Questions are being raised if such a law is prone to misuse and can stifle free speech.
Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh recently announced that his cabinet has cleared the amendment to the IPC under which “sacrilege” to religious texts will be punishable with life term.
While questions are being raised if such a law is prone to misuse and can stifle free speech, the Punjab government can look at examples from ancient and recent history where blasphemy laws have claimed the lives of several famous people.
The heretic philosopher – Socrates
Even the perfect state, the Greek polis, charged and convicted Socrates on two counts, impiety and the corruption of the young men of Athens. Socrates’ influence grew beyond what the state could control, so they made him drink the poison Hemlock. The Socratic Method was not about god or religion, it was the about questioning and negotiating with the state. Now, which system would ever be open to that?
Female soldier burnt at stake – Joan of Arc
The Maid of Orleans or Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) was also sentenced to death and burned at the stake in a similar trial. Captured by the Anglo-Burgundian forces, she was charged with witchcraft, heresy and dressing like a man. She was barely 19 when she died in 1431.
Joan was finally canonised in 1920 as a saint.
The heretic scientist – Galileo Galilei
By the early 16th century, the Protestant reformation was spreading through mainland Europe. The Catholic Church was embroiled in charges of corruption.
At this junction, Galileo’s heliocentric theory of the universe came to light. Completely ignoring the Church’s doctrine that the Earth was at the centre of the universe (geocentric), Galileo established Nicolaus Copernicus’ theory that it was the sun (heliocentric) that the world revolved around.
Already struggling to maintain its position, the Church immediately retaliated by charging Galileo with “heresy”. Convicted in 1633, Galileo remained under house arrest until his death in 1642.
Pakistan’s Asia Bibi
“Defiling the name of Prophet Mohammed” is a capital offence in Pakistan under section 295(C) of the Pakistan Penal Code. In 2010, Aasiya Noreen better known as Asia Bibi was sentenced to death on charges of blasphemy.
Noreen, a Christian, was working as a farm labour in Pakistan. According to reports, her co-workers refused to share water with her, following which an argument broke out and her co-workers complained to a local cleric that she allegedly insulted the Prophet.
In 2016, her appeals against death penalty were indefinitely adjourned. In June this year, it was reported that her appeal could be heard by the Supreme Court in Pakistan.
A viral affair – Jakarta’s Basuki Tjahaja Purnama
A former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok, was found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to two years in prison after he quoted a verse from the Quran to encourage Muslims to vote for him. The video was apparently edited to make it seem like he said that “the Muslim holy book was misleading the people”. The video went viral and Ahok faced trial in May 2017.
He was the first Chinese Christian to ever run the Indonesian capital.
A need to push back
Most recently, Pakistan’s minority affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti and its Punjab governor Salman Taseer were assassinated in 2011 for speaking out against the country’s draconian blasphemy laws.
As we pedal back to archaic laws in a so-called modern society, Nobel laureate Margaret Atwood’s dystopian worldview from A Handmaid’s Tale comes to mind. Oppression always starts small, and unless we don’t fight it back, our “freedom to” do things will become a distant dream.