Recently, a Pakistan court has sentenced a 65-year-old British national to death because of blasphemy. Muhammad Asghar was arrested in 2010 for writing letters to a lawyer and politician alleging that Asghar was a prophet. Asghar was previously been detained under the Mental Health Act in Britain and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. In addition, the law firm that was representing this defendant was disqualified from the case for unclear reasons and the Judge appointed state counsel to represent him. The previous law firm alleges that the substituted state counsel did not effectively represent Asghar because it failed to introduce valid evidence of his mental history.
Ashgar was charged under section 295-C of the Pakistani Penal Code. It states: “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), shall be punished with death or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.” Blasphemy trials in Pakistan are held inside prisons for security reasons because it is too unsafe to be heard in open court. At trial, the prosecutor brought in evidence of testimony from police officers and handwriting experts who were able to determine that Asghar was the author of the letters. The defense was trying to allege insanity as their defense but this was rejected. British officials say that they will appeal the judgment because state defense counsel failed to adequately raise the insanity defense by not providing documentary proof of the mental illness, introducing witnesses on behalf of defendant, and questioning a medical board who declared the defendant sane.
Different cultures around the world see offensive conduct in different ways. Pakistan apparently has very serious blasphemy laws. Asghar is facing the death penalty for simply writing letters claiming to be a prophet. I understand that the Muslim faith may be intolerant to such offensive actions but this trial seems unfair. The fact that this man’s insanity was not taken into account by the court suggest that there may have been a bias against this defendant. British and international organizations say that they will urge Pakistan to release this defendant from prison for safety reasons and an appeal will be coming. In the end I hope that this 65-year-old schizophrenic man is able to receive a fair trial in a country with very different cultural views as the United States.
Would a blasphemy statute be constitutional in the United States?
Do you have an opinion as to the fairness of the blasphemy statute or this trial?
What I find much more offensive then any “blasphemy” that may have taken place here is the wholesale abandonment of the right to free expression. The actions of Pakistan’s government, supposedly carried out in the name of God, resemble the most brutal and contemptible aspects of totalitarian dictatorships. While ostensibly appearing to promote tolerance through banning religious defamation, these laws actually foster intolerance and restrict human rights and fundamental freedoms under specious justifications. This type of regulatory regime is not theocracy, but totalitarianism defined – a government ready to resort to violence (i.e. the death penalty) at the drop of a hat, should someone challenge their viewpoints or beliefs. It is nothing more than a barbaric effort to control thought. But perhaps theocracy and totalitarianism are basically one and the same.
To answer your question, of course a blasphemy statute would never be constitutional in the United States. Such a statute is repugnant to the 1st Amendment’s freedom of speech. Expression should never be punished just because some may find it insensitive. Here, it is not the blasphemy that should be condemned, but the governmental campaign of violence and intimidation.