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Crossing the West-Muslim Divide with Religious Freedom By Asma Uddin, Legal Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

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By Asma Uddin, Legal Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

My work on religious freedom, especially international religious freedom, provides much fodder for academic and op-ed pieces alike. One thing that has bothered me for some time—and which I write about often—is the seeming impasses in communication across the West-Muslim world divide when it comes to religious freedom and free speech issues.

One thing has always been clear: to make it meaningful and find willing listeners, the communication must be rooted in local concerns, and many times in Islamic literature. Without this, any advocacy originating in the West will be perceived (and rejected) as a cultural imposition.

With this fundamental point always the backdrop of my religious freedom contemplations, some bells went off when I read the 1993 Supreme Court of Pakistan’s Zaheeruddin v. State opinion. The case involved four members of the Ahmadiyya religious group who had been convicted under Ordinance XX and section 295(c) of the Pakistan Penal Code. XX states that Ahmadis are not Muslims, and 295(c) is one of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

In Zaheeruddin, the Court upheld the convictions, stating that public religious expression by Ahmadis was offensive to Pakistan’s Sunni Muslim citizens and could lead these offended citizens to engage in violence. The court reasoned that since Ahmadi practices can elicit such violent reactions, the Pakistani government had the power to restrict the practices.

Interestingly, the majority opinion based its decision primarily on concerns about public order and drew heavily on U.S. case law. Among its citations were five U.S. Supreme Court cases: Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940); Jones v. Opelika (1942); Reynolds v. United States (1879); Hamilton v. Board of Regents (1934); and Lanzetta v. New Jersey (1939).

I won’t get into the opinion too deeply here; for present purposes, I simply want to note the reliance on American law. Granted, the Court misinterpreted many of the cases, but what’s striking is the legitimacy of U.S. law in the eyes of the Court. Subsequent research has revealed that Pakistan looks to U.S. law in numerous other areas as well. This strikes me as significant because it opens the door for using American free speech jurisprudence as a guide for Pakistani lawmakers and judges—without it appearing as an external imposition.

Moreover, U.S. free speech jurisprudence has evolved quite a bit over time—at one point, it espoused a standard not too different from Pakistan’s current one! What can Pakistan learn from the U.S.’s history? What compelled our own evolution away from the standard Pakistan espouses today? These are the sorts of questions I think through in one of my current papers.