Blasphemy and the Polity of Our Prayers

The last time I was in Pakistan, back in January of 2012, my cousin Sa’ad threw me a big, lavish party the evening before my departure. I have a very large extended family, much of it based in Lahore, and just about everyone from Lahore, it seemed, was there–aunts, uncles, first cousins, first cousins once removed, first cousins twice removed, spouses of cousins, and all other manner of kith and kin. My cousin Sa’ad and his brother Salman are major players in the Pakistani political establishment, part of the government at the time, but allied with Nawaz Sharif, then out of power as Prime Minister.* Many of my other cousins are political activists of one sort or another, not always friendly to governments in power. It makes for interesting dinner conversation, and it certainly did that particular night.

It didn’t take long after dinner was served, until my cousin Sabahat, a godless, fire-breathing feminist, decided to go straight for the jugular (our host’s jugular, that is) and start an argument about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, its “creeping Talibanization,” and Cousin Sa’ad’s responsibility as a member of the ruling class to do something about it. Why did Pakistan have blasphemy laws?, she asked, not quite rhetorically. Weren’t they ridiculous? Didn’t they just encourage the Taliban to take greater liberties? Wasn’t it time to roll them back? Wasn’t it time at last for Pakistan to make its belated entrance into liberal modernity? And what, exactly, was Cousin Sa’ad doing, in his official position within the government, to bring about change? What, dammit: Cousin Sabahat wanted a straight answer.

In any other household, the unapologetically aggressive, even accusatory, nature of this line of questioning might have been deemed out-of-bounds for a friendly family gathering. Accredited, appropriate topics at most normal family gatherings might include the weather, the latest pop song or sit-com, the latest Netflix drama, fashion, shopping, sports, and/or that old favorite, “kids these days.” Even clichéd, uncontroversial laments about “how bad things have become” might be fine among the old folks, within limits. But accusing the host of the party of complicity in theocracy, and demanding that he take action against it lest he open himself up to further accusations? Well, that may not be your idea of light dinner party conversation, but if not, you should hang out with us some time. Because that’s dinner with the Khawajas.

It was a memorable conversation. Cousin Sa’ad, no stranger to accusations or polemics, did his best to dodge, weave, and drag in a few red herrings. Yes, the blasphemy laws were often misapplied. Yes, the Taliban were a problematic crew, and gaining steam, even right here in fun-loving Lahore. Yes, maybe it was time to re-visit the blasphemy laws, if only to tighten the rules of evidence so as to prevent or minimize the possibility of false accusation. And yes, once back in power, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government would do all–repeat all–within its power to stop the scourge of vigilante justice in God’s name….

Cousin Sabahat wasn’t having it. Misapplications of the blasphemy law were not what she asked about. Misapplications were only made possible by the existence of applications. And applications were only made possible by the existence of the law. It was the law itself she was questioning. Why have such a law in the first place? Apparently the Minister of Railways (yes, Cousin Sa’ad was and once again is, in charge of the railways) had not properly heard the question.

Well, then, Cousin Sabahat would elaborate. What about non-Muslims? Were there not Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians in Pakistan? How could Islamic sharia be thought to apply to them? And what about atheists, for God’s sake? Was the government still committed to the absurdity that none existed in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan? Why, Sabahat could name one or two sitting right here at this very table. Picture

Cousin Sabahat, hatching yet another scheme

All eyes shifted uneasily from Sabahat, known for her high-decibel irreligiosity, to me–also known for it, I suppose, but trying very hard for once not to be. A conversation about the defects of the kalam cosmological argument, or the finer points of the problem of evil, within the context of an academic seminar: fine. But having to serve as Representative for the Atheist Caucus in front of a crowd of Pakistani aunties before dessert? And the night before my departure for New York? At a party in my honor? Would I even get dessert now? 

After Sabahat’s laying into Sa’ad for what seemed like a blasphemous eternity, the lady of the house–Sa’ad’s wife–finally saved the day by bringing in the gulab jaman and tea. With sweets and tea in everyone’s mouth, discussion was made impossible, essentially by design, and so the argument petered out, also by design. But Sabahat’s point had been made: Yes, there are atheists in Pakistan. Yes, they sit at the dinner table alongside devout Muslims. Yes, they insist on the right to speak their minds. No, they do not accept the legitimacy of the blasphemy laws. No, they do not observe Islamic sharia. Nor should they have to tailor their thoughts to fit the demands of some bearded bigot’s idea of what those thoughts should be. We all have minds of our own, and are fully capable of using them that way. The time had therefore come to bury the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, not merely to reform them, and to start discussing God’s existence or not in a public way, giving people the freedom to believe or not at their discretion, and act accordingly.

That was eleven years ago, but it all came rushing back to mind after reading this piece in The New York Times about Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s recent bid to strengthen the blasphemy laws in Pakistan. 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which can already mean death for those deemed to have insulted Islam or the Prophet Muhammad, can now also be used to punish anyone convicted of insulting people who were connected to him.

The move this week by Parliament to further strengthen the nation’s strict blasphemy laws, which are often used to settle personal scores or persecute minorities, has raised concerns among rights activists about the prospect of an increase in such persecution, particularly of religious minorities, including Christians.

As Pakistani society has turned more conservative and religious in the past several decades, religion and display of religiosity in public life have become ever more pronounced.

Those convicted of insulting the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, companions or close relatives will now face 10 years in prison, a sentence that can be extended to life, along with a fine of 1 million rupees, roughly $4,500. It also makes the charge of blasphemy an offense for which bail is not possible.

I should add that at least one American has been killed over these laws, with relatively little in the way of response from his fellow citizens.** 

Shehbaz Sharif is, of course, Nawaz’s brother, and functions in effect, as Nawaz’s successor. Both of my cousins, Sa’ad and Salman, are once again members of the government. Sa’ad is once again federal Minister of Railways; Salman is now a member of the Punjab Provincial Assembly. I should make clear that neither Sa’ad nor Salman bear any personal responsibility for, or have any direct authority over, Parliament’s decision to strengthen the blasphemy laws–any more than they were responsible for the existence of those laws back in 2012. And yet I couldn’t help hearing the echoes of Cousin Sabahat’s polemics while reading the Times article, and couldn’t help seeing the notional equivalent of her accusatory finger pointing at them, and at me. There is, at some level, both complicity and responsibility here, neither easily evaded.

While I’m name-dropping, or achievement-dropping, I should mention the other side of the family divide, the activists. I can’t help noting with some pride that the number of my (mostly female) cousins working in journalism or activism has steadily increased over the last dozen years or so. Whether devout or not, nearly all of my many cousins regard themselves as feminists of one sort or another, and resent the efforts made by Islamic fundamentalists to police their minds and lives. I regret that I haven’t been able to track each of their individual careers, but two can stand in for the others. 

Cousin Sabahat now lives primarily in the US–a fact-checker for The New York Times, an adjunct instructor at Montclair State University, and owner and founder of Feminustani, a feminist vlog and YouTube channel. Unfortunately, for most readers of this blog, Sabahat vlogs mostly in Urdu. Suffice it to say by way of translation that she has not stopped raising hell

Saroop Ijaz, the activist human rights lawyer quoted at length in the Times article, is married to my cousin Mariam. I stayed at Mariam’s house (or rather, her parents’ house) on the 2012 trip to Pakistan I just described;  she was, at the time, a student at the Lahore School of Economics nearby, a small college explicitly targeted by the Taliban for its co-educational character. You may have heard about the recent terrorist attack in Peshawar that just claimed 100 lives. That could easily have been Mariam’s school. The school, and particularly its women, got death threats just about every week. Defying the Taliban, Mariam got her degree, going on to do graduate work in international human rights law first at the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka, and then at the University of Sydney in Australia. She went on to work for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, making her way into the Pakistani civil service, where she remains. As a mom and a civil servant in twenty-first century Pakistan, I’m sure she has her hands full. 

Considering the number of cousins I have, and their hell-raising, high-achieving ways, I’m sure there are plenty of others out there poised, in one way or another, to take over the world. I mention them less to drop names (though I don’t mind doing that), than to convey a certain complexity that’s lost in American media coverage of life in exotic places like Pakistan. The average article on the blasphemy laws in Pakistan focuses on a particular case, usually an outrageous case, of their application to some poor, unfortunate soul. Someone says something about God or the Prophet that’s ridiculously misconstrued; someone with an ax to grind accuses him or her to the authorities; the tales grow taller on down the line; and suddenly, an innocuous remark has become both a death sentence and a cause celebre.  Insane mobs work themselves into a frenzy over quibbling trivialities; we observe such scenes in incomprehension and count ourselves as lucky for having nothing to do with them. By steps of this sort, the world beyond our immediate gaze is placed beyond our comprehension, and rendered hopeless and inhuman. But since actual people are involved, there’s got to be more to it than that. 

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is, in many ways, a deeply retrograde place. Its legal system is an unstable, volatile mixture of British common law and Islamic religious law; it’s never managed to reconcile the two, and, I’m sure, never will. Much of its population is illiterate. Much of its literate population is wedded to a power-lusting, patriarchal form of Islam. Progress is dearly bought under these conditions, and bought through a very specific sort of struggle–the struggle between those who tell truth to power, and those who hold that power. But the struggle in question is not as simple as people would often like to believe. I’ve learned that because I’ve seen it up close: my extended family embodies the tensions and complexities involved. It’s tempting to see the activists as the truth-telling good guys, and the politicians as the power-hungry bad guys. I wish it were that simple, but it isn’t. 

Start with a basic truth: the activists are right in this case. The blasphemy laws should be abolished, not reformed. If that demand contradicts the raison d’etre of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, then it’s the Islamic Republic that has to go, not the right to free speech. Free speech has greater value than any regime that violates or denies it.

Khawaja Saad Rafqiue (cropped).jpg

Cousin Sa’ad pointedly making a point (photo credit: Msasindhu)

But that basic truth leads to another: though the activists are right, they have the luxury of being right. It’s one thing to speak truth to power. It’s another to wield power in the name of truth. Even the most practical of the anti-blasphemy activists, lawyers like Saroop Ijaz or civil servants like my cousin Mariam, lack the skills for power-wielding politics. They not only have never wielded power, but have gone out of their way to avoid it. Naturally, then, they lack electoral constituencies of the kind that politicians have, or the popular support that politicians cultivate and enjoy. And unlike the politicians in the family, they don’t have to consider the possibility that the legislative reforms they enact one day might, for lack of popular support, be overturned the next. They can speak uncompromising truths because they have no practical need to compromise. But for that very reason, the truths they defend lack the power of enactment in the world to which they apply. 

That leads us to a third basic truth. The politicians are wrong, and partly complicit in the injustices of the blasphemy laws. It’s not just that they haven’t, in eleven years, managed to overturn those laws, but that their boss has made those laws even harsher than they were before he took office. Nor can they disavow responsibility by invoking the political equivalent of the division of labor. It’s tempting to say that the blasphemy laws are not, after all, the domain of the Minister of Railways or the responsibility of a single voting member of the Punjab Provincial Assembly. So it’s not their fault, you might say, that the blasphemy laws are being radicalized. 

Yet the fact remains that Cousins Sa’ad and Salman can, as members of Shehbaz Sharif’s government and party, make their views known to the Prime Minister. If there were sufficient objection to the policy within the government and party, Sharif would have to back down. But he hasn’t, because there isn’t. And that’s at least partly the fault of the Khawaja Family Political Caucus. 

I level these assertions of blame with some reluctance, however, and not just because my  own family is at issue. Blame can’t be the whole story here either. There are too many other things to put in the balance.

I have previously, on this blog, sung the praises of my cousin Sa’ad, and have no intention of taking any of that back. The two of them, Sa’ad and Salman, have done enormous good in and for Pakistan, and have shown extraordinary courage over the course of their careers. They’ve fought and in part won a decades-long fight for democracy and civilian rule in Pakistan, and have endured their share of defamations, and done their quota of prison time for it.

As Minister of Railways, Sa’ad made the trains run on time and on budget, not the trivial achievement people sometimes make of it. Salman helped bring the dengue problem in Punjab somewhat under control. I spent a day with him at work back in 2012 watching the painstaking struggle.  The two of them have gotten schools and hospitals built for some of the most wretchedly poor and immiserated people in inner city Lahore–which is to say, on the planet. They’ve fought for detente with India, against terrorism by the Taliban, and against American imperialism: all laudable goals. Thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of Pakistanis are better off for their efforts. 

I wrote most of this essay before yesterday’s terrorist attack in Peshawar, and have written too often about terrorism in Pakistan to want to dwell on the latest catastrophe. But I have that luxury. They don’t. They live on the front lines of that battle, and are its direct targets. One of my own cousins–a lieutenant colonel in the Pakistani Army, and a colossal fucking asshole to boot–explicitly called for Sa’ad’s assassination on grounds of blasphemy and treason. If that’s how they’re treated by family, imagine how they’d be treated by strangers. Neither Sa’ad nor Salman can take a step in public without a heavily armed security detail. The last politician to take a public, principled stand against the blasphemy laws, Salman Taseer, paid for it with his life. Who would want to be the next?

So I get why they’re reluctant to broach the blasphemy issue, much less crusade for free speech. On the rosiest scenario, such a crusade will lose them votes, perhaps lose them their tenuous hold on power altogether, and weaken their capacity to do the good they otherwise want to do. The country, they might fairly say, is not ready for so radical a leap into liberal modernity. And unlike activists and bosses, mere politicians have overlords and constituencies to appease.

In the worst case scenario, a crusade against the blasphemy laws will get them shot or blown up. Why risk getting fired or killed to defend the tiny minority of loud mouths who want to utter what so many people regard as egregious obscenity? It seems a high price to pay, and for a relatively paltry prize. The blasphemy laws will only be overturned in Pakistan when Pakistanis come to realize that the price is lower and the prize more valuable than they’ve so far been led to believe. That will be a long struggle, one that people like me can only watch from afar. 

A fourth truth, though: a nation that enforces blasphemy laws like Pakistan’s is on track to committing slow suicide. Laws of this sort threaten the expression of candid speech, and in so doing, subvert thought itself. Beyond that, they endorse the basic aims and premises of the fascists who want to turn Pakistan into a theocracy. So while crusading against the blasphemy laws may seem an act of suicide, so is acquiescing in them. The question becomes whether one prefers to risk a quick shot to the head while gambling on freedom, or acquiesce in certain death through daily doses of arsenic–a difficult choice, but one impossible to avoid.

And that leads me to my fifth basic truth: politics is the difficult art of integrating the preceding truths, the art of somehow bringing truth to power. There is no viable politics that treats activists as wholesale adversaries of politicians, or vice versa. But there’s no activism without integrity, either, or politics without pragmatism. Somehow, these apparently incongruous things have to cohere into the unified and consistent whole that makes for a just polity. It seems as much a matter of skill as of luck–the right activists allied with the right politicians in the right way, at the right time, for the right reasons. “The polis of our prayers,” is what Aristotle called the justice-producing concatenation in his Politics, the ideal polity that arises from the right combination of justice and good fortune. It’s a delicious irony that we should have to pray for a polity that abolishes its blasphemy laws. When our prayers are answered, truth speaks to power; power listens, and becomes truth. It’s a daydream, I suppose, but preferable to a nightmare, as conscious thought is to eternal sleep. 

*I revised this sentence slightly after posting.

** The New York Times has a useful collection of news stories and guest essays on the general topic

10 thoughts on “Blasphemy and the Polity of Our Prayers

  1. You are the best writer and human-centred analyst of these topics I’ve ever read. You should… and perhaps do… have a much broader audience. You make a good point that exercising power is complicated and necessarily involves compromise. To refuse the arsenic takes a lot of courage and I used to think that would always be worth it, even at the price of deaths. But reading about the protests in Iran, it seems to me that an enormous public sacrifice is needed to topple a theocratic or autocratic regime, and also perhaps a fair bit of luck and foreign support. US support for Pakistan doesn’t ostensibly seem to result in much leverage on things like the blasphemy laws, and maybe it doesn’t aim to. Anyway, I appreciate the point you’re making that Pakistani society, and politics, are more nuanced than we think. Btw, your description of dinner is hilarious.


    • Well, thank you! That is high praise, coming from a real writer. I actually envy your writing style.

      Like your ambivalence about being published, I have an ambivalence about drawing a larger audience than I do. I write best when I write as though I were speaking (at length) to someone in front of me. But I can’t do that if I’m distracted by thoughts of a large audience. I think my academic career habituated me to speaking to a room-sized audience, and for better or worse, I’m sort of stuck in that mode. It has both pros and cons.

      The “third basic truth” is the most tortured part of the essay–it contains all the complexities that make the fourth truth seem so easy. If my politician-cousins were to put me on the spot, I’d be hard-pressed to explain what I’m blaming them for, or what I’m expecting them to do. I think what I want to say is that “refusing the arsenic” is a deliberately vague metaphor, and has different meanings and implications. I can’t expect them to court suicide over free speech. Nor can I pretend to have accomplished anything in my life comparable to what they’ve accomplished in theirs. But my cousin Sabahat’s challenge reveals a certain reluctance on their part to acknowledge the toxicity of the arsenic. They want to focus on the modest size of the dose when the issue is that the substance is a toxin. I don’t think they get that, but I haven’t been there since 2012. People change.

      US support for Pakistan is like US support for Saudi Arabia. The Saudis dismember an American journalist; the Trump administration essentially laughs it off; the Biden administration pretends to take it seriously, then laughs it off. That’s how they deal with Pakistan, as well. Jemal Khashoggi is as forgotten as Tahir Naseem. The Pakistanis, for their own reasons, are deaf to whatever the Americans say, anyway. The Pakistanis simply want to cash American checks, and the Americans simply want a military base in South Asia. Every other consideration is lost in the shuffle.


  2. This is a great post. But, predictably, I’m not convinced that there is “no viable politics that treats activists as wholesale adversaries of politicians.” Your model seems to posit that there are only two forms of political engagement: a) getting involved in the political business of the state, or b) kibitzing from the sidelines. But I think there is a third option, which I see as illuminated by Charles (RadGeek) Johnson’s article here:

    Click to access women-and-the-invisible-fist-2013-0503-max.pdf

    And I make related points here:

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. I’ve printed both of those out, and will try to respond later this weekend. But I agree with your framing of my view. Ultimately, I do think that there are only two forms of political engagement, at least if the engagement aims to make head-way in a domain where the state already holds sway. If you want to overturn blasphemy laws (in a place where there is state imposing such laws), then either you get involved in the political business of the state, or you end up marginalized and ineffective. There is no viable third alternative. In my view, agorism reduces to the second, “marginalized and ineffective” option, at least for cases like the one discussed in the post. I’ll explain why when I respond more directly to your essays.

      I’m not hostile to agorism per se, and wouldn’t deny that there are contexts in which it can be a third viable option (sort of). In contexts where the state has not yet intruded or imposed itself, agorism has space for maneuver. In other words, agorism is best suited to places where the state is under-developed or weakest–ungoverned places like Palestine or rural Pakistan. In fact, that’s what I find attractive about Palestinian politics. Right now, it has a genuine agorist quality about it. Or maybe I mean that it had that quality before the current government induced an atmosphere of all-out crisis in the West Bank. I no longer know what to expect.

      That said, I also think it’s a matter of time before agorism-in-undeveloped-places starts to reduce to the first option even where it once had traction: once the state does get involved, then you have to get involved in the business of the state. If the Israelis annex the West Bank, it’s game over for Palestinian agorism. Either we’ll get all-out war, or we’ll face the necessity of doing in Palestine what the American civil rights movement did in the Jim Crow South–fight step-by-step within the system (judicial and legislative) for equal rights. If there is no such system, there will be war.

      Anyway, I’ll be spending time with an audience receptive to agorism in March: the Bedouins, the only advocates in Palestine of the No State Solution. In preparation for that, I just translated “agorism” into Arabic on Google Translate. The equivalent they gave me was “shirasa.” The problem is: shirasa actually means “ferocity.” So I have the mild worry that these forthcoming lectures on Agorism in the Desert are apt to lead to some unfortunate misunderstandings with the authorities.

      Occupation: You are under arrest.
      Irfan: For what? I was only counseling ‘shirasa‘!
      Occupation: Who gave you these ideas?
      Irfan: Roderick Long and Charles Johnson.
      Occupation (aghast): You mean the notorious anarchists from Auburn, Alabama?
      Irfan: Yes, them.

      Can’t wait to see how this interrogation will go. You think C4SS would spot me some legal assistance? Oh, don’t tell me: you don’t get involved in “the business of the state.” Convenient!


        • For now, let me respond to the contra Gillespie part of your “Looking for Daylight” essay, including the excerpts from Charles in it. I’m unconvinced of its relevance to the issue discussed in the post, and puzzled why you see a connection. For now, let me stick to the original issue, blasphemy laws. If I get to it in a later comment, I’ll try to address other issues, because the problem I see is a general one, but happens to be particularly clear in this case.

          Suppose that I live under a regime, like the Pakistani one, that has blasphemy laws. Suppose I want to “get rid of them.” “Get rid of them” is really elliptical for three or four things:

          1. I want to abolish the blasphemy laws themselves.
          2. I want to ensure that, once abolished, the blasphemy laws can’t covertly be re-introduced, either by state action or by populist vigilante action.
          3. I want, ultimately, to create a culture of discourse modeled on the ideal described in chapter 2 of Mill’s On Liberty.

          Though not on the list, the fourth underlying thing is the set of “thick” ideals that justifies and gives content to the preceding. I want, insofar as I can, to bring about a just society based on equal freedom.

          Given your characterizations of agorism, I can see how it has a role to play with respect to (3), but not much of one with with respect to (2), and virtually none with respect to (1). Aims (2) and (3) have no hope of success if aim (1) goes unrealized. But aim (1) cannot be realized by agorist methods.

          Maybe that’s a slight over-statement. A slightly weaker statement: aims (2) and (3) have no hope of counterfactually stable success if aim (1) goes unrealized.

          Maybe they can, in pockets, for some brief glimmers of time, be made to work by agorist means. But as long the blasphemy laws loom in the background, and have state support behind them, any success that is achieved by agorist means remains hostage to the state. Short of launching a war against the state, which is likely to be counter-purposive and futile, there’s no option left but to aim directly at the repeal of the law, and also to convince law enforcement that once repealed, it’s their duty to ensure that it’s not re-introduced by populist means.

          My own strategy there is the one I suggested in my post. Activists (e.g., Sabahat, Mariam, Saroop) have to put pressure on politicians (e.g., Sa’ad, Salman) who themselves have to put pressure on their bosses, to dial back their support for such laws, and aim to repeal them. I’m enough of a gradualist to accept to say that the activists should take what they can in this endeavor. If all that they can get for now is restriction of the scope of the blasphemy laws, that’s better than nothing (even if total repeal is the ultimate objective). But short of negotiating with and lobbying the state, we can expect nothing, or worse than nothing. The model here in the Pakistani context is repeal of the laws/official attitudes permitting honor killing. Right now, the laws themselves have been repealed, and the aim is to secure the equivalent of goal (2). But that requires working with law enforcement. And one can’t work with law enforcement in a spirit of all-out enmity with them.

          I don’t see what agorism has to contribute here. Following Konkin, you characterize agorism as a “‘counter-economic’ approach of building alternative institutions to bypass the state and ultimately render it powerless and irrelevant.”

          I literally don’t understand what that means here. Suppose that I create a discussion group and engage in blasphemous talk. Somehow, it gets out that I said something blasphemous. Perhaps the government was electronically surveilling me. As long as the law is in place, what “alternative institution” will help me bypass what happens next? What “alternative institution” will render an existing law and existing regime of law enforcement (and more than half of popular sentiment) powerless and irrelevant?

          My questions here don’t turn merely on the urgency of the situation as described in this particular example. In this example, the cops are on their way. Short of having a shoot-out with them, what I need is a lawyer. And God help me if I have a lawyer who refuses to do business with the state!

          But we can re-fashion the example. Suppose that instead of having engaged in blasphemy, I create, say, a blog or think tank or whatever where I contemplate engaging in blasphemy but haven’t done so yet. We can imagine my having created a whole blasphemous community around this blog/institution, on the model of C4SS. The community is, to be sure, an alternative to official modes of discourse as well as theocratic ones. But it’s still hostage to the law, and will remain so as long as the law remains enforced and on the books. How, exactly does agorism render the state powerless and irrelevant? A state can’t be talked out of power unless you talk to it, and have electoral or judicial power on your side. Otherwise, I don’t see the mechanism that gets you from “alternative institution built” to “state rendered powerless and irrelevant.” I just see a mechanism from “alternative institution built” to “cops come and arrest you,” or “mob comes and kills you.”

          At one point, you quote Proudhon:

          Beneath the governmental machinery, in the shadow of political institutions, out of the sight of statesmen and priests, society is producing its own organism, slowly and silently; and constructing a new order, the expression of its vitality and autonomy.

          The point of my recent series on privacy is that there is no “shadow” left, and no such thing as “out of the sight” of the state. Or at least, there is no way to have confidence that one enjoys it. A state with blasphemy laws and a system of surveillance is a perpetual, intolerable threat to the process Proudhon envisions. The threat has to be eliminated or at least greatly minimized before Proudhon’s process can go forward. But that requires engaging with the state, not ignoring it.

          This is Charles:

          One of the chief advantages that counter-economics has as a strategy is that there’s very little chance for progress at the margin with traditional party politics, because … well, what do you need to do in order to get an issue passed? You need 50% plus one to vote. … In order for any politician to be able to accomplish much of anything, you need to be able to have this very large backing …. And if you get 30% of the vote … you’re no further along than you were before. … The upshot is that in electoral politics you have to be in a position to win everything before you can win anything. … Whereas with counter-economics, you don’t need majoritarian support, you don’t need political parties …. All that you need is enough capacity to get around the particular forms of government oppression that are affecting you right now ….

          It’s not true that if you get 30% of the vote, you’re no farther along than you were at 25% or 20%. Look again at my goal (2). There is no route to that goal but an incremental one, and electoral politics is a not-bad proxy for gauging one’s success at it. It isn’t enough to repeal the blasphemy laws. One wants to ensure that their functional equivalents won’t be re-introduced by non-state actors, i.e., vigilantes. That requires a long process of convincing people of the badness of the blasphemy laws, and of the goodness of a Mill-type culture of discourse.

          Certainly, there is room for agorism there. But there is no substitute for convincing the police that they have to arrest vigilantes, and for convincing prosecutors to prosecute them. That’s at least as central to the success of the overall strategy as anything else is. People in the field need confidence that if worse comes to worst, they can dial the 911 emergency number (15 in Pakistan) and expect the police to come and protect them. They need that confidence even if they are themselves armed.

          Contrary to what Charles says, a move from 25% to 30% of the vote is a deeply heartening sign. It means that one is moving in the right direction. Yes, ultimately, you need 50+1% of the vote, but a gradual process is required to get there. You absolutely do not have “to be in a position to win everything before you can win anything.” My description of the dinner conversation illustrates otherwise. One conversation by one loudmouthed activist might convince one Minister of Railways and Aviation to have the right conversation with the Prime Minister to convince him to dial back the latter’s support for the blasphemy laws. And if the PM were convinced, things might start to change. There is room both for incremental change, and change by occasional leaps and bounds.

          I don’t understand what Charles has in mind in the case where popular support for a policy is low. Yes, one can avow in the privacy of one’s mind that the majority is wrong, and one (or some minority) is right, but that has no political significance. If there is little or no popular support for a policy, the policy has no political reality: the minority remains hostage to the majority. To give up on creating popular support is to give up on repealing the law as such. But that’s a counsel of despair, not a political strategy. Charles writes as though the agorist project would, absent concerted engagement with the state, just be permitted to proceed along its chosen lines, eventually subverting the state without the state’s realizing what was happening. I don’t find that plausible. State surveillance exists precisely to pre-empt that possibility.

          With respect to immigration, Charles says:

          Government says that it’s illegal for you to exist in the United States without a signed permission slip from immigration and customs enforcement, but you know, millions of people come in every year in spite of that. And so if you want to figure out “how do we get to a free society from where we are?” – look at what those folks are doing, because the forms of free association that they’re practicing in order to get the things that they want are things that you can start applying in your own life right now; and you can make small changes on the margin to get yourself closer and closer and closer to a free life than where you are now. You don’t need the backing of 50% plus one of the population. And so it allows for small progress along the line. … It provides an actual route to get from where we are now to where you ultimately want to be, which steadily improves all the way.

          I have, very vaguely, heard of folks, very distant from me, possibly doing some approximation of the kinds of things Charles mentions here. And I agree that such people can do those things without the backing of a majority of the population.

          So no, you don’t “need” the backing of the majority of the population, but it certainly helps one’s efforts to have the backing of some sizable amount of the population on one’s side. And it helps yet more to have the law on one’s side. For instance, the abovementioned activities are easier to carry out in, say, “sanctuary cities” than in cities or states hostile to undocumented immigrants. It’s a huge help to know that if one assists an undocumented immigrant with X or Y, the local police will not cooperate with the federal immigration authorities in pursuing criminal charges against the person helping with X or Y. Some people might proceed with X or Y anyway–and things are hardly risk-free in sanctuary cities themselves–but every bit of legal assurance helps.

          The creation of sanctuary cities was a legislative/executive achievement, accomplished by immigration activists who lobbied local governments in just the way I described in my post. So yes, helping undocumented immigrants into the country is “small progress,” but that progress was solidified and augmented by being given a legal imprimatur by municipal or state governments. Smuggling on its own, without legal protection of any kind, is a very risky, precarious activity. Much better to be given some kind of partial protection from the legal system. But one can’t get such legal protection without bargaining with the state.

          Let me reiterate that this blog does not explicitly condone breaking the immigration laws. I merely discuss the issue of undocumented immigrants by way of hypothetical example for purposes of discussion.

          It’s a point of pride for me that as pre-law adviser at my university, I convinced a handful of students to go into immigration-related careers. One is an immigration attorney (who worked for awhile in a state-run program for battered immigrants), another is a Family Service Worker/Refugee Coordinator for the Essex County Division of Welfare. They both have done enormous good, but doing it required getting involved with the state. If there are immigration laws, you need a lawyer to defend yourself against them. Refugee assistance requires scalability that, right now, only the state provides. Agorism can function as an adjunct to such efforts, but it can’t supplant them.

          Again re immigration, I got this request a few years ago.

          Writing this letter was inherently a matter of getting involved in the business of the state. It worked. There was no alternative to getting involved with the state that would have prevented Sarah Ibrahim’s deportation. The only way to prevent a deportation is to lobby the state not to execute it. The alternative would have been to hide Sarah, Anne Frank-like, in the attic. But at that rate she might as well have been deported: she couldn’t live indefinitely in an attic. (I didn’t even have an attic at the time.)

          I don’t see how smuggling immigrants into the country, and assisting them, would ever render ICE “powerless and irrelevant.” On the contrary, given our current laws, that’s what keeps them employed. We can’t smuggle and assist our way to rendering ICE powerless and irrelevant. We have to tackle the issue frontally and render them powerless and irrelevant, primarily through legislation, secondarily through jurisprudence. If we can send billions of dollars to fight a war in Ukraine, we can certainly find a way to reform our immigration laws.

          I’ve gone on a bit, but what I say about blasphemy laws and immigration generalizes to many other things–policing, health care, abortion, privacy, etc. As I see it, the fundamental options are: engage with the state or acquiesce in quietism. Agorism can be an adjunct to either of them, but is not an alternative to them.


        • I cry foul here at your underhanded attempt to make me choose between Sheldon Richman’s wholesale agorism, which I reject, and having to agree with David Bernstein, which I inevitably find painful for extra-alethic reasons. There should be a name for this fallacy, the Fallacy of Unfair Alternatives No One Should Have to Face.

          Anyway, I don’t think the Richman-Bernstein exchange really proves that the Civil Rights Movement was a good example of successful agorist strategy. It proves that agorism was one tactic the movement employed to good effect, among other non-agorist ones which it also employed to good effect. The Civil Rights movement could not have had the success it had had the government not used force to put down the Klan; had there not been developments in jurisprudence leading to the incorporation of the Fourteenth Amendment into the state constitutions via the Due Process Clause; had Brown vs. Board not been decided the way it was, and enforced; and later on (to leapfrog over the Civil Rights Acts) had NAACP vs. Mt Laurel (in New Jersey) not ruled against exclusionary and in favor of inclusionary zoning.

          Though they’re not usually regarded as “civil rights” cases in the racial sense, the reforms made to criminal procedure from Miranda on were crucial to the protection of procedural rights, as was Roe vs. Wade, for a time, on abortion.

          I don’t see how agorism could have helped in those cases. What needed changing was either the law, or (in the case of the Klan) the suppression of large-scale violence.

          Though the point won’t win me any points in libertarian circles (and is more Great Society than Civil Rights), the establishment of Medicaid and AFDC improved the life-prospects of the African-American poor in clear and demonstrable ways. Here, the point isn’t that agorism could not possibly have helped, but that it wasn’t comparably scalable. An activist could do some good by agorist methods, but would do far more good by non-agorist methods, and if so, could not regard herself as standing in a totally adversarial position vis-a-vis the government. A person who took that position would have to be content to do far less good.

          In the end, the view I’m taking here is (to my regret) a kind of generalization of the point Sheldon ascribes to Bernstein.

          [Bernstein’s] key point—which I fully embrace—is that the Southern states operated the equivalent of a “white supremacist cartel” in public accommodations.

          My point would be that the whole world consists of a set of cartels in a whole bunch of things, and that agorism, by itself, has no chance of success at resisting it or pushing it in the direction of justice. Like Gandhian non-violence, it works well for some things and in some contexts, but not others. It doesn’t work as the whole story about how progress is made in politics.


  3. Pingback: Rad Geek People's Daily 2023-02-02 – “The blasphemy laws should be abolished, not reformed. If that demand contradicts the raison d’etre of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, then it’s the Islamic Republic that has to go, not the right

  4. You do write well and I enjoyed your article up to the point it made me angry. Such a long article, so many vignettes of the well-educated and powerful and yet not one mention of the real reason and background of the blasphemy law in Pakistan. Not even a glancing reference to the decalration each Pakistani national signs if they want a passport which declares their religion to be Islam. You refuse to plumb the depths of the iniquity of human rights violations encoded in the Pakistani constitution. So in the end your article comes down to nothing more than seductive sophistry and spineless semantics – insulting, self-complacent frivolity for those affected by the blasphemy laws in real-life – your ‘concern’ as useless as secularist ethics which, in a storm, are as a house built on shifting sands.


    • Well, the essay was about the abolition of the blasphemy laws, not their origins. I don’t dispute that the Islamic character of the Pakistani regime is to blame for the existence of its blasphemy laws. But it wasn’t necessary to discuss that to discuss what I did discuss. The Islamic character of the Pakistani constitution and regime owes its existence to Islam. Islam owes its existence to the prior existence of an Abrahamic monotheistic tradition. So does the very concept of blasphemy, as well as the conception of blasphemy as a sin and a punishable crime. So you could fault me, in this already “long article,” for failing to take on God himself, his edicts, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, their conception of blasphemy, along with the founding of Pakistan and its constitution, plus how the constitution legitimates blasphemy laws, and everything I did discuss. Or you could conclude that a long article can’t become shorter by making itself longer.

      No impartial reader could read what I wrote and conclude that I support the Islamic character of Pakistan, the theocratic provisions of its constitution(s), or the religious requirements imposed by its laws. But for the benefit of partial readers, I don’t.

      As for my “vignettes of the well-educated and powerful,” apart from a powerful desire to introduce the irrelevant, I don’t see your point. Neither education nor wealth immunize a person from prosecution for blasphemy, or protect a person against vigilante violence or religious terrorism. Salman Taseer, Salman Rushdie, and Tahir Naseem were all wealthy and well-educated, but became victims. The essay makes clear that setting me aside, every person named in the essay, however well educated or wealthy, is at risk of prosecution, vigilantism, and terrorist attack. I don’t know how you missed that. Sa’ad and Salman spent years in prison under the Zia regime, and travel with armed protection. I mentioned the death threat against Sa’ad by a military member of our own family. Mariam Saroop attended a college threatened with destruction by the Taliban, and as a prominent critic of the blasphemy laws, Saroop Ijaz risks death for the criticisms he makes.

      I didn’t mention this, but alluded to it via hyperlink: my family lives in Iqbal Town, near both Moon Market and Gulshan-e-Iqbal, both places frequented by the family (almost daily), and both the sites of large scale terrorist attacks. So while you can deride the ersatz nature of my concern, I wonder who besides you would find that accusation believable.

      Secularist ethics certainly has its faults, as do I, but if you want a picture of ethical caprice, take a look at the God common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, a god that proscribes the killing of the innocent when he feels like it, then turns around and orders Abraham to kill his son. The monotheistic faiths only quibble about which son was to be killed, and where, not about the justice of the demand itself. Secular ethicists, at least, have achieved this much of a consensus: whatever school of thought they espouse, they regard the demand as unjust. I could make that the starting point of every word I write about Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, but the writerly virtues of hope, charity, and brevity counsel otherwise. God owes me one on that score, but he’s not very good about paying his debts.


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