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An Easter Message for Muslims

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One of the great themes of the Christian Easter story is that the love of God can overcome the worst of human folly, wickedness, weakness -- even death itself. This idea, if taken seriously, would be a tonic in many parts of the world today, but perhaps nowhere is it more desperately needed than in the Muslim world.

Consider Pakistan, where the majority faith is Sunni Islam. Thanks to an unholy alliance of politicians and clerics, a legal culture of suspicion and hatred is fueling increasingly violent assaults on religious minorities. Earlier this month, for example, angry mobs set ablaze more than 175 homes in Christian neighborhoods in Lahore. The reason? A sanitation worker was accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

One might imagine that such outbursts would prompt a little national soul-searching. The All Pakistan Ulema Council (APUC) has criticized the "misuse" of the blasphemy laws, but never suggests there is anything improper about the laws themselves. In the wake of the Lahore atrocity, Al Jazeera television asked its viewers "if the country's blasphemy laws are being misused to persecute the country's minorities." The question reveals the depth of the moral rot: Not even supposedly responsible voices within Islam admit that the problem is not the abuse of blasphemy laws, but the existence of a legal regime that criminalizes religious speech.

Though officially condemned by the Pakistani government, the acts of violence committed by Sunni Muslims against minority faiths -- Ahmadiyyas, Christians, Jews, Hindus -- flow inevitably from the legal prohibitions against blasphemy derived from sharia. Under the law, defiling the Quran is punishable by life imprisonment, while "derogatory" statements against the Prophet Mohammed -- whatever that may mean -- carry the death penalty. There are no standards of evidence and no way to discourage false accusations. A blasphemous offense against Islam, then, amounts to whatever happens to offend the accuser.

No wonder that Pakistan plays host to some of the most gruesome acts of religiously motivated violence on the planet. Last July, for example, a mob rushed a police station holding a Muslim man accused of blasphemy. They murdered him and burned his body with gasoline. Human-rights organizations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide conclude that "many in minority communities live in fear of their lives being destroyed by a blasphemy accusation."

Only a handful of courageous souls have stood against this tide of repression and hatred. One was Salmaan Taseer, a Muslim, and governor of Punjab, and another was Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, and the federal minister for Minorities Affairs. Both spoke out publicly against the nation's blasphemy laws -- and both were assassinated in 2011 for their views. These high-profile assassinations were openly applauded by leading politicians and clerics, effectively silencing efforts to challenge the laws.

Bhatti's death is especially tragic, since he devoted much of his life to promoting interfaith dialogue and advocating for the rights of all religious minorities in Pakistan. Like Salmaan Taseer, he endured numerous death threats because of his activism.

"I am living for my community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights," he said, "so these threats and these warnings cannot change my opinion and principles."

What, after all, are the opinions and principles that guide much of the Islamic world in its confrontation with religious diversity?

No fewer than 23 majority-Muslim countries, including Pakistan, declare Islam as the official religion of the state. Pakistan's constitution explicitly extends the right of freedom of religion to "every citizen." But the constitution also directs a Federal Shariat Court to examine "whether or not any law or provision of law is repugnant to the Injunctions of Islam, as laid down in the Holy Quran and the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet." A judicial decision striking down the nation's blasphemy laws, then, could easily be denounced as being "repugnant to the Injunctions of Islam."

You can't have it both ways: You cannot pretend that religious freedom is a core political principle and then prohibit religious belief, speech and worship that you don't like. Yet this is precisely the self-deception that has taken hold in many Islamic countries -- with miserable results for its victims.

If the followers of Muhammad hope to turn back the forces of extremism and intolerance within their own ranks, they might revisit the Christian story of Easter. This is not really such a radical idea, given the immense respect that most Muslims express for Jesus.

The Gospel accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus differ somewhat in detail, but they all agree on one thing: the message of Christianity can only be advanced through peaceful persuasion. This principle is vividly on display in Luke's Gospel, where we read of two followers of Jesus, shortly after his crucifixion, fleeing the authorities in Jerusalem. Doubt, grief and disillusionment have nearly overwhelmed them. We meet them on their journey home, on the road to Emmaus, a village outside of the Holy City. Jesus appears to these men as "a stranger" -- at first unrecognized -- and he enters into a conversation with them. Their journey and their conversation last most of an afternoon.

As Luke describes it, the stranger chides the men for their unbelief: "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and enter his glory?" The stranger goes on to explain to them -- with reason and argument -- how Jesus is the historical fulfillment of their Holy Scripture. By the end of their journey, the two men come to believe in Jesus as their redeemer and Messiah.

Thus the Easter story provides us with one of the earliest conversion stories in the history of Christianity. The "stranger" in the story -- the risen Christ -- does not threaten, or coerce, or bully anyone into believing. Rather, he proclaims and persuades -- with manifest patience and compassion.

Muslims find it difficult to embrace the Christian story of redemption and resurrection. But surely they can agree that there is something deeply attractive about a faith that is content to let the truth and power of its message stand on its own feet: a faith that does not need the brutal hand of the state to find a home in the hearts of men.

Joseph Loconte, PhD, is an associate professor of history at the King's College in New York City and the author of 'The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt.'