By guest contributor Peyton Millea
According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2018 report, seventy countries around the world have blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy laws. These laws punishing speech deemed sacrilegious, beliefs contradicting orthodox religious teaching, or the abandonment of religious belief. These laws are usually targeted toward Christians and often prohibit statements about the divinity of Jesus or attempts to spread the Gospel to others. The laws themselves range from strictly enforced to mostly ignored. While repealing these oppressive blasphemy laws would not impact all citizens, the impact on vulnerable religious minorities cannot be understated. Only recently have Western European and North American countries entered into serious dialogue about the way that blasphemy laws around the world interfere with the most widely accepted human rights standards.
Despite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ pledge to protect every man’s right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” notably including the “freedom to change his religion or belief,” the United Nations itself has adopted resolutions in support of blasphemy laws. This may sound benign, but the effort to promote blasphemy laws on the world stage was spearheaded by a group of fifty-seven Muslim-majority states called the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIF)—an organization which focuses on the prohibition of religiously offensive language. OIF stands in stark contrast to the value of free speech, especially in their more recent efforts to criminalize “hate speech” generally while ignoring hate speech against religious minorities in their own countries.
OIF’s argument to the UN was that hate speech and discrimination should be criminalized and that defamation of Islam constituted Islamophobia. Moreover, OIF nations conflate protection of Islam with the protection of individual Muslims, the actual recipients of human rights, and prioritize protections for Islam over the religions present in their countries. In the United States’ explanation of its position against blasphemy laws, Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe shared in 2010 that the international community’s priorities should be to protect individuals against persecution while allowing people of all backgrounds to share ideas, even on religious topics, through open dialogue.
Of all seventy nations with blasphemy laws on the books, Pakistan has some of the most severe laws most clearly slanted to protect Islam—the country’s state religion. These provisions extend its anti-blasphemy protections to figures and symbols of importance to Islam and even an accusation of blasphemy can result in prison or even death. Currently, forty Pakistani citizens are imprisoned on blasphemy charges and even more have been killed by mob violence related to blasphemy claims. This particularly impacts the Christian minority in Pakistan as so poignantly shown by the story of Asia Bibi, a woman imprisoned for nearly a decade on the accusation that she made derogatory remarks about Islam.
The appalling state of religious freedom in Pakistan has led to some degree of awareness in the international community, with organizations like International Christian Concern working to bring awareness to the plight of Pakistani Christians and those around the world who live under the oppression of blasphemy laws. On July 23rd of this year, Representative Jaimie Raskin (D-MD) introduced legislation to recognize the effects of blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy laws on religious freedom, call on the President and State Department to make repeal of these laws a priority in bilateral relations, and reject blasphemy laws in international law.
Too often, those of us living in secularized nations where religion is not a mandatory part of daily life fail to see the disenfranchisement that begins with one’s most closely held beliefs. Infringement of religious freedom leads to restrictions on speech which leads to a whole host of human rights violations. Freedom itself is the ability to make choices. What choice is more precious than to choose one’s religion?
Peyton Millea is a student at American University and a Fall Associate at International Christian Concern
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates