Britain, long the world’s leading exporter of enlightening values such as free speech and religious coexistence, now risks becoming a major importer of outrage over Islamic blasphemy. While the UK has worked to integrate immigrants from Pakistan, British culture has too often given in to radical views on blasphemy, allowing activists to impose de facto blasphemy laws.
The latest incident occurred last month in West Yorkshire, where students accidentally scratched off a Quran belonging to a 14-year-old autistic boy. Things escalated quickly. A Labor Party councilor said the book had been “desecrated” and the matter needed to be “urgently dealt with by all authorities”, including the police. Amid death threats, the school suspended four students even though the principal found they had no bad intentions.
In a video widely shared on social media, the mother of the boy whose Quran was scratched appeared at a mosque, along with an imam, the local police chief and the school principal, to apologize and ask for leniency for her son.
The West Yorkshire incident is part of a pattern. In 2016, a man of Pakistani origin stabbed to death an Ahmadiyya Muslim shopkeeper in Glasgow. Two years ago, death threats forced an English schoolteacher to quit his job and go into hiding after showing students a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad. Angry pickets last year forced theaters to pull a film about the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, which was supposed to portray Islamic history through a militant Shiite prism.
Of all places, why is this the case in the UK, which has successfully integrated immigrants from all over the world? The answer can be traced to extremist elements in Britain’s 1.6 million-strong Pakistani community, says Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, an expert on radical Islam at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.
“We are seeing this aspect of Pakistani Islam seeping into the UK via British-Pakistani preachers with links to anti-blasphemy groups in Pakistan,” Meleagrou-Hitchens said in a telephone interview. “To understand what’s happening in Britain, you have to understand Pakistan.”
That is a sobering thought. Pakistan’s original blasphemy laws date back to colonial rule, but vigilante attacks on suspected blasphemers have become common since the pious dictator General Zia ul-Haq instituted the death penalty for the crime in 1986. Since then, more than 1,500 people have been charged with blasphemy-related offences. More than half were religious minorities (Ahmadiyya Muslims, Christians and Hindus), although these groups represent less than 4% of the population.
These laws are still popular. Some 75% of Muslims in Pakistan supported the country’s anti-blasphemy laws in a 2011 Pew poll, the last time the team asked this question. In the 2018 election, Tehreek-e-Labbaik, a strident pro-blasphemy law party, polled more than 2.2 million votes, a better performance than several long-established parties. And often the mere charge of blasphemy is enough to invite vigilantes to retaliate. Last month, a mob in Punjab lynched a man accused of blasphemy after storming a police station.
Vigilante assassins are sometimes remembered as heroes. In 2011, the police commando Mumtaz Qadri assassinated the governor of Punjab. Salman Taseer, who had publicly expressed his solidarity with a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. Qadri’s tomb is now a pilgrimage site.
As Mr. Meleagrou-Hitchens points out, Qadri also has a cult following in the UK. That this aspect of Pakistani culture has permeated Britain points to a broader immigration debate in the West: should we care more about where immigrants come from?
Although each individual is unique, immigrant groups often retain aspects of their ancestral culture for decades, according to “The Culture Transplant,” a new book by Garett Jones, an economist at George Mason University. In a telephone interview, Jones pointed to a large gap between British Indian immigrants, on the one hand, and Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants, on the other, in education, income levels and female labor force participation. Jones wants Western nations to prioritize skills over family reunification on immigration, giving citizens of countries with long histories of liberal democracy a slight advantage.
Although Mr. Jones’s work focuses on economics, his general point probably extends to culture more broadly. Technology links immigrants to their home cultures in a way that it did not a few decades ago. Many British-Pakistanis remain closely linked to Pakistan through Facebook,
whatsapp and urdu tv channels. This is not to say that Britain should not let the Pakistanis in. But by being intimidated by the radicals in this group, the British have taught the world a lesson in how not to handle Islamic extremism.
Fortunately, some politicians are willing to stand up to the radicals, while at the same time being careful not to criticize peaceful Muslims. In a recent opinion piece in the Times, Home Secretary Suella Braverman stated flatly that “we have no blasphemy laws in Britain, and we must not be complicit in attempts to impose them.”
Ms. Braverman is right. Britain’s Enlightenment project may have run aground in Pakistan today. But the least we can hope for is that it doesn’t also run aground in Great Britain.
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