanuel Paparella2008-10-28 19:49:19
There is another side to this coin which also merits to be examined. The UN Human Rights Council voted 21-10, with 14 abstentions on March 27 2008 to pass a resolution "Combating defamation of religions." It mentions Islam and Muslims repeatedly but not other religions nor their adherents. Now, this begs the question: why is there this concern at the UN for the defamation of religions, at least on the part of Muslims? Surely there must be some hard evidence for this disrespect for religious traditions, a phenomenon especially virulent in Europe and on ongoing problem. It would be enough to remember the Danish cartoons of 2005 mocking Islam and Mahomet and the fierce controversy they raised. (continued below)

Emanuel Paparella2008-10-28 20:03:02
Somehow, the mocking of religious traditions is misguidedly thought to be an "enlightened" cultural stnce among the intelligentia of Europe beginning with Voltaire. That is too bad, for indeed, while human rights outht to be promoted and defended at the UN and elsewhere, it ought to also be freely acknowledged that freedom of religion, or non-religion for that matter, is also an important right just as freedom of speech is. (continued below)

Emanuel Paparella2008-10-28 20:08:04
After all, every civilized community has laws against egregious slander and those laws apply not only to the individual right to one's reputation but to institutions as well. Finally, in my opinion, the obbvious flaw in the above mentioned UN resolution is that it fails to made respect for religions truly international, that is to say universal, applying equally to all religions. For indeed,when a religion becomes intolerant of other religions it is ipso facto no longer a religion respecting human freedom but a repressive cult. That distinction is crucial.

Sand2008-10-29 06:24:03
When religion supports superstitious fear of godly retribution to the point of destroying an individual who supports decent civil rights for a suppressed class and the legal system backs this obvious injustice to an individual I wonder why a supposedly humane person would support this basic indecency.

Emanuel Paparella2008-10-29 08:48:21
Point proven, thank you. The distinction between religion and cult has not been made. Religion bashers hardly ever do.

Sand2008-10-29 09:17:56
Yes, of course, but I never considered Christianity or Islam anything else but cults so we seem to be in a sort of tentative agreement.

Emanuel Paparella2008-10-29 10:00:59
Sorry to disappoint you, the agreement, tentative or not, may be with the voices in your head, not with me and thousands of scholars who consider religion one of the positive phenomena of what it means to be human. It is one thing to be able to see the abuses of religion or any other human institution, it is another to advocate its liquidation simply because it does not conform to one's pre-conceived biases. The abuse does not take away the use and to insist on doing so out of sheer ignorance is to be clever by half and delude oneself with self-deception.

Emanuel Paparella2008-10-29 10:03:57
P.S. By the way, one of those genuine scholars who considered religion in a positive light was the atheist Santayana. He was intelligent, and not just clever by half.

Sand2008-10-29 12:36:09
Aah yes. The famous Santayana who claimed that people who forget past mistakes repeat them but neglected to point out that stupid people running institutions like religious organizations and many governments and financial institutions revere their past mistakes and repeat them as a matter of policy.

That you consider Islam a cult and Christianity not does betray a wee bit of prejudice.

Emanuel Paparella2008-10-29 14:24:12
"That you consider Islam a cult and Christianity not does betray a wee bit of prejudice." (Mr. S.)

Which voice in your head told you that I said that? Don't believe them, they are liars.

Sand2008-10-29 18:31:16
Islam is notorious for punishing severely any deserters who would choose another religion.
Here are your words:
"For indeed,when a religion becomes intolerant of other religions it is ipso facto no longer a religion respecting human freedom but a repressive cult. That distinction is crucial."

So it seems it was voices in your head.

Emanuel Paparella2008-10-29 23:49:33
Where does the sentence mention Islam? It is a general statement about any religion. As I said, in your eagerness to smear and cast aspersion you are listening to some pretty nasty voices. They do you no honor and less than nothing for your credibility.

Sand2008-10-30 05:07:18
Your open stupidity is really embarrassing, Paparella.

Sand2008-10-30 07:44:22
The nearest analogical comparison I can make for you, Paparella, is of a cockroach which as been genetically modified to have a firefly lit tail. You are frantically fleeing the light from your own tail.

Emanuel Paparella2008-10-30 13:25:07
Have the voices convinced you that you are Kafka redivisus Mr. S.? Don't believe them, for after all 21th century roaches are so much more sophisticated than ancient roaches. They are getting ready to take over the world. Then those who believe that Man is nothing but another animal issuing from the slime of the earth can apply the position of vice-royal Grand Roach in charge of politically orthodoxy and correctness crushing the non-compliant roaches under their stumping booth. Food for thought for a good novel.

Sand2008-10-30 14:13:42
Dreams of glory for a Cockfly or a Fireroach, whichever name you prefer for yourself.

Emanuel Paparella2008-10-30 16:27:56
You coult title the novel "Sand in my eyes" and illustrate it with a roach looking into a pond and admiring what it sees while a big bonfire burns in the background.

Sand2008-10-30 17:42:05
Better go to work on it quickly, Paparella, before a bunch of furious Islamists catch up with you for labeling their religion a cult.

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