France has suffered yet another terrorist incident in which an attacker with a knife killed three people and wounded several others at Notre Dame church in the French city of Nice today. The Mayor of Nice described this deadly stabbing as an act of “terrorism”. According to Mayor Christian Estrosi, those who were killed included a woman and the caretaker at the basilica and that the suspect had repeatedly cried ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is greatest).
Now there should be no dilly-dallying in honestly recognising the fact and identifying theological motivation behind this as well as the earlier gruesome terror incident in France, the beheading of a teacher in Paris. Both were inspired by an anti-blasphemy radical Islamist ideology and must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. But after we have expressed solidarity with France and the French people fighting for ‘freedom of expression’, let us now dig deeper into the ideological motivations of such terror incidents which remain equally critical to Europe as well as the Indian subcontinent with worrisome implications.
The sole motive of the anti-blasphemy killer is the extremist Islamic Prophetology, an inherent Islamic doctrine of defending Prophet’s honour which promotes the belief in the necessity (wujub) of executing a blasphemer even at the hands of a non-state actor. In this theology, such killings are considered legitimate and even expected of a common Muslim taking the law into his own hand.
At a time when an anti-France and ‘anti-Macron’ wave is flooding across the Islamic world, India has actually backed its ally France and President Emmanuel Macron, whom Pakistan, Turkey, and many other Muslim countries and organisations have not just severely condemned but also supported a public boycott of French products. In India, from the fundamentalist organisations like Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (JeIH) and Popular Front of India (PFI) to the soft-core Islamic organisations such as World Sufi Peace Mission and individuals like Shahi Imam of Fatehpuri Jama Masjid Mufti Mukarram, Mauala Mohsin Taqwi of Shia Jama Masjid (Kashmiri Gate), Islamic orator and former MP Maulana Ubaidullah Khan Azmi have all weighed in against France. They have vehemently denounced the French President against what they called ‘anti-Islam remarks’ and the insulting caricatures of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) being publicized in France. But none of them had the temerity to turn inward and recognise the problem within. Not even as a note of caution!
The question now is: why so many Muslims around the world, including even in a multi-religious country like in India, tend to believe in death penalty for blasphemy that too by non-state actors in a secular nation state like France? The answer lies in those Islamist organisations and individuals who exploit this sensitive issue to control the masses and further their relgio-political ends. This is precisely why, during the last few years, there has been an increasingly profound and deep traction for the extremist anti-blasphemy narrative through various Urdu magazines, social media posts and proliferated Islamic literature in India and across the border. Look at the recent trends of anti-blasphemy killings and their theological justifications based on Namus-e-Risalat (protecting Prophet’s honour) and Khatm-e-Nabbuwat (Finality of Prophethood) in India and Pakistan:
On August 11 this year, violent clashes took place in the Indian city of Bangalore following the appearance of an inflammatory Facebook post on prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Some Muslims in Bengaluru reportedly provoked by the PFI resorted to wanton violence in protest against a reported incident of blasphemy against Prophet Mohammed (pbuh). Later, strict legal action against the perpetrators were demanded by a few Muslim intellectuals and human rights activists. But no one among them tried to closely look at the root of the problem. It was actually inspired by an immediately earlier incident in Pakistan. Khalid Khan—now increasingly popular as ‘Ghazi Khalid’ in social media across Indo-Pak— shot dead an American citizen accused in a blasphemy case in a Pakistani courtroom on July 29, 2020. Thereafter, the anti-blasphemy killer was instantly turned into an Islamic ‘warrior’ [Ghazi] catapulting from Pakistan to an Indian Islamist section on social media. Since then, ‘Ghazi Khalid’ is trending on several Islamic social media groups, particularly in Urdu, to the extent that he’s become the Facebook display picture of many and virtual rose petals are being showered on him. A large section of Islamic social media groups celebrated the anti-blasphemy killer. Some even eulogised him as the ‘real Ertugrul Ghazi’.
The mainstream Muslims in India and Pakistan strongly believe in Khatm-e-Nabbuwat (finality of Prophethood) and Tahaffuz-e-Namus-e-Risalat (protecting Prophet’s dignity). Therefore, they hold that anyone desecrating or claiming Prophethood is a blasphemer and must be killed. Tellingly, the killed American citizen in Paksitan Naseem Ahmad had allegedly proclaimed himself to be a Mujaddid (Islamic reviver) and Mahdi (Messiah). As a result of similar alleged proclamations, over 62 people have been killed in Pakistan since 1990, according to a report by Centre for Research and Security Studies. The textbook example of an anti-blasphemy killer is Mumtaz Qadri—who killed governor of Punjab in Pakistan Salman Taseer. He continues to enjoy the status of a Pir (saint) for many Sunni Muslims in India and Pakistan and his grave is venerated by thousands.
In fact, the dominant Islamic theology expects Muslims to behave in a violent way when it comes to defending or protecting the Prophet’s honour being desecrated in any situation or society. Though the Quran is ambiguous regarding the penalty for blasphemy, certain hadiths from Sahin al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim (the two topmost authentic hadith collections) are often quoted to legitimize the execution of someone known as a ‘blasphemer’. Consequently, common Muslims tend to lose all rational faculty when Prophet’s dignity (namus-e-risalat) is in question.
Certainty, many progressive Muslim scholars have also come up with an alternate theological interpretation of the related hadith texts which talk of killing an apostate or blasphemer. They argue that those hadiths should be contextualised and located in a specific situation in which the alleged apostates as well as blasphemes had indulged in a ‘sedition’ against the state and thus their execution was as a traitor rather than as apostate or blasphemer. They extensively quote from the same hadith collections of authentic reports on how Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) disapproved of violence against someone who abused or insulted him. There are numerous stories of how Prophet (pbuh) forgave those who disparaged him both in Mecca and Medina. However, all these alternate narrations remain in the textual domain of the modern Islamic scholars. They do not become part of or the final basis of the consensus theology.
In the social media as well as in the real world, the Muslim imagination and actions are largely shaped by the medieval Islamic jurists or the present-day clerics. Unless they are not confronted with the strong alternative interpretations, the minds of common Muslims are unlikely to be challenged on the issue of blasphemy. An entire social ecosystem has developed within a large section of Islamic community on social media where those who kill a ‘blasphemer’ are eulogised as ‘Ghazi’. Islamic slogans in Urdu like “Gustakh-e-Rasool Ki Saza Sar Tan Se Juda” (blasphemer’s punishment, beheading) have been doing the rounds. Contrast this slogan with the utterances of the Chechin perpetrator of the Paris beheading and the knife attacker in Nice, France. We never know when and where such slogans will translate into an act of terror.
As a note of caution, Indian Muslims must understand this evil design and foil the present and future attempts of those in India and Pakistan who are constantly trying to eulogise the murderers like the 18-year-old Chechen Abdullakh Anzorov who beheaded a teacher in Paris, or the 17-year-old Ghazi Khalid Khan who murdered an American citizen in Peshawar. Such terror empathisers who turn an immature and misguided youth into an instant Islamic ‘hero’ are actually the real culprits who vilify the peaceful atmosphere of a democratic country. Just ask yourself why PFI or SDPI (Social Democratic Party of India) jumped into the Bangalore protest and hijacked it? The reason is not difficult to see.