Paul Marshall is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. His areas of expertise are religious freedom, religion and politics and Islam and human rights. For eight years, he has been a senior fellow at the Freedom House’s Centre for Religious Freedom. Marshall has taught political science, law, philosophy and theology at different universities and authored and edited over 20 books including Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide, published in 2011.
On September 24, Paul Marshall conducted a live online discussion about the Rimsha Masih case as well as other issues related to blasphemy laws. The discussion has been edited for space, clarity and grammar.
PM. Most western countries do not have explicit blasphemy laws, and those that remain usually have not been used for the last fifty years. There were occasional recent blasphemy cases in Russian and Poland. What many western countries do have is ‘hate speech’ laws, and these are being used a quasi-blasphemy laws
Q. What are the similarities and differences between Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and those in other countries?
PM. The western laws try to avoid blasphemy questions as such — they focus on protecting people, not religions per se. People may be prosecuted for saying things that are insulting or liable to lead to discrimination against Muslims themselves, not against Islam. However, the boundary easily gets blurred — recently a man in England was sentenced to a two year prison term for burning a Quran. In Pakistan, the laws are explicitly focused on words etc that are thought to be against Islam itself, not Muslims per se. But in both cases, the law can be very vague.
Q. From your vast experience and understanding, do you think most blasphemy laws are fair?
PM. I think the laws are very unfair. Together with my colleague Nina Shea, we recently published a book Silenced (Oxford University Press, 2011) that includes a worldwide survey of how such laws (and private accusations) are used. The laws vary from country to country, and between regions in counties, and over time. Most of those accused are Muslims, and they are usually accused not because they have actually blasphemed or insulted, but because they have disagreed with some other interpretation of Islam
Q. You said that there was recently a man in England was sentenced to a two year prison term for burning a Quran. Was this under English law? Hate speech law? Can you please tell me more about this incident?
PM. I won’t check the details now since time is short but the charge was under English law, but not a hate speech law per se, it was a general ‘public order’ offense whereby someone can be charged for doing something that upsets the public order and might lead to violence. In England one can also be arrested for “anti-social behaviour’
These laws are also vague.
Q. In your opinion, what is a practical solution to resolve blasphemy related issues?
PM. I believe that having laws and carrying out physical attacks against people accused of blasphemy makes the situation worse. Brian Grim and Roger Finke have a very good book The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the 21st Century, which shows that the more you have state/government controls on religion, the more religious violence there will be. Attempted controls on blasphemy lead to more violence. Also, it is only since there has been publicity about and attempts to punish people in the West that burn Qurans or are accused of insulting Islam, that the number of incidents has increased. I don’t think there were any such incidents at all before a few years ago. Nobody would have thought of doing so. I think we have to move away from legal controls and stress good education and mutual understanding
Q. My question is a little off the topic but does pertain to it given the current situation in the Muslim World. As far as my knowledge goes, there is a fine line between freedom of speech and hate speech, and like you said there are laws in the West that pertain to hate speech. Do you think that the documentary that has created a stir in all over the Muslim world leans more towards freedom of speech or hate speech? Especially when there are such huge restrictions over talking about holocaust then why are there no restrictions in offending someone’s faith especially if the law states that all faiths are to be respected? Could you elaborate more on this please?
PM. Let me first state my own view that freedom of speech includes freedom to engage in hateful speech. I am opposed to the hate speech laws one finds in many western countries. I think they make the situation worse, and help contribute to violence e.g. as with Anders Breivik in Norway. I am also opposed to laws that ban holocaust denial, or denial of Armenian genocide etc. I don’t think such laws help the situation. They simply publicize people who should be ignored or shunned. They certainly don’t stop people saying and thinking things. I think this recent video trailer seems to be very insulting (I haven’t seen it, and don’t plan to) but I think it should be legal. The events of the last few weeks have given it publicity
Q. As far as the Rimsha Masih case goes, what is the international opinion on it?
PM. Of course, I can’t speak for everybody internationally, but the case drew a lot of attention internationally because the situation was so stark. A young girl with development problems, who might not have known what she was doing, even if she were guilty under the law, and then the issue compounded by accusation that an imam had faked the evidence. I think this lead to more attention, and international condemnation of the laws, and the way they are carried out, than anything since the killings of Salman Tazeer and Shabbaz Bhatti. This view is widespread – not just in the west – I have spend most of the last month in Indonesia, and many Muslims there are outraged by what happens under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
Q. Do blasphemy/hate speech cases get as much media coverage in other countries as they do in Pakistan? I feel that the Pakistani media hypes these cases in an insensitive manner. What is your opinion about this?
– Maliha Q
PM. In the Muslim-majority world, such cases get a lot of attention. Indonesia does not have many such cases but when they occur, there is a lot of coverage. Similar situation is there in Egypt and many other places. I think that in many places the media hypes it, and tries to incite anger. Radicals also try to get people worked up. In the west there is a similar pattern. When Terry Jones, an unknown pastor in Florida with a tiny congregation said he would burn a Quran, he became a centre of media attention in America and the world, and he had American cabinet ministers phoning him, which was precisely what he wanted. Last year he actually did burn a Quran, but most people just ignored him. If he is ignored, he will stop.
Q. You said that Muslims in Indonesia are outraged by what happens under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Can you tell us a bit about their blasphemy laws so we can have a comparison in our minds?
– Maliha Q
PM. Article 156(a) of the Indonesia penal code states that whoever “expresses a view or commits an act that principally disseminates hatred, misuses or defames a religion recognized in Indonesia, face at maximum five years imprisonment.” Hence the law (which is not used much) has a ‘hate speech’ element, and it also applies to all of the country’s six recognized religions. Also the penalties are less (in Pakistan, as you know, there can be, in principle, the death penalty) so the law is more general, and milder, than Pakistan (I am still opposed to it though). It has been used against Ahmadis, and now also against Shia, and there have recently been killings of Shia. The law, like many others tends to expand to cover a wider range of people, and also, I think, tends to encourage violence by others
Q. How does one define what qualifies as hate speech and what doesn’t? Who is supposed to be the judge for it?
PM. I think it is very difficult to define it, it always gets subjective. In the west the judges define it but the definition remains vague. I think the laws should be dropped.
I think people should be banned from ‘incitement to violence’ but otherwise free to speak. I think the question of violence, not hatred, should be the standard
PM. I see that the hour is over, so can’t take any more questions, but thank you for the questions. They were very good (and difficult). Best regards.