Just under a month ago, Pakistan’s largest private television news station was engaged in a dispute with Pakistan’s intelligence agency, ISI, over charges that the ISI was behind an assassination attempt on one of its anchors. For Geo, those probably seem like the good old days, because now the station is engaged in a controversy that has already caused a proliferation of lawsuits and threatens to erupt into massive vigilante violence against Geo employees and buildings. Reuters describes the threats Geo now faces and how the situation came about:
Pakistan’s biggest television station said it was ramping up security on Tuesday after it became the object of dozens of blasphemy accusations for playing a song during an interview with an actress.
Geo Television is scrubbing logos off its vans and limiting staff movements after receiving scores of threats over allegedly blasphemous content, said channel president Imran Aslam.
“This is a well-orchestrated campaign,” he told Reuters. “This could lead to mob violence.”
The cases allege a traditional song was sung about the marriage of Prophet Muhammad’s daughter at the same time a pair of shoes was raised.
Both elements are traditional in a wedding ceremony but the timing was insulting to Islam, dozens of petitioners have alleged. Others allege the song itself was insulting.
Lawsuits arising from the incident are proliferating. The Express Tribune has a partial list of the cases filed recently here.
But the Reuters article points out that under Pakistani law, blasphemy itself is not actually defined clearly:
Blasphemy carries the death penalty in Pakistan but is not defined by law; anyone who says their religious feelings have been hurt for any reason can file a case.
But it gets even wilder. It turns out that a rival station is now also accused of blasphemy. Why? Because they repeatedly played snippets of the original program carried on Geo. And Reuters points out that blasphemy cases also are dangerous for judges and attorneys, as well:
Advocate Tariq Asad said his suit named the singers and writers of the song, cable operators, television regulators, a national council of clerics and ARY, a rival television station.
ARY repeatedly broadcast clips of the morning show, alleging it was blasphemous, an action that Asad said was blasphemous in itself.
Judges frequently do not want to hear evidence in blasphemy cases because the repetition of evidence could be a crime. Judges acquitting those accused of blasphemy have been attacked; a defense lawyer representing a professor accused of blasphemy was killed this month.
So just repeating the blasphemous material, even as a judge or attorney citing it in court, is a blasphemous act in itself worthy of vigilante action.
But of course, nothing so outrageous could happen here in the US, could it? Sadly, such a ridiculous state of affairs doesn’t seem that far off here. Note that politicians, even leading candidates for the US Senate, now openly state that “Government cannot force citizens to violate their religious beliefs under any circumstances” and even that such stances are not negotiable in any way. But that’s not just a campaign stance. We have companies now going to the Supreme Court to state their right to ignore laws to which they object on religious grounds.
So if both politicians and companies now openly advocate to ignore laws on religious grounds, how far away are we from these same zealots advocating for prison terms or even death sentences for those who offend their religious sensibilities? After all, we have already seen a bit of the vigilantism that goes along with such attitudes.
Update: It turns out that the incident with ISI hadn’t blown over yet. Breaking news from Dawn:
A committee formed by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) has suspended the licences of three television channels owned by the Geo TV network.
The committee has also decided that Geo TV offices be immediately sealed.
However, a final decision on the revocation of the licences will be announced following the meeting on May 28, which will also be attended by government representatives.
The committee, which includes members Syed Ismail Shah, Pervez Rathore and Israr Abbasi, was tasked to review the Ministry of Defence’s application filed against Geo TV network for leveling allegations against an intelligence agency of Pakistan.
It will be interesting to see how Geo responds.
Despite the fact that our country was founded in part by immigrants seeking to escape religious persecution, the current crop of Republican presidential candidates (with the exception of Ron Paul, who gets no media airtime anyway) have carried the Republican party’s “God and country” theme to even more of an extreme than usual. Taking the clear lead in this push to extremism is Rick Santorum, who now is not only proclaiming his radical faith as a principal reason to vote for him, but he also is deriding the faith of others, primarily that of President Barack Obama.
When Rick Santorum accused President Obama of having “some phony theology” last weekend, it was neither an isolated event nor an offhand remark.
Instead, Santorum’s comments were a new twist on a steady theme of his Republican presidential candidacy: that Obama and other Democrats have a secular worldview not based on the Bible, one they are intent on imposing on believers.
The Republicans’ religious fundamentalism comes through in response to concrete policy issues:
The relationship between religion and government has emerged as a flash point in the presidential campaign in recent days after an effort by the Obama administration to require religious institutions to include contraception in health insurance plans for employees. All of the Republican candidates objected to the effort, which the administration tweaked after a massive outcry, especially from Catholics.
The “Founding Fathers” that conservative Republicans so want to emulate on some fronts took pains to establish the separation of church and state. Because many had come from persecuted religious minorities, they pushed for the First Amendment’s prohibition both on establishment of an official religion and for the freedom to practice all religions.
Yet, with his extreme devotion to a radical fundamentalist Christian version of Catholicism, Santorum is moving in a direction that could lead directly into the kind of religion-fueled violence we see in other parts of the world. Until now, only the occasional murder of an abortion provider has cropped up as violence that could be attributed to radical religious fundamentalism in the US. But when a candidate for president openly charges the current president with adhering to a “phony theology”, how far away are we from situations like that now in Afghanistan, where violence has erupted over the burning of Korans at Parwan prison?
When radical fundamentalist religion and government are intimately intertwined, violence seems to follow. In the current fiasco in Afghanistan, we see the mullahs in the Taliban calling for violence as a voice for the outrage at the burning:
An Afghan soldier joined protests on Thursday against the burning of copies of the Koran at a NATO base and shot dead two foreign troops, Western military sources said, as the Taliban urged security forces to turn their guns on foreigners.
Protests against the burning of copies of Islam’s most holy book drew thousands of angry Afghans to the streets, chanting “Death to America!” for the third consecutive day in violence that has killed 11 people and wounded many more.
The Taliban urged Afghans to target foreign military bases and kill Westerners in retaliation for the Koran burning at Bagram airfield on Tuesday, later directing its plea to the security forces, calling on them to “turn their guns on the foreign infidel invaders,” it said on its site shahamat-english.com.