Dr Zakir Naik is an extremely popular TV evangelist, much like the late Ahmed Deedat. Their specialty (other than Islamic sermons) has been comparative religion debates with experts and religious leaders of other faiths. But Dr Zakir Naik shares with Aasia Bibi more than he probably, or she herself, even realises. Aasia Bibi, a low-income Pakistani Christian, is the woman who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy recently.
That’s not to suggest that Dr Zakir has ever blasphemed against the Holy Prophet (pbuh). He hasn’t. But part of his bread and butter is championing other religions as false, as his opponents do to his religion.
When two ardent supporters of different creeds engage in religious debate, primarily for the purpose of proving the other one wrong, things get testy and become laden with emotion. This is partly demonstrated by the difficulty of framing hate speech laws so that they do not incite religious hatred while trying to find ways to create caveats for religious debates because, by their very nature, they rely on outright denunciation as each believes there is only one road to salvation. While not perfect, at least a secular social scientist interested in comparative religion has a more detached view, interested in the details of comparison and not the pursuit of divine validity.
So here is where Aasia Bibi comes in. Women in her village were trying to get her to convert to Islam for some time. She held out and chose not to debate it but would only say she wouldn’t because she was comfortable with her faith. Then, the details of which are still sketchy, the unequal and discriminatory facets of Pakistani society came into play. As a Christian and, I presume, because of some of her racial characteristics she was considered less equal by the Muslims of her village.
She was unduly asked to fetch water for the Muslim women and when she did they complained it was unclean because of her touch. After subjecting her to the force of their nauseating moral majority, they ignorantly added insult and indignity to the equation. Then they asked her to convert again. If only someone had taught these women that such charming behaviour rarely causes anyone to convert from one religion to another.
Finally, Aasia Bibi defended herself and her religious choice, probably with lots of pent up anger at her inhuman treatment. The crux of the case lies here, the other women may have thought that Aasia Bibi’s laudatory words for Jesus may have meant she didn’t think in the same way for Islam. Which, of course, she doesn’t, because she is not a Muslim.
Now look at this implication of the blasphemy law in Pakistan. Keep this in mind, Christians think Jesus as the greatest man while Muslims feel the same for Mohammed (pbuh). Now ask a Christian, “In light of your knowledge of Mohammed (pbuh), who is the best man who ever lived?”
If the Christian’s answer is in line with his religious dogma, he can be put to death. It’s 295-C taken to the legal extremities of its philosophy. The law is not just about outright, inflammatory or hateful blasphemy but even inferences from normal discussions between non-Muslims and Muslims. All you need is someone to litigate.
That’s why Dr Zakir Naik, whom Pakistanis watch with great relish on cable from international channels, can never have a comparative religion debate in Pakistan. Whoever he goes up against can be prosecuted for proselytising against Islam or thinking less of the Prophet (pbuh) because they have stated why they believe in something else. Aasia Bibi, on the other hand, was indirectly forced into that position. Maybe Zakir Naik needs to be the one defending Aasia Bibi, since, ironically, his bluster is based on the religious freedom he has in India.
In Aasia’s case, there are a lot of mitigating circumstances, the judge who passed her sentence had an angry mob outside his courts and she was mentally tortured into finally speaking up for herself. Otherwise, I am sure she also knew that the only good Christian in Pakistan is a mute one, weak and meek.
The writer is a columnist, and TV and radio anchor email@example.com
Published in The Express Tribune, November 23rd, 2010.