The Crime of Blasphemy (1)

by Women Against Fundamentalism (WAF)

All over the world, educated and illiterate women alike are being persecuted by religious fundamentalists for expressing their beliefs. Taslima Nasreen, the popular Bangladeshi writer, has been charged with having 'deliberately and maliciously caused hurt to religious sentiment', an offence under Section 295A of the Bangladeshi Penal code, 1860. The charges have been brought as a result of statements which she allegedly made during an interview with a Calcutta newspaper in which she is said to have stated that the Koran should be thoroughly revised. Four journalists were similarly charged even though it is a breach of international law for such a statement to be treated as a criminal offence.(2) Islamic fundamentalists offered rewards for her death

In 1993, the Bangladeshi Government, following increasing pressure from Islamic fundamentalists, banned Taslima Nasreen's book Lajja (Shame). The book raises the issue of Hindu minority rights in Bangladesh at a time when Hindus are regarded as the oppressive majority in India, on the grounds that it created 'misunderstanding between communities'. In 1994, after continued threats, Taslima Nasreen fled from Bangladesh to Sweden in fear of her life. Her lawyers are dealing with her case and she will only return to Bangladesh if the Government provides a clear guarantee for her safety.

If Taslima Nasreen is convicted, she could be sentenced to two years in prison. Her case has provoked clashes between fundamentalists and defenders of secularism. Millions died for the secular tradition inherent in Bangladeshi statehood which was established after the victory against Pakistan in 1971. In 1978, however, signs of creeping anti-secularism began to show when the Constitution of Bangladesh, which had enshrined secularism as one of its main principles, was modified to make Islam the state religion. Taslima Nasreen's case is being used by religious fundamentalists to demand the enactment of a blasphemy law, like the one currently in operation in Pakistan where the penalties are much higher - life imprisonment or death. This brings Bangladesh a step closer to being a repressive Islamic state which will further curb individual and minority rights and result in the demise of women's freedom in Bangladesh.

Intolerance in the name of religion
Britain also has a blasphemy law which was last used successfully in 1979(3). The current law on blasphemy in Britain protects Christianity alone, and its existence, in a modern democracy, provides legitimacy for Islamic fundamentalists in Bangladesh to demand their own law. Most other European countries (except Belgium and France) also have blasphemy laws.

In Bangladesh, Islamic fundamentalist groups continue to grow in strength and frequently take the law into their own hands. The resurgence of salish (village arbitration council) proceedings are targeting rural women and most of the victims are accused of adultery. Two reported deaths from salish verdicts during 1993, in which one woman was publicly stoned and later committed suicide and another woman was burned to death, are examples of the extralegal and often fatal verdicts that salish leaders impose. Islamic fundamentalist groups have pronounced fatwas(4) which have resulted in the burning of schools and offices, and prevented development workers and activists from working among the poor. Individuals and groups are targets when they directly challenge the power and income of local religious leaders.

Taslima Nasreen is one of many women with the courage to speak out against the intolerance and oppression that is being justified in the name of religion. Many women activists believe that Bangladesh should be a country which encourages women's equality and promotes harmony between people of different faiths, but they face tremendous opposition from religious fundamentalists. It is crucial that fundamentalists do not succeed in suppressing all free speech and any criticism of their politics.

Taslima Nasreen is not alone in receiving death threats for her challenge to the authority of religion and of the state. Nor are Muslims the only ones invoking 'blasphemy'. The Prime Minister of Mauritius bowed to pressure and banned The Rape of Sita, Lindsey Collen's book about sexual violence against women, after Hindu fundamentalists objected to the title. While Sita is a very common woman's name in Mauritius, it is also the name of the revered wife of the god-king Rama in the Hindu epic Ramayana, who symbolises the ideal Hindu wife - pure, chaste and virtuous. The Prime Minister declared that the book was 'blasphemous' and an 'outrage against public and religious morality'. He also called on the Commissioner of Police to take action against the author. Lindsey Collen continues to demand her full rights as a citizen and has made full use of police services to investigate the threats she is receiving.

Persecution and harassment of Lindsey Collen and Taslima Nasreen by Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists respectively is an obvious attempt to suppress the individual's right to criticise religious beliefs and practices. Their cases highlight the way in which even secular authorities will use religion to silence dissenting voices by invoking the blasphemy law to censor women who oppose the Government. Secular authorities are willingly sacrificing basic human rights to pander to fundamentalist forces.

Other examples of individuals experiencing harsh censorship, threats to life and accusations of blasphemy are Paul William Robert, a Canadian, who received death threats for writing a novel containing quotations from the Koran. He has gone into hiding after being stabbed by an unknown assailant. Increasing numbers of women in Algeria have been killed because of their association with secularist causes. Fundamentalists have vowed to target women who do not cover their heads in public, and two unveiled Algerian women, aged 19 and 20, were killed by gunmen while waiting at a bus stop. This is one case of hundreds of women's deaths. Editors, journalists and publishers are also targets of attacks by religious fundamentalist groups worldwide.

Blasphemy laws
WAF started a campaign against the blasphemy law in Britain in the wake of the mass demonstrations by Muslims who were protesting against Salman Rushdie and his book, The Satanic Verses(5). Many Muslim leaders were calling for the blasphemy law to be extended to protect Islam. Such an extension of the law would deprive people of equal rights by prioritising religious over secular beliefs.

To extend the law will not necessarily appease the feelings of fundamentalist leaders. Instead it will result in unofficial censorship for fear of high legal penalties. Any case overruled would lead to zealots taking the law into their own hands, and the threat of prosecution will suppress legitimate criticism of objectionable practices justified by religious doctrine - such as the subjection of women, the prevention of birth control and discrimination against homosexuals.

The majority recommendation of a Law Commission Report of 1985 was that the discriminatory laws of blasphemy be removed from the statute book in Britain. In April 1989, Tony Benn introduced a Bill into the House of Commons entitled 'A Bill to abolish prosecution for the expression of opinion on matters of religion'. It was, however, dropped without any debate.

WAF supported the Bill and the Law Commission proposal. We call on the Government to unconditionally defend freedom of opinion and expression.(6)

1 In Britain, the offence has been defined in the following way: Blasphemous libel is committed if there is published any writing concerning God or Christ, the Christian religion, the Bible, or some sacred subject, using words which are scurrilous, abusive or offensive and which tend to vilify the Christian religion (and therefore have a tendency to lead to a breach of the peace). Blasphemy against Christianity was considered a criminal offence in Britain until 1967 when it was made a civil offence under common law.
2 Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: Everybody has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
3 Mary Whitehouse began a private prosecution for blasphemous libel against Gay News and its editor Denis Lemon for publishing a poem by James Kirkup that portrays Christ in terms of modern sexual liberation; and they were both found guilty and fined significant amounts.
4 A fatwa is a response or practical solution issued by a scholar of Islamic law. A fatwa is only binding on those who accept the scholar's legal authority. In the case of Bangladesh, many of the fatwas issued are not underpinned by any of the established procedural rules and conventions.
5 The controversy over The Satanic Verses began in 1989 when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa and death sentence against the author Salman Rushdie, which was renewed in 1990 by his successor Ali Khameini, accusing him of unlawfully and wickedly writing and having published a blasphemous work concerning the religion of Islam.
6 See box article
WAF Defends Salman Rushdie
Demands to have The Satanic Verses banned or Rushdie prosecuted raises complex issues of free speech.
WAF was founded in the same year as the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, in response to, amongst other things, the rise in fundamentalism which occurred in Britain as a result.
We see the fatwa as more of a political than religious act, which had the effect of rallying Muslims around a conservative agenda in other parts of the world.
We totally support Rushdie's right to publish his book, and his right to doubt.
We see fundamentalism as a political movement which uses religion to boost its credibility, and to override democratic and human rights considerations.
We oppose any extension of the blasphemy law, and call for its abolition, together with a complete separation of Church and State.
At the heart of its agenda is control of women's minds and bodies and we oppose any move to curtail women's rights whether it be in the name of Islam, Christianity, Judaism or any other religion.
We reject the idea that fundamentalists can speak for us. We will continue to doubt and dissent and will carry on the fight for our right to determine our own destinies, not limited by religion, culture or nationality.
We express solidarity with all others suffering human rights abuses throughout the world - especially with women who, like Rushdie, are denied control of their destiny by religious laws and made to remain under cover.
We call on the international community to strengthen its commitments to human rights, and ensure that they are not waived in the name of religion.