Global Blasphemy Laws Come Under Increased Scrutiny
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 punish beliefs which contradict orthodox religious teaching and criminalize the abandonment of religious belief entirely through nonbelief and conversion to a new religion. These laws are mostly targeted toward Christians and could prohibit statements about the divinity of Jesus or attempts to spread the Gospel to others. These laws range from strict and wide-ranging use to past vestiges. Only recently, in light of news stories from nations with strict religious law, have Western European and North American countries entered into serious dialogue about international human rights standards as well as their own blasphemy laws.
Despite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ pledge to achieve “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” including the “freedom to change his religion or belief,” the United Nations has adopted resolutions to protect blasphemy laws by protecting religion from offensive language by outsiders. This may sound benign, but the effort to bring blasphemy laws to 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. This effort is in direct contrast to the value of free speech, especially in light of 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 is Islamophobia, but speech that incites religious-based violence would not be considered protected speech. 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 other the minority 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 that preserve blasphemy laws, those in Pakistan are some of the most severe and the most clearly slanted to protect Islam—the country’s state religion. These provisions extend protections to figures and symbols of importance to Islam. Even an accusation of blasphemy against a non-Muslim can result in prison, or, in some cases, a death sentence. Currently, dozens Pakistani citizens are imprisoned on blasphemy charges and even more have been killed by mob violence related to blasphemy claims. This is especially true for the Christian minority in Pakistan as so poignantly shown by the story of Asia Bibi, a woman imprisoned for nearly a decade for an accusation that she made derogatory remarks about Islam.
This is the important background on International Christian Concern’s recent work to bring awareness to the plight of Pakistani Christians and end religious-based human rights violations generally. Most notably, 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 wherein 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