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Battle cry “blasphemy”

D+C - 9. Dezember 2019 - 10:45
Laws against “blasphemy”, “defamation of religion” and “apostasy” are incompatible with universal human rights

Asia Bibi on death row: an illiterate woman in solitary confinement, for almost a decade – 20 % of her life in living hell. Finally, in early 2019, the Pakistani Supreme Court acquit her. That story made international headlines, but the international public is hardly aware of her ongoing suffering after being released. In May, she could leave for Canada – but her nightmare continued there: a religious fanatic posted a video demanding she be murdered. And that video-post still makes her fear for her life.

Bibi’s blasphemy charges? Fabricated nonsense, unworthy of further comment – but in Pakistan altogether normal. What is equally normal is the indifference of the international media. Bibi was the exception that proved the rule: the final stages of her ten-year-ordeal was a global media story, but the early chapters got little attention.

Tragedies like this shed light on the complexities of the ongoing blasphemy mess. Hers has dragged on for over a decade, resulting in two assassinations.

Ten years ago, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, visited Bibi on death row. Stepping out of her cell he branded Pakistani blasphemy legislation “black laws”. In 2011, he paid with his life, and so did Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal minister for minority affairs. Both were targeted because they had dared to defend Bibi and criticise the blasphemy laws.

The governor’s assassin was his body guard. In a fair trial – which is worth noting in Pakistan – Mumtaz Qadri was sentenced according to the law of the land: capital punishment. Millions of Facebook followers and masses of typically illiterate sympathisers supported the cowardly, big-mouthed killer, who basked in the lime-light of a martyr (shaheed), for whom the doors of paradise are wide open.

In late 2015, the Supreme Court confirmed his death sentence. Pakistanis held their breath. Would then President Mamnoon Hussain pardon the killer? And would Taseer’s assassination thus become the precedent for legalised murder on blasphemy pretexts? When the murderer was indeed executed on 29 February 2016, the public was taken by surprise. For over a week millions of enraged blasphemy fanatics rallied in public, paralysing the capital and other urban hubs.

The death penalty is incompatible with fundamental human rights and has been abolished throughout most of Europe, except Russia (suspended) and Belarus (in force). In the 50 states of the USA it has been suspended in 13 and abolished in 21 states. In other parts of the world capital punishment remains the law of the land, including Pakistan. In this context the President’s refusal to pardon Taseer’s assassin amounts to an unmistakable rejection of a “blasphemy shaheed” taking the law into his own hands. This is a robust rebuttal of what is effectively becoming customary law in many parts of the Muslim world.

The battle cry “Blasphemy!” continues to serve as a perfidious, but highly effective weapon for people who want to settle property disputes, family vendettas and any other personal scores. Pakistan holds the record for both vigilante killings and (often life-long) imprisonments of perceived “blasphemers”. Decades of persecuting anyone, anywhere, anytime on spurious blasphemy accusations – frequently with the blessing of the authorities – have profoundly affected cultural mores and social attitudes.

In the 21st century, several predominantly Muslim countries uphold laws against “blasphemy”, “defamation of religion” and “apostasy”. In Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Somalia both blasphemy and apostasy are punishable by death. Apostasy is also a capital offence in Malaysia, Maldives, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Sudan and Mauritania. In other Muslim countries draconic enforcement of proscriptions against apostasy and blasphemy prevails. Cruel and humiliating punishments (public floggings), severe prison sentences and other infractions of the 1984 Convention against Torture are wide spread.

Indonesian dramas

Inevitably, ostracising blasphemy results in witch hunts, absurd conflicts of interests, unmistakable hypocrisy and leads to blatant infringements of human rights. Two recent cases from Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, illustrate much of this:

  • From 2017 to 2019 the former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, served a two-year prison sentence for voicing an opinion on a verse in the Quran. An ethnic Chinese Christian, Ahok was denied the right to disagree with some Islamic scholar, who is apparently at least as authoritarian as his followers may deem him authoritative.
  • In another 2018 case, Meiliana, an ethnic Chinese Buddhist, was jailed for 18 months. Her crime? She had complained about the excessive volume of calls to prayer from a minaret in her neighbourhood. That was read as “insulting Islam”… Freedom of opinion? Freedom of expression? Entitlement of a religious-ethnic minority to protection? Such “non-Islamic” issues are sacrificed on ubiquitous altars to the voracious, insatiable idol of ostracising “blasphemy”, “defamation of religion” and “apostasy”.

This practice flies in the face of fundamental human rights, which are unnegotiable. It is insane to undermine these principles which the UN adopted in 1948. At the time, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a response to World War II, its genocidal violence and horrific war crimes. Depressingly, brutalities of this kind still occur, but when they do, human rights are always neglected and infringed upon first. Other human-rights agreements are meaningful too, for example, the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Freedom of opinion and expression (ICCPR, article 19) is indispensable. Therefore article 20 prohibits hate speech. This is imperative, not least to strengthen another cardinal fundamental human right: freedom of religion or belief (article 18). This fundamental human right guarantees freedom of conscience, thought and opinion. Therefore it includes the right of the individual to change his/her religion and to convert to another religion.

Ostracising “blasphemy”, “defamation of religion” and “apostasy” exacerbates religious intolerance, extremism and violence. Criminalising such “issues” is inherently anachronistic and untenable. A sobering reality check is furnished by states that respect, protect and fulfil fundamental rights. Attuned to the 21st century they tend to have good records of political and social stability, of economic prosperity and of long-term sustainability.

The pernicious agenda of ostracising is unacceptable. It must end.

Thomas Krapf is a human-rights lawyer and policy advisor.


Kategorien: english

Arab Spring reloaded

D+C - 9. Dezember 2019 - 10:13
In the Middle East and North Africa, young people are taking to the streets to fight for better living conditions

The images resemble one another. In the Arab world, large numbers of predominantly young people have taken to the streets, insisting on their right to a decent life – just like they did eight years ago. Mass protests occasionally flare up in individual countries, but this is the first time since 2011 that we are witnessing a series of them. They began in December 2018 in Sudan with what were at first local protests against the tripling of the price of bread. Local protests triggered rallies all over the nation, and they led to the toppling of Omar al-Bashir, the dictator, who had been in power for three decades.

In Algeria in February 2019, tens of thousands of people rose up when President Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika, who is elderly and has long been unfit to serve, announced his candidacy for a fifth term in office. He was also swept aside. In Egypt in September 2019, information about the exorbitant self-enrichment of the president’s family sparked large demonstrations. In Lebanon in October 2019, a tax on internet-based calls was the straw that broke the camel’s back and drove people into the streets. And since early October 2019, people in Iraq have been demonstrating in huge numbers against their precarious living conditions. On 30 November, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned. In the meantim, anger about high fuel prices had driven crowds to rally in Iran, Iraq’s non-Arab neighbour. People’s economic pain has dramatically worsened under US sanctions. In the eyes of the demonstrators, their own regime must bear some of the blame.

As in 2011, the current protests were sparked above all by social grievances, then quickly grew into attacks on the entire political system. And just like in the past, those in power are responding with a mix of brutal violence and half-hearted concessions.

Most of the countries in question have experienced war and/or civil strife. They are now in a phase of economic weakness and are subject to the influence of external powers. They have little fiscal leeway because the economies are barely growing, their public sectors are bloated and inefficient, and the governments are heavily indebted (particularly in Lebanon and Sudan). The governments are trying to restore their short-term capacity to act by delaying overdue state investments and cutting social services.

Investors are not investing

Private, and especially foreign companies are also holding back investments, so steady demographic pressure is producing an army of unemployed people. Exorbitant levels of youth unemployment are particularly explosive. According to the International Monetary Fund, in all of the region’s countries, youth unemployment remains steady at 25 to 30 % or higher.  

Half a million young people stream onto the labour market every year in Iraq, for example. A lack of employment opportunities combined with a worsening supply of water, electric power and other public services are creating a climate of dangerous social tension. Things can erupt surprisingly fast.  

It is particularly risky when social grievances escalate in conditions of fragile statehood.  That is especially true of Iraq and Lebanon, not only because of their proximity to civil-war-torn Syria, but also because both countries have deep sectarian divides. Whereas in Iraq the Shias have dominated the government since the US invasion of 2003, in Lebanon, the Shia Hezbollah is a state within the state.

Throughout the region, Iran’s Shia regime is supporting Shia organisations and militias, whereas Saudi Arabia funds Iran’s Sunni opponents (see Maysam Behravesh in Focus section of D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2019/10).

Against this backdrop, it represents a welcome surprise that Shias and Sunnis are rallying together in Iraq, and in Lebanon, they are joined by Christians. Across the faith communities, people are uniting to challenge the political establishment.

That they are overcoming religious difference is encouraging, but the violent response by security forces in Iraq brings back bad memories of the repression of the protests in Syria in 2012. When this comment was finalised in late November, some 300 people had been killed.

Things have remained relatively peaceful in Lebanon so far. However, it remains to be seen how the radical Shia Hezbollah will respond to public discontent in the future, and what impact the mass protests will have on Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two regional powers. Forty-five percent of all terrorist attacks worldwide take place in the MENA region. Forty-seven percent of all displaced people and 57 % of all refugees who have had to leave their home countries are from it too.

The MENA region will only find its way back to peace and development once its social issues have been resolved. In order to do that, its countries will have to overcome structural barriers to development, including the lack of international competitiveness, ossified public administrations and the people’s exclusion from economic opportunities and participation in public life.

The EU should make its contribution. It should not only invest in development cooperation, but above all conduct its trade relations with countries in this region on a more equitable playing field.

The second precondition for sustainable development in the Middle East is a resolution of the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That cannot be achieved by applying ever more pressure on Iran. What is needed is the framework of a comprehensive regional peace strategy that takes into account the interests of all parties involved.

The EU must break away from their currently passive role as an outraged observer and set an appropriate foreign policy in motion, engaging the international community. There is no other way to achieve sustainable social development in this challenging world region which is quite close to Europe.  

Nassir Djafari is an economist and freelance writer.

Kategorien: english

Serious discrimination

D+C - 9. Dezember 2019 - 10:01
Current frustration with Twitter in India shows why the big internet multinationals require global regulation

In India, social-media platforms are very important. Hundreds of millions use them, and the mainstream media have largely caved into the Hindu-supremacist government. It therefore was a shock to see that Twitter is not the open space it pretends to be. People from the Dalit community, the lowest caste group, have ample reason to accuse Twitter of casteism and discrimination.

India’s caste system is an age-old social hierarchy that fosters discrimination and violence. In the past, Dalits were called “untouchables” and later “Harijans”. Officially, India’s constitution abolished “untouchability” after independence in 1947, and a law of 1989 is supposed to prevent atrocities against Dalits. Another law mandates affirmative action to compensate for – and facilitate an escape from – poverty and marginalisation. That this law is still needed today, shows how deeply entrenched caste discrimination is.

The advent of the internet inspired hopes for more inclusion. Platforms that give access to everyone such as Facebook and Twitter were expected to serve as open spaces that give voice to marginalised people. As we learned in the past few weeks, however, Twitter has not been levelling the playing field. Rather, the accusations are that it has been reinforcing the caste hierarchy by halting the verification of accounts owned by Dalits. Verification means that Twitter confirms that an account of considerable public interest is authentic and belongs to a real person. Verified accounts get a blue tick, which enhances their credibility. If these accusations are true, that would amount to serious discrimination.

In response, Dalit activists began to campaign against Manish Maheshwari, Twitter’s managing director in India. They asked Twitter to expel him, but so far without success.

Dalit activists allege that high-caste people get verification easily. A prominent example is Jay Shah, the son of Home Minister Amit Shah. Though he barely had any followers on Twitter and not tweeted even once, his account got the blue tick. By contrast, anti-establishment people with a history of many relevant tweets and much larger followings did not get it. Indeed, Twitter has a tendency of using small pretexts to limit their outreach by locking, restricting and even suspending their accounts. At the same time, the platform tends to remain soft on trolls and hate-peddlers who are close to the Hindu-chauvinist government (see my essay in D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2018/05, Focus section). These people systematically denigrate Dalits, demonise Muslims and agitate against other minorities. Twitter has tried to “clarify” its position, but to its critics, its partisan leaning is obvious.

It is similarly worrisome that, as we also learned in November, over a dozen Indian politicians, activists, lawyers and scholars were spied on. Sophisticated software called Pegasus was used to track them online via WhatsApp. Pegasus is owned by NSO, an Israeli software firm, which has recently been sued by WhatsApp in the USA because of privacy breaches. In response, NSO stated that it does not support Pegasus use against human-rights activists or journalists, and only sells it to “government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to help them fight terrorism and serious crime”. Did India’s government use this technology to monitor people it does not like?

In the USA, public debate is focusing on whether social-media platforms should allow politicians to spread lies in advertising. According to Facebook, which allows such ads, this is ultimately a matter of freedom of speech. Twitter, by contrast, has banned political advertising. But the underlying and more important question remains open: Who is the proper authority for taking such crucial decisions: self-regulating multinationals, the government or an independent third-party body?

Issues of fake news and hate speech are even more pressing in developing countries where public institutions tend to be weaker. Political advertising, moreover, is not the only problem. India’s social-media sites apparently have a growing pro-government bias. We need global regulations to ensure that democracies around the world are not undermined by internet multinationals that ultimately care about nothing else than their profits.

ArFa Khanum Sherwani is senior editor with the independent news website TheWire.
Twitter: @khanumarfa

Kategorien: english


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