A response to Henk Vroom by Professor Oddbjørn Leirvik, University of Oslo
by Nasir Khan
I read with great interest your response to Henk Vroom in ‘Blasphemy, Offence, and Hate Speech’. The historical evolution of blasphemy laws in Norway and Pakistan you present clarifies many points in a scholarly way. (I have been aware of your serious approach to inter-religious discussions and understanding for a number of years, an admirable trait of your outlook and activity that makes a constructive contribution to the notion of peaceful coexistence and social cohesion.) The historical evolution and legislative enactments on blasphemy in the two countries have also a geopolitical and cultural context and the differences we see are enormous. Norway has been a democratic state in the modern times where the state religion did not have an open field but has operated within the confines of the state regulations. But Pakistan had a difficult political history since its inception and the people of Pakistan have been less fortunate because the political and power culture that developed in Pakistan had no substantial democratic traditions or the whole thing in the hands of our rulers after Mr. Jinnah’s death was a tug of war for personal power and prestige.
In addition, religion became a power factor in the hands of politicians and religious congregations organised on sectarian lines. The role of Pakistani dictator General Zia and his ‘Hudood Ordinances’ which you mention have been the glaring example of curtailing the religious freedom of all those who did not conform to the dominant Sunni branch of Islam. The victimisation of Ahmadis especially accelerated throughout Pakistan and even the Pakistani immigrant communities living in Europe and North America followed the example of attacks on and propaganda against the Ahmadis. Within Pakistan, blasphemy laws could easily and falsely be used against the Ahmadis and Christians.
Your clarification of blasphemy laws and hate speech within the Norwegian context is illuminating. Many people are not clear about the distinction. Your description deals with the issue. I have not read Henk Vroom’s essay but I agree with the views you advance that the distinction he draws between the two categories, the first one for race, ethnicity and sexual orientation, and the second one for religion for individual’s identity may not be so rigid after all. Identities seen on the basis of religion or ethnicity, etc., turn out to be social constructs for most of the people as a general rule, not a matter of choice or predilection. This point stands out clearly in your exposition.
What should be the role of the modern legislation in protecting individuals and communities and their ‘religious feelings’? This theme warrants a careful analysis and the balancing of different and differing outlooks. What you write under the subheading ‘A Humanising, Ethical Turn’ is fair. You have given a good overview of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. I had read only parts and not the whole book. But I was not able to see many gems of wisdom or historical insights in the book. On the contrary he had regurgitated Christian polemical views against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. I still maintain that an artist and writer should not be restrained from expressing his views on matters that touch or provoke the religious sensitivities of people and Rushdie in this matter is no exception. But respect towards fellow human beings is essential and I see no need to stir social frenzy that bears negative consequences.
However, merely because I feel a contrary opinion, view or even another theological outlook as an affront to my ‘religions feelings’ is not a good ground to social and political confrontation. A serious contrary view whether in the matter of religion or outside religion needs a reasoned response and social discourse for the advancement of knowledge and the clarification of epistemological issues. However, there is no need to stir any religious community by any nonsensical utterance or provocation, but nonsensical and provocative utterances should not be magnified out of all proportion as it happens from time to time. The principle of freedom of speech, to question the age-old customs and beliefs should open new vistas of understanding and an inspiration to our ever-growing quest for knowledge.
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