By Sultan Shahin, Founding Editor, New Age Islam
10 March 2017
UNHRC, Geneva, General Debate, 9 March 2017
Item 3. Promotion and Protection Of All Human Rights, Civil, Political, Economic, Social And Cultural Rights, Including The Right To Development.
Oral statement by Sultan Shahin, Founding Editor, New Age Islam On behalf of: Asian-Eurasian Human Rights Forum
9 March 2017
The Right to Freedom of Thought and Religion has been an article of faith for the world since the formation of the UN. Much effort has been made to turn it into reality, the latest being Resolution 16/18 adopted in 2011. Based as it was on a consensus of Islamic and Western nations, it had particularly raised hopes of minorities in Muslim countries. The assumption was that now member countries would repeal blasphemy and other anti-democratic, sectarian and anti-minority laws.
But nothing much seems to have changed. A moderate Muslim country like Indonesia prosecutes a Christian Governor for quoting Quran. Another country Malaysia continues to uphold a ban on Christians using the word Allah to denote God. Madrasas continue to teach xenophobia and intolerance across the world, including in the West.
Blasphemy laws continue to be on the statute books, for instance, in Pakistan. Salman Taseer, the liberal Governor of Punjab was murdered merely because he showed compassion for a Christian lady wrongly accused of blasphemy and asked for the repeal of the blasphemy law. On the basis of this law, religious minorities can be arbitrarily accused of blasphemy and killed, either by a lynch mob or by the judiciary. No evidence is required, as that would allegedly amount to accusers being asked to blaspheme the Prophet again. Similarly, attacks on minority Hindu, Christian, Shias and Ahmadis continue under different legislations. Pakistani laws prohibit the Ahmadis from identifying themselves as Muslims.
It’s time the Council found some way to see that the countries that agree to its covenants also practice it.
Such anti-minority legislations not only violate the UN Resolution, but also Islam’s primary scripture. The Holy Quran does not prescribe any punishment for blasphemy. Nor does it permit any one to declare others kafir. It clearly says: La Ikraha fid Deen, (There can be no compulsion in religion). (Chapter 2: verse 256).
If not the UN Charter, Muslim countries should at least follow their own primary scripture, the Holy Quran.
The Resolution 16/18 was specifically adopted by the Human Rights Council to combat intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against, persons based on religion or belief. It had evolved as a consensus measure by the two blocs in the council represented by OIC and Group of Western European and other States. Since 2000, OIC had been calling for a resolution castigating Defamation of Religions, while Western nations had opposed this and called for complete freedom of expression.
In the case of Pakistan, the implications of Resolution 16/18 would include not just the repeal of the blasphemy law but also the law declaring Ahmadis as non-Muslims. A secular, democratic government, particularly one that is a signatory to the UN Charter and various other covenants including Resolution 16/18, has no reason to be determining who does or does not belong to which religion. This has to be entirely the prerogative of the individual or community.
Indeed in Quran Chapter 49, verse14, God talks about those nomadic desert Arabs who were claiming to have accepted Islamic faith after the Muslim victory at Mecca. They were told that Faith has not yet entered your hearts, yet you will be rewarded for your good deeds. These people were not stopped from practising Islam in any way, although God had Himself testified that Faith had not yet entered their hearts. And here in Pakistan one finds a whole community of believing, practising Muslims, being denied their inalienable right to choose their own religion, simply on account of some marginal theological differences. What gives the Pakistani government the authority to decide who is and is not a Muslim? Is that the function of a government? Clearly the passage of consensus Resolution 16/18 and Pakistan agreeing to it has made no difference to its practices.
Similarly, literature that preaches hate continues to be taught at madrasas and schools in Muslim countries around the world, including in the West. Saudi Salafi textbooks continue to teach xenophobia to Muslim students the world over. They are told, for instance, that they should neither work for nor employ a non-Muslim, if there are other options. The term non-Muslim, for Saudi textbooks, means all non-Salafis, non-Wahhabis, including Muslims of other sects, particularly Sufism-oriented Muslims. Attacks on Sufi shrines like the one that happened recently in Sindh, Pakistan, killing almost a hundred devotees and injuring 250, is a natural outcome of such teachings.
It will be wrong, however, to put the entire blame on Salafi-Wahhabi ideology, which no doubt provides an extremist interpretation of Islamic tenets and has been spread around the world with an investment of tens of billions of petrodollars. The fact remains that Mumtaz Quadri, the murderer of Governor Salman Taseer came from a non-Wahhabi Barelvi sect and was incited into his act and promised Heaven in lieu of this murder by a Barelvi Mullah Hanif Qureshi. A shrine has now been built in the outskirts of Islamabad to worship him.
Barelvis are considered Sufism-oriented and have been the main victims of Salafi-Wahhabi attacks on Sufi shrines. The half a million people who thronged the murderer Mumtaz Qadri’s funeral and the tens of thousands who are visiting his so-called shrine, however, are largely from Barelvi sect. They consider Governor Salman Taseer to be a blasphemer and his murderer an Aashiq-e-Rasool, i.e., some one who loves the Prophet (pbuh). The fact is Salman Taseer had merely called for the repeal of this black Blasphemy law. Because of this law, religious minorities can be arbitrarily accused of blasphemy and killed, either by a lynch mob or by the judiciary. No evidence is required. Asked to provide evidence, the accusers or witnesses ask if they are being asked to blaspheme the Prophet by repeating the accused’s blasphemy. Hence no specific accusation, no debate, no proof is required for pronouncing a guilty verdict which invariably means death sentence. An estimated number of 1,274 people have been charged under the blasphemy laws of Pakistan between 1986, from when they were included in the Constitution by General Zia-ul-Haq, until 2010. Currently, there are at least 17 people convicted of blasphemy on death row in Pakistan, with another 19 serving life sentences, according to United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Several have died in custody or on the death row.
Clearly there is extremism of one sort or another in many Islamic sects and no one particular sect should be blamed entirely for the present state of affairs, despite the involvement largely of people from Salafi-Wahhabi school of thought in the extremist violence being perpetrated around the world.
It is strange that countries with such hateful practices, in clear violation of UN Charter and UNHRC’s resolutions continue to play an important role in the Council’s deliberations.
Clearly there is need for both the Muslim governments and the larger international community to introspect if they have truly accepted the consensus Resolution 16/18. If they are committed to it, they should be concerned about its non-implementation by member-countries, particularly from the OIC block. If nothing else the UN HRC rapporteurs should be naming and shaming those countries which continue to teach xenophobia and hate in their classrooms. It should not be difficult to bring out Saudi textbooks for students from class VIII to XII, for instance, and tell the world what is being taught not only in Saudi Arabia but across the Muslim world where Saudis distributes their books for free. Even in the West most mosques and Islamic centres distribute Saudi published Salafi books.
Muslims have no option but to rethink their theology and bring it in line with the spirit of Islam, the Qur’anic ideals, as well as the requirements of life in the globalised, deeply inter-connected 21st-century world. We Muslims need an internally consistent, coherent Islamic theology of peace and pluralism. All of us Muslims must accept that Islam is a spiritual path to salvation, one of the many, as we have been told in the Holy Quran, and not a totalitarian, fascist ideology of world domination.