Martin Hannan: For Allah’s sake send him home

A shrine to assinated government minister Shahbaz Bhatt. Picture: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
A shrine to assinated government minister Shahbaz Bhatt. Picture: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
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In the Netherbow Theatre more than 20 years ago, I saw a performance by the Fifth Estate Theatre Company of a play called The Blasphemer.

It was written by that kenspeckle local journalist, broadcaster, author and playwright George Rosie, and tackled the subject of the last man in Britain to be executed for the crime of blasphemy, Thomas Aikenhead.

He was murdered by the state, with the active collusion of the Church of Scotland, in Edinburgh in 1697 at the age of 20. Among his “crimes” was to say that he preferred the Prophet Muhammad to Jesus Christ.

I may be slightly biased in thinking the play was a small triumph, because my actor brother Stevie, who now lives in Edinburgh, played the lead role of Aikenhead. The Blasphemer should have been seen more widely, and it is more than a little relevant today here in Scotland.

For the Asghar family here in Edinburgh know only too well that a modern inquisition can leave you doomed.

As you are probably aware, their patriarch, Mohammad Asghar, 69, has been condemned to death 
for blasphemy in Pakistan, despite being diagnosed with severe mental illness.

I think all the protestations against this death sentence so far have been tactically amiss. For what will really annoy the Pakistani people is to be told that their blasphemy laws are wrong.

Yes, the blasphemy laws undoubtedly go against the articles on freedom of speech and religion in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which Pakistan is a signatory as a member of the United Nations. But the successive governments of that country have clearly decided that the Declaration’s article 21 is paramount.

Let me quote you from that article: “The will of the people shall be the basis for the authority of government.”

The Pakistani government is carrying out the will of the people, because it is a hugely Muslim country, and fiercely Muslim at that. They venerate the word of the Prophet unquestioningly, and some aspects of Islamic Sharia law form part of the Pakistani legal code.

That is something the people of Pakistan strongly support. So much so that if anyone comes along and says “freedom of speech is more important than the anti-blasphemy law” they usually get run out of the country. Or shot dead, as happened to the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, and the country’s only Christian minister, Shabaz Batti, both of them assassinated because of their support for the reform of blasphemy laws.

So let us all tread very carefully when dealing with this issue. I don’t think anyone will make any headway in this case by arguing that the blasphemy law is wrong. By their lights, the people of Pakistan do not think the law is anything other than just, and the country’s judiciary agree and will uphold the law, even if it means executing people.

Far better to argue that prosecuting a man who clearly has mental health problems is just legally wrong, even in Pakistan. Any state anywhere that condemns to death a mentally ill man is reprehensible.

In the name of Allah, the most Merciful, the most Beneficent, let the people of Pakistan send Mohammad Asghar home to his family in Scotland where they can care for a sick man. That is what good Muslims and good judges do.

Inquiry needed to repair the damage

SOME weeks ago I warned you of a huge scandal breaking in local government in the Lothians. Soon we will all see how the statutory repairs scandal at Edinburgh City Council developed as those accused of criminal conduct come before the courts.

As soon as those cases are concluded, there should be a full public inquiry into this horrendous affair.

I can’t say anything about the cases, but believe me, from the little I already know, this is going to be the biggest scandal in Scottish local government history, and only a public inquiry will reveal the shocking truth.

Fines bonanza grinds to a halt

If ever proof was needed that parking fines are just another money-making exercise for Edinburgh City Council, it came with the howls of anguish around the City Chambers that greeted the news that the number of tickets has fallen 20 per cent in five years.

The tram roadworks were blamed for the decrease, but I suspect the truth is that people just got fed-up paying the fines and started to park sensibly and pay the exorbitant rates charged for parking – that’s if they came into town at all, because more and more people are shopping away from the city centre.

Just think, if everyone actually parked and paid correctly, the whole rotten system would collapse in months, if not weeks.

SENIOR MOMENT

So yet another publication has gained itself a headline or two by suggesting that Glasgow become capital of Scotland. The Oldie must be senile if that’s what it really thinks.