My late mother taught me a lot and left me with advice that has stood the test of time. One of the things she told me was that it was rarely a good idea to engage in talks about politics or religion. Both are often very personal and very important to people’s identity. We are seeing in the US, for example, surveys in which respondents say they no longer talk to those who identify as supporters of the ‘other’ political party (i.e. Republican or Democrat), even if they are family members.
Well sorry mom, I did not follow your sage warnings. Not only did I work as a strategic terrorism analyst for 15 years – what better way to combine religion and politics than to look at terrorism – but now I write about both on a daily basis! I hope you can forgive mom: by the way are you reading my blogs in the afterlife?
When it comes to religion in particular emotions can get heated in a hurry. For much of the planet’s population religion is a wondrous thing, inspiring great acts of kindness and mercy and helping to make our world a better place. There is unfortunately of course the other side of the coin where religion has led to unspeakable acts of horror and violence: I don’t really think I need to give you a list.
Another aspect of religious fervour that has always fascinated me is that of blasphemy, the charge leveled by some that a remark goes against some sense of ‘normative’ belief or in fact ‘offends God’. Blasphemy is remarkably still an offence in many countries and can carry the death penalty. Terrorist groups such as Islamic State frequently assassinated those it accused of ‘going against God’ – what they called ‘ridda’.
It is in this context that I want to talk about a recent court case in Pakistan.
An anti-terrorism court sentenced two men, including a local government official, to life in prison on Thursday for their role in the brutal campus lynching two years ago of a university student accused of blasphemy. A 23-year old was attacked and killed by a mob on the campus of a university in Mardan, in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, following a dormitory debate about religion. In February last year the court convicted 31 people, sentencing one person to death, while acquitting 26 others. It later turned out that the blasphemy allegations were false. This case is eerily similar to that of a Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi who was falsely accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.
So, if we define terrorism as an act of serious violence carried out for political, ideological or religious reasons (emphasis added), was the mob killing of Mashal Khan not an act of terrorism? It certainly was serious violence and it certainly was carried out for religious reasons. Ergo it was terrorism in my books. I found it interesting that it was a Pakistani anti-terrorism court that heard the case and handed down the sentence. Is there not some kind of poetic justice that those that killed in God’s name are now being killed in the name of a secular legal system? A kind of non-religious belief trumping religious conviction?
I don’t know what kind of precedent this sets if any but it is worth discussing whether crimes of this nature should be labelled as terrorism in the same way that those of IS, Al Qaeda or other religiously-inspired groups are. Remember that you do not have to be part of a terrorist group to be a terrorist. Anyone who commits acts of this nature is by definition a religious terrorist.
I’d like to think that blasphemy is something that most of us have gotten over. After all, this is no longer 1514 and we don’t burn people at the stake after torturing them cruelly to fess up to their ‘crimes against God’. The world is heading more and more in a secular direction in some ways although there will always be those for whom faith is very central to who they are.
As for those who target others as blasphemers, lighten up. I can think of no better way to end this than to link to Monty Python’s Life of Brian where the rabbi calling down God’s wrath on an apostate gets his just reward – enjoy!