The trial of Ashfaq Masih will mean little to people in Britain today. It could be suggested that it means even less in Pakistan, where his alleged crime took place. Masih was a Pentecostal Christian who owned a bicycle repair shop in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province in eastern Pakistan. In 2017, he was arrested following an oral disagreement with a Muslim customer after the latter refused to pay his bill. The man in question, Muhammad Irfan, told Masih not to charge him for the repair to his bicycle as he was a devout Muslim. Masih refused, supposedly telling Irfan that Christ was the true prophet. His lawyer, Riaz Anjum, told Morning Star News, ‘Masih rejected his request, saying he only followed Jesus and wasn’t interested in Irfan’s religious statutes as a Muslim.’ The police charged the 31-year-old with disrespecting the prophet Mohammed. He was to spend the next five years in prison awaiting trial.
When he appeared in court, Masih testified that he had been deceived by the shop owner, Muhammad Ashfaq, and the businessman Muhammad Naveed, who owned a nearby bicycle repair shop. Masih told the court in Lahore that Naveed was jealous of his success and had conspired with Ashfaq to destroy his business. The case was riddled with errors. Irfan, who was the primary witness, failed to show up to court to testify, while according to Masih’s lawyer, statements from other witnesses ‘were contradictory’.
Despite a clear lack of evidence against him, Judge Khalid Wazir sentenced the now 36-year-old to death. On July 4, 2022, Masih was sentenced to death by hanging.*
The tragic case of Masih is no outlier. As reported in Morning Star News, between October 2020 and September 2021, 620 people were murdered in Pakistan for their beliefs. The country ranks second behind Nigeria for the number of Christians killed for their religion.
Blasphemy, defined as speaking or acting in a way that is critical of or offensive to God, is still prevalent in four out of ten countries in the world. According to an analysis conducted by the Pew Research Centre, of the 198 countries and territories they studied, 79 criminalised blasphemy. Among these, penalties ranged from fines to prison sentences and public lashings.
While this research found blasphemy laws on the statute books on all five continents, the region where these laws were most commonly located was the Middle East and Africa, where 90 percent of the 20 countries studied had laws criminalising blasphemy. It is here that the penalties for blasphemy carry the severest punishments. It is predominantly countries in this region—Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia—that carry the death sentence for blasphemy.
Britain has officially abolished blasphemy laws—except, it seems, as far as concerns one religion, Islam. I found myself thinking about Masih recently as details of an incident at Wakefield began to emerge. In February, four boys were suspended from Kettlethorpe High School after slightly damaging a copy of the Quran. Rumours were spread—notably by the Labour councillor Usman Ali—that the holy book had been ‘desecrated’. In truth, the book was lightly scuffed, suffering minor damage to the front cover. Still, to placate a vocal minority of Muslim reactionaries, the police were called, and it was recorded as a non-crime hate incident. The 14-year-old autistic boy who had brought it into the West Yorkshire school on a dare was deluged with death threats. It led to his mother effectively begging the local mosque for forgiveness; to complete this shameful act of submission, she was required to cover her hair.
Just a few miles away from Kettlethorpe is another West Yorkshire school, Batley Grammar, the scene of another moral panic over blasphemy two years ago. It was here that a religious studies teacher was forced to go into hiding after showing his students cartoons of Mohammed during a class about free speech. Once again, religious fundamentalists got involved and showed up outside the school’s gates, causing it to shut down for days. A local Islamic charity, Purpose of Life, published his name online. The Yorkshire Examiner reported that the teacher sought police protection after receiving numerous death threats. To this day, the teacher is said to be in hiding.
In modern Western society, no one should be prosecuted for blasphemy. Using the threat of imprisonment or death to criticise an idea is the very definition of tyranny. This archaic legislation is like something out of medieval times—or the Old Testament, as it is appropriately called. Unfortunately, incidents like Wakefield are not a new phenomenon. Britain has been heading in an illiberal direction for years.
The seeds of surrender to Islamist intolerance were first sown 30 years ago with the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses. The book’s perceived blasphemy led Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa, effectively condemning the author to death, in 1989; last summer, a New York assailant came disturbingly close to claiming the bounty set on Rushdie’s head. It is worth recalling that the first protest against The Satanic Verses happened not in the streets of Peshawar or across the Middle East, but in Bolton on 2nd December 1988.
Incidents like this, with their associated threats of violence, arguably show that Islam must be treated differently from other religions. If the UK yields to the demands of religious extremists, it will be sanctioning the spread of a de facto blasphemy law. Freedom of expression and religion are essential in a free and liberal society. The freedom to criticise, question, mock and insult a religion is as important as the freedom of its adherents to practise it.
Offence can act as a catalyst for social change. In 1976, Denis Lemon, the editor of Gay News, was put on trial for blasphemy for publishing a homoerotic poem about the death of Jesus Christ. The poem by James Kirkup, The Love that Dares To Speak its Name, was included in issue 96 of Gay News and depicted a Roman centurion fantasising about having sex with Christ’s crucified body. Lemon’s subsequent conviction started a debate about blasphemy laws, eventually leading to their abolition in 2008 and expanding freedom of speech for all of us.
In contrast, since the Masih case, Pakistan has legislated for even stricter controls on blasphemy laws. In January, its National Assembly passed the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act 2023, increasing the power of the state to impose even more draconian punishments and widening the definition of blasphemy to include insulting figures connected to Mohammed.
Time will tell if Pakistan will row back on its antiquated constitution. In the meantime, there is much to be done in Britain. Much of the blame has to lie with the moral cowardice of modern-day progressives, who are unwilling to confront religious authoritarianism and defend the values that define a liberal democratic country such as this one. Failure to address this uncomfortable issue has meant that it has been outsourced to the far right. It is a sad indictment of a country in decline.
Worse, the enforcement of blasphemy laws in the UK is a stain on the vast majority of Muslims living here, who are peaceful, law-abiding citizens. Blasphemy laws, de facto or otherwise, infantilise Muslims by robbing them of their agency. It implies they require special rules and regulations to protect their feelings, making them seem incapable of living in a society that upholds liberal values.
It has been over one hundred years since the death of John William Gott, the last individual imprisoned in Britain for the crime of blasphemy. Yet through our failure to act and speak up in defence of freedom of speech, it may not be long until someone else is put in prison for this ‘crime’. Rights are universal and non-negotiable; you cannot opt out of them. Offence must not be a motivating factor in what people can and cannot say. There is no right to not be offended. These are lessons that contemporary progressives need to learn. Liberty is a wonderful thing, guaranteeing both secular and religious people the freedom to believe what they want. If we wish to live in a free society, we must be free to blaspheme. We owe it to the next generation to keep reinforcing these points. But most of all, we owe it to people like Asfaq Masih.
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*Correction, 21/5/23: This article originally reported that Asfaq Masih had been ‘executed by hanging’. It has now been amended to state that he was ‘sentenced to death by hanging’. We have not been able to verify whether the sentence has yet been carried out (see further report here).