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Bridging The Gap
Fundamentalism malaise
  Monday 13 December, 2010

By Faisal Siddiqi

WE are plagued by the disease of fundamentalism. We, the much troubled Pakistani nation, have been force-fed all editions of fundamentalism i.e. religious, liberal, military and American imperialist versions.

This fundamentalist narrative of `I am the Truth` has now infected the current debate about the blasphemy laws (specifically Sections 295-A, B & C, Pakistan Penal Code, 1860). In one corner, we have the Islamic fundamentalists (i.e. constitutional fundamentalists like the Jamaat-i-Islami, JUI-F), who want to retain or strengthen this law. In the other corner are the liberal fundamentalists, who want this law repealed or, at the least, radically reformed. Can this violent confrontation be avoided? And is there a non-fundamentalist way forward through which we can strike an appropriate balance?

This debate about the blasphemy laws was bound to be infected by fundamentalism because it is taking place either on the plane of ideology or hermeneutics/interpretation.

According to the liberal fundamentalist, the present text of the blasphemy laws and its constant misuse make the law, in its current form, morally and ideologically unjust, whereas, according to Islamic fundamentalists, this is God`s law and, thus, morally and ideologically superior to any liberal ideology or argument.

I am not a great fan of post-modern philosophical doctrine but its post-modern exponents are right in arguing that we live in a world of irreconcilable ideological conflict and this ideological conflict between the Islamist and liberal fundamentalist cannot be intellectually resolved. Therefore, the road to victory, for either side, does not lie on the ideological highway.

But what about the hermeneutical/interpretational plane? The Islamists argue that there is a consensus among the ulema that this blasphemy law is the correct interpretation of God`s law. The liberals object that there is no such consensus and the present text of these laws is not in accordance with the Quran and Sunnah.

Who will resolve this hermeneutical debate about authentic interpretation? What both classical and modern hermeneutical philosophers tell us is that the Islamic and liberal fundamentalists` interpretation is just that a human interpretation of a sacred text and nothing more. In other words, no one has direct access to the religious text and no one can claim un-refutable interpretation. Therefore, the hermeneutic road, for either side, will not lead to victory.

But what is more important to us? The so-called principles of both the Islamists and liberals and their desire to please their respective audiences? Or, shouldn`t the central concern be the punishment of persons who maliciously violate these laws to cause religious conflict, as well as justice for the innocent victims of these laws?

Sadly, we are also infected by helplessness, cynicism and conflict and this leads to our failure to see the implied consensus among us on even these contentious issues. On this issue of blasphemy and its law, both the liberals and the Islamist agree on the following principles:

(a) Any sane person who maliciously and deliberately commits blasphemy to cause religious conflict should be punished. (b) No innocent person should be tried and punished under the blasphemy laws. (c) The courts of law should decide these cases under the law without fear of the state or the public mob. (d) If any person has been declared innocent by the courts of laws, it is the duty of every person and institution to protect his/her life and liberty. (d) Even the guilty under these blasphemy laws have legal rights and they can only be punished by the courts and their sentences can only be executed in accordance with the law. No private person or mob can be allowed to try, convict and punish any person.

Further, the Islamists and liberals may be surprised at the fact that both might also agree on the issue of reform. The liberals need to reform the blasphemy laws because of its misuse and the growing number of innocent victims they claim. But the Islamists must also reform this law to strengthen it because its misuse and its growing list of innocent victims might ultimately lead to its repeal.

Therefore, my Islamic brothers, reform this law before the momentum for its repeal becomes unstoppable. In other words, if you oppose Sherry Rehman`s bill, why not bring your own bill to strengthen this law in a manner that it mutes criticism by controlling its misuse, and by humanising it?

But this is where the consensus ends and the hard work begins. The liberals and the Islamists will not agree on the text of the blasphemy law presented by either side. There is only one way to resolve this textual debate over the blasphemy law. A vote in the Pakistani parliament. There are two main reasons for resolving this debate through parliament.

Firstly, it comprises all shades of Pakistani opinion i.e. both the religious and liberal opinions are represented in parliament. Secondly, it is historically tested. Both the Islamic and liberal camps have resolved much tougher disputes (e.g. the consensus documents like the 1973 constitution and the 18th Amendment) through parliament.

The blasphemy law issue is a reflection of a potentially violent ideological war between the liberals and Islamists. Both sides should be conscious that the ultimate winners of this violent ideological warfare will be either the Taliban (i.e. militant non-constitutionalists) or Bonaparte generals or American imperialism and each one of these victors considers both the liberals and constitutional Islamists as either kafirs , civilian fools or collateral damage. If any one of these victors takes charge of Pakistan, there will be nothing left of this country and we would all be blasphemous in the eyes of these victors from a worldly hell.

The writer is a lawyer.

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