Friday, January 7, 2011

Powerful words…

I heard news from Pakistan this week that disturbed me. Perhaps you did too. I refer to the murder of the Governor of Pakistan’s largest province- Salman Taseer of Punjab- allegedly carried out by a man hired to guard him. And it’s not simply the premature death of a prominent Pakistani official that caught my attention. It was the suspected motive for the killing that stood out. It seems Gov. Taseer’s bodyguard killed him because of the politician’s opposition to lethal punishment for blasphemers.

A little context, from what I’ve gleaned: A few decades back, then-President (read- military dictator) General Zia ul-Haq instituted laws outlawing blasphemy against the state religion of Islam. These laws included prohibitions protecting the religious sensitivities of practitioners, the sanctity of Holy sites, and punishing desecration of the Qur’an and the prophet Muhammad. Defaming the latter, in fact, is a capital offense. As an American, it’s outside my experience that a government would mandate one religion. But Pakistan is officially The Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and it’s not my prerogative to judge whether that’s okay. Pakistanis can organize their country as they see fit.

What is troubling, though, is that multiple human rights and aid groups- international and Pakistani- have documented violence stemming directly from these blasphemy laws, particularly against ethnic or religious minorities. No one’s yet been executed because of a blasphemy conviction. However, mobs, religious fanatics and/or police have murdered folk simply because they were accused of blasphemy. It seems outcries against one recent accusation, and subsequent harassment, had reached Gov. Taseer’s desk. He boldly, and properly, called these laws unjust, recommending a change. Many applauded that decision. Fanatics did not, and so apparently, murdered him. Poor problem solving imagination, I’d say, but I’m not a religious fanatic.

Now, I bring this up not to inflame negativity against Islam or Pakistan. The idiocy of some practitioners or citizens does not a religion or country make. And thank God for that, since some Christians also advocated death for blasphemy or heresy. Exhibit A- Salem Witch Trials. Exhibit B- John Calvin’s theocratic rule in Geneva. Still, Christian, Muslim or otherwise, why would a religious person be so outraged by so-called blasphemy as to kill someone? Or even lock her/him in jail?

One analysis might suggest, of course, less-than-religious motivations for such killings. Namely, it’s in the perceived political interest of certain religious factions to bully non-practitioners to do what they want. I.e. Those laws aren’t about God, Jesus or Muhammad. They’re about power and control.

But as true as that analysis might be, when applied to John Calvin or a political leader (people who’d stand to gain and exercise power from social control), it’s less clear why a simple congregant- the Governor’s bodyguard- would carry out the execution. Indeed, it seems he was so outraged by the possibility that Muhammad’s dignity might, someday, be accosted by the easing of these laws, that he felt compelled to end his-life-as-he-knew-it by ending another’s. In other words, his wasn’t a political motivation. It was religious; it came from the very core of his self-identity.

And, assuming he wasn’t just deranged, he probably thought his life best used by guarding God’s honor.

Does God’s honor matter that much? Something true for all religious folk, I think, is our conviction that God- by whatever name S/He’s called- is special. So special, unique…Holy…we should treat God with more deference than other cherished people or objects. Consider that some Christians get offended when a TV character says, “Jesus Christ,” or a football coach screams, “God Damn!” Not nearly the same as execution for blasphemy, but there’s something related in those reactions: defending God’s honor.

Not enough space left to address this issue fully. But a final thought: When Jesus was dying on the Cross, his captors mocked, “If you’re truly God, come down from there and show us.” His response, “Be careful not to hate the ones killing us because they know not what they are doing. God forgive them.” Well, actually that was The Reverend Meyassr Al- Qaspotros at a Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad over Christmas. But I think I’ve heard that sentiment before.

Grace and Peace,

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