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Suicide forces us to face Islamic blasphemy laws

Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad, Pakistan, cried out to the world for justice (NCR, May 15). His cry will reverberate until the world risks looking at the Islamic repression he died protesting.

For anyone as self-reflective as the bishop showed himself to be, turning a gun on oneself is an awful prospect: not a wild gesture of the moment but the ultimate sacrifice approached calmly and in full awareness of the consequences -- a daunting act of conscience.

Before leaving home to travel the 100 kilometers to Sahiwal, he attended a prayer meeting for victims of the laws under which Ayub Masih and three other Christians have been condemned to death for alleged blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad. “We cannot engage lawyers, the judges are scared and give biased judgments,” Joseph, 65, told the meeting. “We have no way except to shed our blood, and the time has come to make a sacrifice.”

Reports say he took some close associates with him on the trip from Faisalabad but parted with them at a short distance from the Sahiwal courthouse. He died of a gunshot wound about 9:30 p.m. on May 6. It was a shot heard around the world.

One quick result of the bishop’s death has been to embolden people, in Pakistan and elsewhere, to speak out against the dark side of Islamic fundamentalism and authoritarianism. The whole world knows Salmon Rushdie less for his fiction than for the price placed on his head for alleged blasphemy against Islam. In a world where religion, at least in theory, is associated with love and compassion, this up-front vindictiveness startles us. This and similar chilling scenarios have discouraged critics from speaking out against abuses and injustices.

The immediate occasion of Bishop Joseph’s gesture is but a small case in point. Sources say Ayub Masih was condemned to death not so much for blaspheming as for being on the wrong end of a local land dispute. Says a Faisalabad catechist, “The law is such that verbal accusations are enough to sentence a Christian to death.” The so-called blasphemy laws are so loose, sources say, that they are a blunt weapon used not only against religious minorities but by Muslims against other Muslims to settle scores of all kinds.

The West has historically viewed Islam with suspicion and even hostility. Those were the “infidels” against whom Europe launched several Crusades, although its defenders say the Quran describes Muhammad as tolerant of Christians. In the 20th century, Islamic militancy has flourished on several fronts, with reports of persecution of Christians especially in Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. In whatever countries Islam gets a grip, its frequent combination of fundamentalism and militancy has kept opposition to Islam weak and criticism of its abuses muted.

This may be why such a dramatic protest was necessary. Already others are speaking out to make that very point. Writes Basil Fernando, executive director of the Asian Human Rights Commission: “There had been many years of letter-writing, seminars national and international, prayer meetings and everything else that usually goes under the name of protests. Nothing mattered. A cynical game of harassment, intimidation and cruelty was going on.”

Needless to say, all Muslims do not behave as these regimes do. Furthermore, extremism is a stranger neither to Catholicism nor to most religions. But even as we repent the Inquisition and other Christian ills, neither should we flinch from naming problems when we find them elsewhere.

This could be a special moment for Muslims to come forward, to show us the bright side of their faith but also to speak frankly of its dark side, just as we ought to do about ours.

National Catholic Reporter, May 22, 1998