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The Fear of God

Communicating with, and tending to the whims of the gods has always been a specialised business. From the earliest religious beliefs any human behaviour that might offend the deities and bring down their wrath on the whole community had to be guarded against. The task of interpreting the god’s words and satisfying their needs has always been entrusted to an elite caste of priests, oracles or holy men who jealously guarded their power and mysterious rites. And as gods have come and gone over the last few thousand years nothing much has changed in this respect.

The hierarchy of the Catholic Church still try to maintain an air of mystery with their absurd rituals, robes, mitres and use of incense etc. Until recently the widespread use of Latin, too, helped to bamboozle their followers. Until the 1960’s it was used for all documents published by the Vatican.

“The language of the Roman Church is Latin. It is therefore forbidden to sing anything whatever in the vernacular in solemn liturgical functions” said Pope Pius X in 1903. And Pius XII declared “The use of the Latin language affords at once an imposing sign of unity and an effective safeguard against the corruption of true doctrine”. Now the current Pope, worried about the decline of religious humbug and mumbo-jumbo amongst the clergy wants to bring it back.

This is just a harmless pantomime though compared to the bizarre and rigorously enforced blasphemy laws that are used to preserve religious authority in Islam, particularly in Pakistan. Can you imagine what would happen if a TV series like ‘Father Ted’ were to be made about a group of bumbling mullahs? Unfortunately the Islamic equivalents of Fathers Ted, Dougal and Jack have never been very funny, and can be terrifyingly dangerous.

As this article is being prepared Rimsha Masih, the 14-year old girl who suffers from Down’s syndrome and was beaten up and imprisoned after being falsely accused by a local mullah of burning pages from the Koran, has finally been released after bail of one million rupees (about £6,200) was raised.

A Christian couple were sentenced to 25 years imprisonment after being accused of touching a Koran with unwashed hands. And a doctor in Hyderabad who threw away the visiting card of a pharmaceutical salesman found himself in serious trouble. The word Muhammad, part of the salesman’s name, was printed on the card. (Guardian online 19 August and 6 September).

But it’s not just the courts and mullahs who are terrified of blasphemers. In two separate incidents in Pakistan in 2011 Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti were gunned down in the streets because they spoke out in favour of reforming the blasphemy laws. And between 1990 and 2010 in Pakistan, in addition to formal convictions, there were at least 34 extrajudicial killings of people accused of blasphemy. (Guardian 5 September).

And it’s not only in Pakistan where Allah strikes fear in the hearts of his followers. Here, Channel 4 has cited security concerns as the reason for having to cancel a rescreening of its documentary ‘Islam: The Untold Story’ which claimed there was little written contemporary evidence about the origin of the religion, and attracted over 1,000 complaints from outraged believers.

Why do the followers of such powerful gods feel so insecure?