29 Jan Aslim Taslam, Three Cups of Tea, and Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws
In the Toronto Star of Friday January 21, an article was published with the headline ‘Pakistani Christians seek safety in Islam‘. It described a steady stream of Christians who are converting to Islam in Pakistan in order to ensure their safety and the safety of their children.
Many incidents have been reported from Pakistan where Muslims have threatened their Christian neighbours with a blasphemy charge out of vindictiveness, or to extort something from them. This is a potent threat, because in Pakistan the penalty for blasphemy against Islam is death. The Star reported that Nadeem Anthony, a member of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission, has said:
“No one feels safe right now. People are scared. If you want something from your neighbour or you are angry at him, you say ‘blasphemy’ and that’s it.”
It is not only Christians who are targeted with the blasphemy law. The Star article also describe a recent case of a Shi’ite doctor who was charged with blasphemy after he threw a travelling salesman’s business card in the trash. The salesman, whose name was Muhammad, complained to religious authorities that throwing his business card aaway was blasphemy, because Muhammad is also the name of Islam’s founder. It seems that the salesman was annoyed that the doctor had refused to buy his product, and accused him of a capital offence out of spite. (Shi’ites are a religious minority in Pakistan.) In Pakistan putting a piece of paper in the trash can be capital offense.
Although most of the Star’s Canadian readers would view such an incident with horror, these days sentiment in favour of the blasphemy law is riding very high in Pakistan. This can been seen in reactions to the murder of Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, for his opposition to the law and support for Asia Bibi, a Christian women who has been charged with blasphemy. When Taseer’s self-confessed killer, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, was being taken to court, he was showered with rose petals by 400 lawyers, who clambered over each other to offer him their services, and a rally held in Karachi to demonstrate support for the killing attracted 40,000 people.
Zafar Hilali, a former Pakistani ambassador and foreign secretary, has insisted that Pakistan’s tensions over the blasphemy law are more to do with class divisions than religion. Certainly the blasphemy law is working as a tool to encourage conversions, but is the idea of people becoming Muslims to be safe supported in Islam?
There is a basis in Islam’s core texts for using fear to encourage conversions. Converting to be safe goes all the way back to Muhammad. The concept is summed up in the well known Arabic phrase aslim taslam ‘Convert to Islam and you will be safe’.
In the Sahih Muslim – a canonical collection of traditions of Muhammad, the following incident is reported:
“… the Messenger of Allah … came to us and said: ‘(Let us) go to the Jews’… The Messenger of Allah … stood up and called out to them (saying): ‘O ye assembly of Jews, accept Islam (and) you will be safe [aslim taslam].’ [And after repeating this another two times, he said]: ‘You should know that the earth belongs to Allah and His Apostle, and I wish that I should expel you from this land. Those of you who have any property with them should sell it, otherwise they should know that the earth belongs to Allah and His Apostle’ (and they may have to go away leaving everything behind).” (Sahih Muslim, Book of Jihad and Expedition 3:17:4363):
In fact a few Jews did agree to save themselves by converting: ‘they went and became Muslims and saved their lives, their property, and their families’ (Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad, pp.94-95).
Later, when Muhammad led a military expedition against the peaceful Jews of the oasis of Khaybar, his cousin Ali asked him why the Muslims were fighting: ‘Allah’s Messenger, on what issue should I fight with the people?’
To this Muhammad replied:
“Fight until they bear testimony to the fact that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger, and when they do that, then their blood and their riches are inviolable [safe] from your hands.” (Sahih Muslim. Book of the Merits of the Companions of the Holy Prophet 4:29:5917).
Later Muhammad would again use the phrase aslim taslam as part of his declarations of war against Christians.
I am often asked why people convert to Islam. In reality there are many reasons, both individual and more general, but one reason can be fear. Islam offers an assurance – as modeled by Muhammad in his dealings with the Jews and Christians of his time – that people will be ‘safe’ if they convert. Or conversely, they will be in danger from Muslims if they refuse Islam. By his example, Muhammad blessed the used of threats to encourage conversion.
In this respect Pakistan is following in Muhammad’s footsteps.
The tragic deterioration of the human rights of religious minorities in Pakistan is the result of a long-standing program of intentional religious indoctrination, which has seen millions of young men pass through conservative madrassas.
This radical Islamic reform movement, carefully nurtured for more than a a century, makes a mockery of the naivety of Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, a book which proposed that the solutions to Pakistan’s problems will be found in alleviating poverty and improving access to education, especially for girls.
Mortenson’s compelling and best-selling narrative has been enthusiastically welcomed by countless Western readers (consider the 2,500 reader reviews on Amazon). However in pandering to the failing worldview of western readers, Three Cups of Tea has merely worked as an anaesthetic to dull their minds and wills.
Mortenson has declared that:
“The only way we can defeat terrorism is if people in this country (Pakistan) where terrorists exist learn to respect and love Americans, and if we can respect and love these people here.” (p.268)
However the key issue in bringing long-lasting respect for fundamental human rights to Pakistan is not what Pakistanis feel about Americans, but what Pakistani Muslims think about their non-Muslim fellow citizens.
Contrary to Mortenson’s account:
- Pakistan’s radicalization was not simply the result of the influx of Saudi money in the 1990’s: it does not go back to the activities of Al-Qa’ida or Saudi Wahabbis, but to the influence of Deobandis since the 19th century, and to scholars such as Abul Ala Maududi, who was already active in India before World War II. The radicalization movement is indigenous to the sub-continent.
- The 400 Pakistani hundred lawyers who showered Taseer’s murderer with rose petals had had no problem accessing education. Their problem was not ignorance. Radicals can be well-educated people and often are. A good education doesn’t necessarily make people less likely to hate. The experience of the UK has shown that a better educated younger generation of Muslims can be more radicalized than their parents.
- Islamic radicals can build schools too: moderates don’t have a monopoly on compassion for kids. Indeed, each and every school Mortenson built can easily be used for radical ends.
- Mortenson’s claim that universal human values are the same in all religions is not valid for radical Islam, which does not recognize the equality of all people before the law. Radical Islam insists that non-Muslims should be treated as second class citizens.
- The warm welcomes Mortenson received were because of his service to Muslim communities. He would not have been so well treated if he had been building schools for non-Muslim minorities in Pakistan.
A true respect and love for the people of Pakistan — including its Christian and other non-Muslim citizens — demands that the bitter legacy of Pakistan’s radicalization be challenged, including its blasphemy laws. Until the root is dealt with, the fruit will continue to be bitter.
Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at the Melbourne School of Theology.