Stephen McGinty: Punished in the name of God

Three centuries after an Edinburgh student was hanged for blasphemy, another Scot faces the death penalty for the same crime. Stephen McGinty wonders when the law will be repealed everywhere

Pakistani fundamentalists hold an effigy of the author of an alleged anti-Islamic book as they call for him to be prosecuted for blasphemy. Picture: Getty
Pakistani fundamentalists hold an effigy of the author of an alleged anti-Islamic book as they call for him to be prosecuted for blasphemy. Picture: Getty

ON THE eve of the 18th century, Edinburgh was a dangerous place to be young and clever and full of questions, as Thomas Aikenhead discovered when a trail of thoughts led him to the gallows.

As a medical student at Edinburgh University, after reading the works of Descartes, Spinoza and Thomas Hobbes, he concluded that the Bible was but a patch-work of fables and philosophical doctrines, that the miracles of Jesus were sleight-of-hand tricks learned as a child in Egypt and that, on reflection, he preferred Muhammad and his teachings to that of Christ.

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Look around at any 20-year-old student today and its easy to imagine young Thomas pontificating with his pals over mugs of ale and pipes of tobacco in the howfs of the Old Town.

Yet the articulation of such ideas was an anathema to the theocracy that was Scotland in 1697 and when word reached the authorities, Aikenhead, the orphaned son of a surgeon, was arrested and prosecuted by the Lord Advocate, Sir James Stewart, for the crime of blasphemy. The indictment read: “That … the prisoner had repeatedly maintained, in conversation, that theology was a rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense …That he rejected the mystery of the Trinity as unworthy of refutation; and scoffed at the incarnation of Christ.”

Stewart sought the death penalty, to which the jury vigorously agreed. The Privy Council ruled on Aikenhead’s appeal that a reprieve could only be granted if the Church of Scotland intervened on his behalf. Sadly the General Assembly was in no mood to allow God to turn the other cheek and decided that it was in the nation’s best interest that Aikenhead should die. On 7 January, 1697 the General Assembly urged a “vigorous execution” as a means of preventing “the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land”.

The next day, in the depth of a winter chill, Thomas was led from the Tollbooth to the border of Edinburgh and Leith where the gallows were erected. He clutched the Bible in his hands and ascended the steps as a penitent who that morning penned a last letter to his friends.

“It is a principle innate and co-natural to every man to have an insatiable inclination to the truth, and to seek for it as for hid treasure.” He was to be the last person on the British Isles put to death by the state for possessing alternative views on the established religion.

It is 317 years since the trapdoor opened on Aikenhead and a Scot once again faces the prospect of a hangman’s noose for blasphemy.

For 30 years Mohammed Asghar ran a chain of grocery stores in Midlothian before returning to his native Pakistan in 2010 where a property dispute in Rawalpindi led a neighbour to leak letters to the authorities in which Mr Asghar, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, described himself as “The Prophet”.

He has been sentenced to death by the Federal Shariah Court which paid no attention to his history of mental illness, though were he mentally sound would this render the sentence any less repellant?

This week, three centuries later, the Church of Scotland was on the side of the angels when the Moderator, the Rt Rev Lorna Hood, wrote to the Foreign Secretary to express her concern about the plight of Mr Asghar and the rising number of people charged with blasphemy in Pakistan. Between 1986 and 2007, 647 people were charged under blasphemy laws, a figure that doubled over the next three years to 1,274.

While no one has yet been executed in Pakistan for blasphemy, a number of those charged have been killed in shootings by vigilantes. Two politicians who opposed the blasphemy law, Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, have also been murdered.

The government of Pakistan has so far demonstrated no intention to repeal the law which is hugely popular among the population of a nation created less than 80 years ago on the very basis of its religious identity and whose written constitution insists that its duty is to uphold the Islamic way of life.

It hardly needs stating what a foul, odious and chilling act it is for the state to take a man or woman’s life, or even his liberty, for besmirching the name of a diety. Yet if one looks at Britain’s relationship with blasphemy it becomes clear that it could be centuries before a state such as Pakistan matures to the point where such legislation can be heaved into the dustbin.

Scotland may bear the shame of being the last country in the British Isles to execute a person for blasphemy, but the law would remain in place for a further 300 years during which time our relationship with it waxed and waned.

The law was first enforced by the political courts of the Star Chamber before later being adopted into Common Law as a means of protecting the state by punishing any dissent from the doctrines of the Established Church of England. No-one could be tried for abusing Mohammad or mocking the Jewish faith, only Christianity, as the CoE recognised it, had such legal protection.

During the 19th century, various trials further defined the nuances of blasphemy as the courts debated the guilt or otherwise of characters such as the mentally ill labourer who in 1857 advocated using the scattered ashes of burnt Bibles as a means of ridding fields of potato blight.

Legal protection for a “sober reasoned attack” on religious faith was only secured in 1880, a full 20 years after Charles Darwin argued that man descended not from Adam and Eve but from apes, when Charles Bradlaugh, an atheist MP who went on to found the National Secular Society, was found not guilty of blasphemy. Yet, despite this “protection”, in 1921 William Gott was sentenced to nine months hard labour for publishing a secular pamphlet in which he mocked Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem as “like a Circus clown astride the backs of two donkeys”. Justice Argyll said that any person with strong religious feelings who chanced upon the pamphlet would wish to give him a “thrashing”. Gott was not sentenced to death, but to nine months. However, he emerged from prison a broken man, physically and mentally and died shortly after.

Mary Whitehouse, that indomitable scourge of profanity and defender of family values, secured the last successful conviction for blasphemy in 1976 when Denis Lemon, the editor of Gay News was fined £500 and given a nine-month suspended sentence for publishing a poem by James Kirkup about a Roman centurion fantasying about a sexual relationship with Jesus Christ.

It took the United Kingdom until 2008 to erase the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel from the statute books, and yet still a cringing caution remains as witnessed by the decision last week by Newtownabbey Council in County Antrim to ban a production of the stage play The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged) for fear of protests from Christian members of the local community.

What will it take for nations such as Pakistan to recognise the evil that lurks within the coiled sentences of a blasphemy law? Perhaps the same journeys that we have undertaken such as a religious reformation and an enlightenment that recognised the importance of separating church, or in their case, mosque and state?

Neither is on the horizon in Pakistan or nations such as Saudi Arabia and so anyone who does not adhere to the prescribed beliefs of the state and voices such dissent could end up trudging in the footsteps of Thomas Aitkenhead to the boundary of Edinburgh and Leith and the gallows.

Blasphemy is not about protecting God from impostors or verbal slights but exerting state control and pacifying the mob.

I’ve always thought that the answer to any charge of blasphemy is request a victim impact statement, to call Mohammad or Jesus to the witness stand and ask if they support what is done in their name.