Pakistan’s arrest of a 12-year-old girl for blasphemy has invigorated the worn assertions that Islam is a “religion of violence,” that Islamic countries are barbaric, and that Muslims, on the whole, can’t distinguish between right and wrong.
Details about the case are confused. The girl may be mentally challenged. She may have burned pages of the Koran. Or she burned some pages of some other religious text. Or she merely threw out some pages of something with the rest of the refuse she collects in her professional role as a garbage collector. Or maybe she didn’t do anything at all, but is merely the victim of the exploitation of a blasphemy law in Pakistan that is all too easy to exploit.
Whatever the case, she has been arrested, with her family, and the Christians of her neighborhood have cleared out, perhaps never to return.
The world has dashed toward outrage, with the United States in the lead, and there certainly seems to be little in the way of a rational argument to defend the arrest of this girl for a crime of ignorance and illiteracy, nor, especially, to defend the threats to light her on fire, all for the sake of a book. Surely, flies the indignation across the BlatherNet, a stack of paper and squiggles of ink shouldn’t be more prized than a person’s freedom and right to exist.
Well, maybe so. But we in the United States, at least, might consider our own sanctification of objects and the lengths to which we go to demand acknowledgment of that sanctification before we sound off too loudly about angry Muslims in Pakistan.
Does anyone remember “Piss Christ?”Andres Serrano received death threats from modern, enlightened Americans over the object in his photograph. It’s rather a lovely photograph, actually. Only dismay that an object so sanctified as a crucifix (even only a plastic one) would be desecrated by urine moved some adherents of the religion of peace to call for the artist’s death.
Yes, there’s probably a big difference, even more than one, between an illiterate, adolescent slum-dweller’s unwitting interaction with the Koran (if even this much actually happened) and the intentional construction of an art piece that an adult artist knew very well would offend. My point is: the object. According to the reports, some Pakistani Muslims who sympathize with the girl’s situation nevertheless concede that she will have to face punishment if found guilty in court. The object itself is that important. In Serrano’s case, some Christians could not simply “let it go” as the meaningless conceit of the avant garde imposed on a piece of plastic. The object had been wronged and demanded atonement.
We all understand the notion of the sanctity of objects. No fewer than seven times since 1990 the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a constitutional amendment forbidding the desecration of the American flag. The amendment is an attempt to elevate the flag protection beyond the reach of the U.S. Supreme Court, which has consistently struck down anti-desecration legislation as unconstitutional. In his dissent to one such ruling in 1989, Justice John Paul Stevens articulated just how well we Americans know how to sanctify inanimate objects and to strain to protect them:
“The ideas of liberty and equality have been an irresistible force in motivating leaders like Patrick Henry, Susan B. Anthony, and Abraham Lincoln, schoolteachers like Nathan Hale and Booker T. Washington, the Philippine Scouts who fought at Bataan, and the soldiers who scaled the bluff at Omaha Beach. If those ideas are worth fighting for - and our history demonstrates that they are - it cannot be true that the flag that uniquely symbolizes their power is not itself worthy of protection from unnecessary desecration.”
We have come to associate this object, the flag, with the ideals of our national identity. The object, in this case, manifests the fundamental ideals by which we recognize ourselves and each other as fellow Americans—liberty, equality, courage, justice, and so forth. And for some citizens, securing the object is to secure the country against acts defying such ideals as liberty, equality, and so forth. Perhaps we understand better than we admit how in Pakistan “it cannot be true” that the Koran itself is not worthy of protection, at least to the extent that in Pakistan the Koran also expresses, objectively, the ideals of a national identity.
As evident in the repeated appearances of the anti-desecration constitutional amendment before the House and Senate, plenty of Americans would have their fellow Americans arrested for burning the flag. And it may only be this country’s unique balance of powers and the relative prosperity that sustains widespread deference to law here that forestalls an eruption of honest-to-goodness mob violence on a flag burner.
None of the preceding is to defend the intent to lynch a mentally handicapped, adolescent girl for burning part of the Koran or for doing anything else. It’s only to point out that the so-called civilized world may not be so far removed from Pakistan as its collective outrage asserts.
David Mason is an associate professor at Rhodes College in Memphis. He is the author of “Theatre and Religion on Krishna’s Stage” and “My Mormonism: a primer for non-Mormons and Mormons, alike.”