In an alarming development, the Pakistan government is seeking to introduce what is in effect a global Islamic blasphemy law that prohibits any internet material critical of Islam.
The government is pursuing a twin track approach to this: it has met with ambassadors of 27 Muslim-majority countries to get international agreement to prosecute anyone who posts online any material deemed to be blasphemous; and it is pressurising internet companies such as Facebook and Twitter to remove immediately such content.
Already, the Pakistan government is claiming that Facebook has agreed to remove such content and over the past few months had blocked 17 such sites and has blocked a further 45 since being pressed further in March.
Disturbingly, the Pakistan government is seeking to prosecute people who post material not only in Pakistan but also across the world. According to Reuters, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan claimed that Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington had already spoken to both the US Justice Department and the FBI, and both agencies “had been receptive”.
The aim is not simply to remove anything posted on the internet deemed offensive to Islam, but to find out who posted it and prosecute them. The Interior Minister has already said that he wants to extradite anyone overseas accused of Islamic blasphemy. In fact, the Pakistan government is asking internet providers to tell them the names of people posting such material, saying:
"Facebook and other service providers should share all information about the people behind this blasphemous content with us."
Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper implied that one of those currently being investigated for Islamic blasphemy on social media was actually based in the USA, quoting the Interior Minister as saying “our embassy in Washington has also taken up the matter [with the US government]”.
The implications of this for Christians are far reaching. Christians accused under Pakistan’s so-called “blasphemy laws” face a mandatory death penalty if found guilty of offensive comments about Muhammad. Even if acquitted, they have to flee the country as Muslim vigilantes seek to kill them. Now, even if they flee to a free and democratic country such as the US , they could still face the Pakistani government trying to extradite them back to Pakistan.
Comments deemed blasphemous could potentially include any denial of the tenets of Islam. Followers of Christianity or and other non-Islamic religions are therefore in a very precarious position as merely affirming certain aspects of their own faith might be construed as blasphemy. It is all too likely that any criticism of Islamic theology, history or practice could also be taken by certain Muslims as not just offensive but also blasphemous.
This also of course potentially impacts anyone who writes online about the persecution of Christians in the Islamic world. At the very least it is likely that internet companies such as Facebook and Twitter will set their IT systems to remove anything that constitutes Islamic blasphemy. This means material about persecution of Christians in the Islamic world could also be removed, despite having been published in the West. Even something on a church Facebook page could be removed.
The Pakistan government is also seeking to extradite and prosecute people overseas who post material online that they deem offensive to Islam. Of course, countries such as the UK or USA are very unlikely to allow one of their citizens to be extradited for something that is not a criminal offence in their own country. But if someone were to visit one of the other 26 Muslim-majority countries involved with this initiative, they could be arrested and accused of Islamic blasphemy for something they wrote in Australia, New Zealand, the UK or USA. It is even conceivable that it could happen to someone who wrote about persecution of Christians on their church website and then visited one of those countries on holiday.
This is not the first such attempt to create a global Islamic blasphemy law. Since 2005, the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) has been sponsoring UN resolutions which attempt to make it a criminal offence to criticise Islam. However, what is particularly disturbing about the Pakistan government’s latest move is that internet companies are already taking action to enforce it.
Make no mistake, this is a serious attempt to introduce a global Islamic blasphemy law, and one that will not only increase the persecution of Christians but also make even reporting the persecution of Christians in the Islamic world much more difficult. It will inevitably lead to self-censorship. Internet companies such as Facebook need to realise that there is a huge problem of anti-Christian hatred and persecution in the world and that their actions in suppressing reporting of this are, for want of a better word, ”Christianophobia”.