Protests against the burning of a Quran by Terry Jones last month continue in Pakistan. Condemnation of his actions by President Barack Obama and the United Nations did not appease Muslim sentiments, particularly those of Pakistani Muslims, and emotions are running very high as their resentment towards the USA continues to grow.
The reaction of Pakistani Muslims towards the Danish cartoons, fitna and now Terry Jones and his Quran burning demonstrate just how easily agitated they can become if they feel their religion has not been given proper respect.
Naturally, insulting cartoons and foolish acts like burning a Quran are incredibly hurtful to them. Muslims in Pakistan are a people who greatly revere their religion, the Quran and the Prophet Mohammed. These are things they value more than their own lives. Indeed, Pakistani Muslims in general are not afraid to sacrifice their own lives for their religion and, in the same way, many would have no hang ups about taking the life of anyone who insults the Quran or the Prophet Mohammed.
Such a killing is not considered a crime by Muslims in Pakistan, but rather a religious duty, and the killer is treated as a hero. Malik Qadri, the personal bodyguard who killed Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, is one such example. Rather than shame or regret over his actions, Qadri boasted that he had killed Taseer because of his support for change to the blasphemy laws. In many parts of Pakistan, there was nothing but adulation for him.
Pakistan has blasphemy laws to prevent any kind of insult against Islam or the Prophet and these days, even talking about or suggesting a change to the laws is dangerous. The government has bowed down to pressure from Islamic groups in the parliament and abandoned any effort to change the blasphemy laws.
After the murders of Salman Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, and with Sherry Rehman having withdrawn her Bill proposing reform of the blasphemy laws, it is going to be increasingly difficult for the Pakistani government and campaigners to change the laws that are behind so much of the suffering of Christians.
Terry Jones may not be aware of it, but his actions have done Christians no favors. Instead he has put Christians even more in harm’s way and will only add to the suffering they experience living in Muslim countries.
In Pakistan, desecrating the Quran carries a life sentence under Section 295B of the Pakistani Penal Code. In the US, there is no such punishment for burning the Quran. One thing I can be sure of is that Terry Jones is only alive because is an American citizen living in America and protected by American laws. One bishop in Pakistan asked for Jones’ arrest but this is highly unlikely.
Sadly, even threats to Jones’ own life and the deaths of US soldiers and others seem to be little deterrence to him. The pastor said in a recent interview that he would rather die than stop preaching about Islam. Perhaps, but now others are having to pay for his inflammatory actions with their lives. The lives of many Christians around the world have been put at even greater risk. In Pakistan, they were already living under constant fear for their lives just for being Christians. Now they face retaliation for Jones' actions – actions which will not be forgotten quickly.
If anything, we can be thankful that not more people have been killed, as could so easily have happened. Still, churches have been attacked and lives have been needlessly lost, and the result is not to make hardline Muslims reconsider their unreasonable attitudes towards Christians, but rather to radicalize them even further. The situation is so volatile that it could, at any time, get much worse.
Akhtar Hussein burned a Bible outside a church in Lahore in retaliation for the Quran burning. He has been charged under Section 295A of the Pakistani Penal Code which criminalizes “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”. It remains to be seen whether or not he is convicted. The charge carries up to 10 years in prison and a fine, but seeing as almost every policeman in Pakistan is a Muslim and they have a tendency to protect their own, it is unlikely he will be handed such a punishment.
Many Muslims have probably considered burning a Bible in response to Terry Jones’ Quran burning but I really hope that this does not become a popular trend as it could create dangerous tensions in Pakistani communities and destroy what peaceful relations there are.
The international community must take this matter seriously, and particularly the situation of countries where Christians are already vulnerable and suffering for their faith. It may not be a crime in many countries, but needlessly insulting the religious sentiments of any faith community in the name of freedom of expression and free speech is nonetheless unacceptable. Acts of aggression cannot be the way in which we express our grievances about another faith or the behavior of its followers.
Muslim leaders also need to do their part to calm tensions by holding individuals to account for their actions against innocent people, clearly condemning the murder of Christians or attacks on their buildings, and by teaching their followers to respect other religions and religious communities. Human life must be respected.
This one incident has done enormous damage to Christian-Muslim relations in majority-Muslim countries but that does not mean relations need to break down altogether. Efforts towards a deeper understanding and the emergence of a respectful common ground between Muslims and Christians can and must continue for the sake of world peace.