Is Blasphemy Hate Speech?

NEW YORK – The assassination of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province in Pakistan and an outspoken critic of religious extremism, has focused attention on his country’s draconian blasphemy law. Adopted in its present form by General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq’s military dictatorship more than three decades ago, the blasphemy law imposes a mandatory death penalty on anyone convicted of insulting Islam.

The police officer who murdered Taseer apparently acted because the governor recently launched a campaign to repeal the law. From the standpoint of Pakistani religious extremists who have applauded the murder, that itself was an act of blasphemy.

For a long time, blasphemy laws were considered an unfortunate legacy of efforts in England during the religious struggles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to suppress deviant interpretations of scripture among Christians. They were spread in South Asian countries and elsewhere through British colonial rule. General Zia’s harsh version of the law in Pakistan was adopted as part of his effort to use Islam to legitimize his suppression of all dissent.

Blasphemy became a global concern in the late 1980’s when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa calling for the assassination of the writer Salman Rushdie for his novel, The Satanic Verses. Although Rushdie survived with the help of an extraordinary level of protection provided by British security forces, others associated with his book were murdered.