Expressions of religiosity and blasphemy in modern societies

Riaz Hassan

Table of Contents

Religion and blasphemy
Attitudes towards blasphemy in Muslim countries and Australia
Blasphemous attitudes and religiosity
Religion, modernity and blasphemy
Discussion and implications

Until recently a widely held view in sociology was that the conditions of modernity inevitably lead to the secularisation of society. It was further argued that in a secular society, religion becomes increasingly a private concern of the individual and thus loses much of its public relevance and influence. The conditions of modernity were seen as conducive to promoting religious pluralism in which people were voluntary adherents to a plurality of religions, none of which could claim a position of hegemony in society. These and similar views appeared in the works of a number of prominent scholars including Talcott Parsons,[1] Thomas Luckmann,[2] Peter Berger[3] and Robert Bellah.[4]

The secularisation thesis was predicated on the nature of modernity and its sociological consequences. The core attribute of modern society was its institutional differentiation and functional rationalisation. Functionally differentiated societal institutions specialise around specific kinds of actions, for instance, polity, economy, law, science, education, art, health, religion and the family. These institutions not only performed specialised functions, but they were also relatively autonomous. In other words they developed their own norms to evaluate performance and were largely free from the interference of other societal institutions in carrying out their specialised tasks. Under these conditions, religious institutions also occupied a specialised functional domain which dealt purely with religious matters such as the sacred, religious beliefs, rituals and morality.

Secularisation was thus a consequence of the institutional differentiation and relative independence of various institutional spheres from religious norms, values and justifications. A logical and necessary outcome of this process is that religion not only retreats from the many public aspects of social life but it also comes under pressure to develop a specialised institutional sphere of its own. These conditions encourage the privatisation of religion. While religion can still direct the lives of individuals and subgroups, it becomes essentially a private concern of the individual. As a result, institutional religion cannot compete in the new structural environment and, therefore, weakens, leaving the religious tasks of constructing and guaranteeing holistic meaning systems primarily with the individual and a multitude of voluntary organisations.[5] In short, institutional differentiation in modern societies leads to secularisation by restricting the influence of religious norms and values on other institutional spheres.

As mentioned above, in modern societies religious institutions also come under pressure to develop their own specialised functions and public role in society. Until recently this question was not adequately addressed in sociological theory because it was assumed that religion would continue to weaken in modern society and would eventually lose its public influence and social relevance. However, the continuous strength of religion in modern societies like the United States, Australia and other European societies, as well as newly modernising societies like India, the Philippines, Singapore, Brazil, Mexico and in Muslim societies, has raised important questions about the validity of the conventional explanation of the status and role of religion in modern societies. Religion is proving to be resilient not only in terms of the number of adherents and the degree of their involvement in religious organisations but also in terms of its public influence.[6]

To better understand this phenomenon we turn to the work of Niklas Luhmann. Luhmann agrees that the central feature of modern society is its institutional differentiation and functional specialisation. The specialised institutions operate as relatively autonomous functional instrumentalities. However, Luhmann argues that while the functional autonomy is real, it is conditioned by the fact that the other institutions are also operating in the same milieu. This leads him to explore the difference between how an institution relates to the society and to other institutional systems. He uses the terms ‘function’ and ‘performance’ to explore this. The term ‘function’ refers to religious communication and actions such as worship, devotion, salvation, morality and spirituality. Function, in other words, is the communication involving the sacred and the aspects that the religious institutions claim for themselves, as the basis of their autonomy in modern society.

Religious performance, by contrast, occurs when religion is ‘applied’ to problems such as economic poverty, political oppression, human rights abuse, domestic violence, environmental degradation, racism, etc., generated in the domains of other institutional systems but not solved or addressed there or elsewhere.[7] Performance thus is concerned purely with the profane. It is through the performance relations that religion establishes its importance for the profane aspects of life and in the process reinforces the autonomy of religious action. There is a tension between the two, which is accentuated in certain strata of modern societies, but function and performance are in fact inseparable and mutually reinforcing. In Australia and elsewhere in the Christian West, for example, churches have been historically involved in education, social welfare and health care and the same type of involvement is present in Muslim societies from Indonesia to Morocco and Nigeria.

For Luhmann, the functional problem of religion in the modern world is in fact a performance problem. As mentioned earlier, increasing pressure towards secularisation and privatisation of religion under conditions of modernity tend to place religion in a position of disadvantage. The solution to this problem lies in finding effective religious applications, and not in more religious commitment and practice.[8] The main reason is that religion, as an institution concerned purely with its functional role of promoting the sacred as an all encompassing reality, runs counter to the specialised and instrumental pattern of the other dominant institutional systems. The functional role of religion in the past involved religious performance through moral codes that were used to explain the existence of social problems as consequences of sin and other contraventions of religious codes. Under these conditions, religious codes favoured morality as a privileged form of social regulation. This is precisely what is undermined by social structural conditions of modern society. The decline in the central regulatory role of morality is the principal cause of the functional problems, including the decline in the public influence of religion in modern society.

Religion and blasphemy

What are the implications of these developments in the role of religion in modern society for the acts of blasphemy? I will examine this question after a brief overview of the concept of blasphemy. The word blasphemy is derived from a Greek term meaning ‘speaking evil’. In the Judeo-Christian tradition it refers to all acts of verbal offences against sacred values. A seventeenth-century Scottish jurist described it as ‘treason against God’. In Catholic theology it is defined as ‘any word of malediction, reproach, of contumely pronounced against God’, and is regarded as a sin. Blasphemy exists to prevent challenge to the notions of the sacred in organised religion. Its existence is a litmus test of the standards a society feels it must enforce to preserve its religious beliefs and morality and to prevent mockery of its gods. It constitutes an intolerable affront to the sacred, the priestly class, the deeply held beliefs of the believers and the basic values a community shares. Its commission invariably evoked severe punishment. In Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, its commission is/was punishable by death. Denying the existence of God or reviling God is also recognised as an offence under common law.

From the seventeenth century onwards, blasphemy increasingly became a secular crime in England and that tradition was also followed in the United States. The state began to supplant the church as the agency mainly responsible for instigating and conducting prosecutions. The connection between religious dissent and political subversion and the belief that a nation’s religious unity augmented its peace and strength accounted in part for the rising dominance of the state in policing serious crimes against religion. But in the post Enlightenment age, blasphemy prosecutions began to decline.

There have been no prosecutions in the United States since 1969, and the last successful blasphemy prosecution in England was in 1977. There has been no prosecution in the state of Massachusetts in the United States since the 1920s, but in 1977, the State legislature refused to repeal its three hundred year old act against blasphemy. In general, in the Anglo-American world, the conditions of modernity have made the legal prosecutions against blasphemy not only rare but also obsolete. People seem to have learned that Christianity is capable of surviving without penal sanctions and that God can avenge its own honour. The sentiments against blasphemy in the religious segments of the populations, however, continue to persist.[9]

In Islam there is no exact equivalent of the Christian notion of blasphemy, but offering insult to God (Allah), to the prophet Muhammed, or any part of the divine revelation constitutes a crime under Islamic religious law. From the perspective of Islamic law acts of blasphemy can be defined as any verbal expression that gives grounds for suspicion of apostasy. Blasphemy also overlaps with infidelity (kufr), which is the deliberate rejection of Allah/God and revelation. In this sense expressing religious opinions at variance with standard Islamic views could easily be looked upon as blasphemous.[10]

The Salman Rushdie affair in 1988,[11] Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid affair in Egypt in 1994,[12] and Hashem Aghajari Affair in Iran in 2003,[13] signify that religious sanctions against blasphemy and apostasy have a powerful presence in contemporary Muslim countries and can have real legal and personal consequences for the accused persons. As my knowledge about the existence of formal blasphemy laws is limited to Pakistan I will use Pakistan as a case study to highlight the situation in Muslim countries in which such laws may also exist. During the Islamisation campaign of the late Pakistani President Zia-ul Haq several new sections relating to religious offences were added to the Pakistan Penal Code. In 1980, section 298-A was introduced which made the use of derogatory remarks in respect of persons revered in Islam an offence, punishable with up to three years imprisonment.

In 1986, this was further narrowed down, by inserting an offence specifically directed at the person of the Prophet. Defiling the name of the Prophet Muhammed was declared a criminal offence, which under section 295-C was punishable with death or life imprisonment. According to section 295-C:

Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet: whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him), shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.

In October 1990, the federal Shariat Court (The Islamic Court) ruled that ‘the penalty for contempt of the Holy Prophet…is death and nothing else’, and directed the Government of Pakistan to effect the necessary legal changes. As the Government did not appeal this decision the death penalty is thus the mandatory punishment for blasphemy in Pakistan.

Since their introduction the new laws relating to religious offences against Islam, including section 295-C, have been extensively abused to harass members of the religious minorities such as Christians and Ahmadis as well as members of the Sunni majority. According to Amnesty International, hundreds of people have been charged under these sections. In all cases these charges have been arbitrarily brought, founded on malicious accusations, primarily as a measure to intimidate and punish members of minority religious communities or non-conforming Muslims. There are reports that suggest that factors such as personal enmity, professional envy, economic rivalry and political reasons play a significant role in these prosecutions. A common feature of accusations of blasphemy in Pakistan is the manner in which they are uncritically accepted by the prosecuting authorities who themselves may face intimidation and threats should they fail to accept them.[14]

Amnesty International has also reported that Pakistani authorities have introduced administrative measures to prevent abuse of Section 295-C blasphemy law. These measures appear to have been more successful in the case of Pakistani Christians but not in the case of Muslim minority sects such as the Ahmadis. The administrative measures do not alter the legal position of blasphemy law in Pakistan. While the death penalties have been imposed under section 295-C, all have been quashed on appeal to the higher courts. However, at least four persons who were acquitted on appeal have so far died at the hand of armed attackers alleged to be religious extremists.

Recently, I also had a personal encounter with Pakistan’s blasphemy law. In 2000, I submitted the manuscript of my book, Faithlines: Muslim Conceptions of Islam and Society, which has been accepted by Oxford University Press in Pakistan for publication. When the page proofs of the book arrived I noticed that the letters PBUH (peace be upon him) were inserted in parentheses every time the name of Muhammed appeared in the manuscript. I did not think that it was an appropriate thing to do in an academic book and contacted my editor at the Oxford University Press in Karachi, Pakistan, to convey my opinion. She responded promptly and without any hesitation by saying that the protocol pertaining to the use of PBUH after Muhammed’s name was ‘the in-house policy of the Press’. She then went on to say that it was all right for authors who were safely overseas but it was they (the Press and its staff) who had to face the wrath of the people who felt that such omissions were offensive. I had no choice but to accept the Press’s policy although I did not think then and I still think that it was not an appropriate thing to do in an academic book.