Holocaust Denial and Blasphemy
In his inaugural address to the Pakistani Senate on August 27, newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan began by talking about the Holocaust.
“[Western countries] say six million people were killed in the Holocaust…If you say this number is four million, you will face the music. If they feel pained discussing the Holocaust, why haven’t we been able to convey to the West how much we feel pained when they blaspheme against our Holy Prophet?”
In later parts of his speech, Khan seemed to suggest that Western countries hold an unfair monopoly on declaring what is true, and that the toleration of blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad while instituting jail sentences for those who “misquote the figures of the Holocaust” exemplifies a double standard on free speech. Khan’s speech attempted to justify Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy legislation by alluding to Western laws against Holocaust denial. The Prime Minister also called for the United Nations to enforce “similar” penalties for blasphemers.
Pakistan’s own restrictions on freedom of speech, however, weaken Khan’s proclamations of Western hypocrisy.
The infamous Section 295c of Pakistan’s Penal Code, for which Khan has continually reaffirmed his support, imposes a mandatory death sentence on all those who “defile the name of Muhammad” with “derogatory remarks, spoken, written, directly or indirectly.” Although nobody has yet to be lawfully executed under 295c, blasphemy legislation is a contentious issue and a perpetual source of political division in Pakistan.
In 2011, Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was assassinated by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, after calling for the pardon of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who allegedly disrespected the Prophet Muhammad during a dispute with her Muslim coworkers. Although the evidence for her blasphemy was at best hearsay, this was enough for the district court judge to sentence her to death under 295c.
Upon appeal, the weakness of the evidence against her led the Supreme Court to issue a stay of execution, but this was no vindication. The justices deliberated for years: they faced the unenviable choice between allowing an alleged blasphemer to walk free and incurring the wrath of a religiously conservative nation and condemning a woman with inculpatory evidence based entirely on hearsay, which would undermine the fundamental right to due process and fair trial. Until this month, the mother of five languished in a cramped prison cell in Lahore with no resolution in sight. The Supreme Court’s recent acquittal comes after years of wait.
Pakistani authorities have also made attempts to crack down on the misuse of blasphemy legislation. In 2017, the Federal Investigation Agency imprisoned student Hamza Khan after he called for the vigilante “elimination” of Gulalai Ismail, founder of the Pakistan-based NGO Aware Girls, accusing her of “insulting religion and Pashtun culture” through her activism for women’s rights.
Gulalai is one of many NGO leaders in Pakistan who campaign against blasphemy legislation and for the promotion of human rights. Ismail told Voice of America last January that her intention was to ensure that activists such as herself are able to exercise their “freedom of expression without the fear of being silenced in the name of religion.” In other regions of Pakistan, however, even the government’s authority is being threatened in the name of religion.
Khan’s invocation of the Holocaust came days before 10,000 conservative Islamists marched towards Islamabad on August 29. They demanded that the Pakistani government cut all diplomatic ties with the Netherlands in response to Dutch politician Geert Wilders’ cartoon contest to depict the Prophet Muhammad. Any visual representation of the Prophet Muhammad is a grave offense under Sharia law, upon which Pakistan based its constitution.
Some may have dismissed Khan’s call for the UN to observe blasphemy alongside anti-Holocaust denial legislation as an attempt by a newly elected prime minister to pander to the deeply religious conservative right, but Khan had also continuously reiterated support for blasphemy legislation throughout his electoral campaign.
Even though Khan has now condemned the protests against the Supreme Court’s Acquittal of Asia Bibi, it is critical to note that his support was for the specific legislative authority of the Supreme Court in overturning the wrongful conviction of Asia Bibi. His stance on blasphemy legislation has not changed. Regardless of the political motivations behind Khan’s rhetoric, the question still remains: should freedom of speech allow blasphemy but not Holocaust denial?
Some would say “yes” simply because they believe that criticizing religious deities and doctrines should be protected under free speech.
Pakistani secular humanist writer Ali Rizvi, in an interview with The Atlantic, expressed his belief that it should be acceptable to challenge the doctrine of Islam. In his view, “human beings have rights and are entitled to respect. Ideas, books, and beliefs don’t, and aren’t.”
However, the reality of religious debate is more complicated than Rizvi’s portrayal. Challenging ideas such as the sacrosanctity of the Prophet Muhammad is deeply disrespectful to followers of Islam.
A more complete answer deals with the idea of truth. Khan draws a comparison between blasphemy and Holocaust denial, but it is indisputable that the Holocaust was an objective historical event in which approximately six million Jews perished at the hands of the Nazis, along with roughly two million “undesirables,” such as homosexuals and Romani. This is a proven fact independent of ideology and religion.
The truth of the Holocaust derives from the testimonies of those who suffered first-hand, as well as the plethora of horrifying material evidence and records left over from the Nazi regime across Eastern Europe. In contrast, the sacrosanctity of the Prophet Muhammad is a contingent truth—it is only valid for those of the Muslim faith who have received it through divine revelation.
For Muslims, it is the one of the most fundamental truths of their existence. But this does not make it an objective fact. Not everyone who sees Muhammad sees a prophet.
To deny the Holocaust is to deny known facts and to consequently deny the truth, whereas to deny the sacrosanctity of the Prophet Muhammad is to express an alternative interpretation of a historical figure.
Khan and the Pakistani government, as the leaders of their nation, have the right to implement laws that restrict freedom of speech. But this then precludes them from the right to compare themselves to countries that hold freedom of speech in high regard through constitutional legislation, such as the Netherlands.
Distinguishing between the objective truth of the Holocaust and the contingent truth of the sacrosanctity of the Prophet Muhammad does not serve to justify the actions of politician Geert Wilders, who is more a purveyor of dissension than of rational discourse. But the distinction does show that Imran Khan’s desire for UN recognition of blasphemy legislation is a philosophically flawed enterprise.
Khan should recognize that his argument is not based on truth but on religious homogeneity. People who express differing, and even insulting, opinions on the veritability of Muhammad as a prophet cannot be likened to Holocaust deniers.
Khan’s calls for the UN to recognize blasphemy as a crime against humanity are misplaced for a multiplicity of reasons. The United Nations is a secular institution, and as such, its intention is not to enforce religious law in the international sphere. It is not an authority concerned with metaphysics or philosophy; its considerations are pragmatic. To recognize anti-blasphemy laws would effectively legitimize murdering “blasphemers,” which would likely be considered a human rights violation under UN law.
With all of these considerations in mind, the Pakistani Supreme Court’s recent landmark acquittal of Asia Bibi and Imran Khan’s subsequent endorsement of the decision sets a precedent for other Islamic states to re-evaluate their blasphemy legislation.
Still, the Supreme Court’s stance on blasphemy is one of Islamic Orthodoxy. Their decision to acquit Asia Bibi was due to the weakness of the evidence against her, and did not overturn blasphemy legislation as a whole, although it has made significant progress on preventing blasphemy legislation from being misused.
Pakistan is currently ranked second for “highest deviation from international and human rights principles” by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. The landmark acquittal is promising, but only time will tell whether or not the Supreme Court’s decision will signal the beginning of a process of legislative and religious liberalization.
Yale professor of political science Aysen Candas, who specializes in matters of free speech in Muslim-majority countries, believes that the right to free speech is incompatible with the “illiberal, theocentric regimes” of countries upholding Sharia law.
She views the entrenchment of these regimes as a consequence of the “culturally relativistic attitude” of the United Nations.
“The UN chooses to endorse the primacy of Islamic traditions and cultural rights, even when these conflict with individual rights,” Candas told The Politic.
Prioritization of individual rights over all others would diminish minority oppression and ethnic violence. But it would also prove socially destructive to political-religious identities in which group rights are valued more than individual ones.
It seems impossible to simultaneously respect individual rights and cultural rights to their fullest extent under a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. The sacrosanctity of the Prophet under modern Sharia law necessitates strict punishment for those who would speak against him. Individual rights necessitate the ability for people to comment and debate on subjects that others might view as blasphemous. Individual rights and fundamentalist cultural ones are, in this sense, mutually exclusive.
Ahad Majeed ‘20, who is from Pakistan, believes that observance of blasphemy legislation in Muslim majority countries will continue to evolve.
Majeed told The Politic, “doctrinal injunctions in Islam, such as blasphemy laws, have more often emerged from historical contexts rather than scripture, and are thus socially constructed.”
Majeed believes that change through Ijima (scholarly consensus) has the potential to “bring these socially constructed elements of Islamic law to adhere more closely with modern conceptions of human rights.”
Currently, it seems that the one hope for overturning blasphemy laws is that leaders of Islamic states embrace these more liberal interpretations of Islam, which still maintain the essence of the religion’s traditions.
Leaders should endeavor to respect the divine truths of religious faiths, but they should also be cognizant of the epistemological differences between such truths and objective facts. Hateful and incendiary acts of provocation like that of Geert Wilders should be condemned, but a death penalty for any perceived slights against the Prophet Muhammad is simply an untenable concept in an increasingly globalised and heterogeneous world.